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Shape Shifter ()

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Carlos Santana spent 11 years in the company of Clive Davis and Arista, and as a result, sacrificed his reputation as an innovative guitarist. While 1999's best-selling Supernatural temporarily brought him many new listeners, each successive release followed the same formula -- pairing his guitar with pop vocalists -- to diminishing returns creatively and commercially. Santana tries to undo the damage on Shape Shifter, the debut from his Starfaith label. All but one of its 13 cuts is an instrumental. Producing and co-producing every track, he tries hard to reinvent himself not into something new, but into what he has always believed himself to be: an innovative and exploratory guitarist and composer. While there's no denying his signature tone and style are intact here, many of these tunes are merely simple vamps with sometimes fiery guitar improvisation in a variety of stylistic contexts. Standouts include the opening title track, a tight if repetitive jam. It contains the most powerful soloing and riffing from Santana -- on record anyway -- in almost two decades. Chester Thompson's B-3 groove pushes the song from inside; his solo is as imaginative as Santana's. "Nomad," a melodic rock number with an authentically emotive guitar solo, showcases his still breathtaking pyrotechnics wholesale. The brief and very lyrical "Metatron," as beautiful as it is, owes more than a little of its melody to Bob Dylan's "Is Your Love in Vain." "Angelica Faith" teases longtime fans by employing the first three notes of "Samba Pa Ti" before moving in another balladic direction. "Never the Same Again" is a blissed-out, midtempo groover where Santana's playing (on nylon-string and electric guitars) cops melodic ideas from Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On," and restructures moments from his own "Song of the Wind." With its fat, shuffling hip-hop drums, it's a contender for a single on contemporary jazz radio. It's followed by another gorgeous ballad, "In the Light of a New Day." "Macumba in Budapest" is a Latin jam with excellent percussion from Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo. The Latin tinge follows on "Eres La Luna," with fine vocals by Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay. "Ah Sweet Dancer," a piano and guitar duet, closes the set; it's one of a pair featuring son Salvador Santana on keyboards. Shape Shifter is far from perfect. Its lack of more compelling compositional ideas and some of its ham-fisted production problems are balanced by the fact that Santana is not coasting on his rep any longer; he's trying, and he's playing the hell out of the guitar again. While ambition and reality are very different things, any step away from the last decade's pop cynicism would be a drastic improvement -- and Shape Shifter is. ~ Thom Jurek, Rovi Hide synopsis

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