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Music DVD Review: Santana Hymns for Peace: Live at Montreux

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Perhaps it’s indicative of the global climate in which we labor that the mere mention of the word “peace” elicits a spectrum of emotions, from tranquility to rage. We throw the word around, using it in conjunction with “victory” or “surrender”, as if one had anything to do with the other. In the process, we’ve almost succeeded in rendering the word “peace” another casualty in our headlong march to a politically correct, colorless world.

That’s partly why Santana: Hymns for Peace, Live At Montreux 2004 is one of the most engaging live performances to be released on DVD this year. At first glance, the title is a bit of a misnomer, since this is a concert that is anything but somber. This is a celebration of peace as it applies to the universal healing power of music. There’s no overt political agenda here—it’s more a cleansing of the soul, and the inevitable party that ensues as a result.

And what a party it is. Carlos Santana had been planning this since 1988, when he and sax master Wayne Shorter found themselves touring with the Miles Davis Band. They began to envision a tour that would also include Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and other musicians who envisioned a world of shared cooperation and aspirations on a global level. It would be 2004 before the dream was realized. Miles Davis had passed on, but Santana still clinged to his dream. So when Montreux Jazz Festival organizer Claude Nobs, gave him free reign to do what he wanted at the Jazz Festival in 2004, the dream reached fruition.

On 15 July 2004, Santana and a few of his friends played a concert that redefined live performances. It lasted for over three hours, and watching it even now, the mind boggles at how tight it is. First, there is Santana’s band itself, a formidable lineup that works seamlessly between Latin, African, jazz and soul rhythms, augmented by the vocals of Andy Vargas. They’re the backbone of all the performances in the concert, with Santana’s inimitable guitar stylings providing a unique flavor to all the proceedings.

Had it only been Santana and his band performing, it would have been a memorable show. But this was designed to be an event celebrating peace and freedom, as interpreted through music. The tour wouldn’t happen, but they could deliver the inherent message in one show. To that end, Santana’s band was augmented by a number of guests of legendary status—Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on keyboards, John McClaughlin on guitar—and that was only for the warm-up piece. Within minutes, they’re joined by a stellar array of luminaries such as Ravi Coltrane, lending his sax as counterpoint to Shorter’s phrasings, and Chick Corea melding his Fender Rhodes seamlessly with Hancock’s keyboard stylings.

What’s most amazing about this DVD is how it transports the viewer into the spirit of that night. One by one, guest performers join the lineup, their enthusiasm for the message obvious by sheer virtue of their delivery. Angelique Kidjo’s Afro-jazz vocals are complimented by the soul-laced renderings of Patti Austin and Barbara Morrison, with Chic singer Sylver Sharp adding a dose of funk to what is an incredibly silky female vocal ensemble. Before it’s all done, Steve Winwood and rapper Sam Totah (who leads the performers in a fiery hip-hop infused version of “Give Peace A Chance”) have joined the stage. It’s not so much a concert as it is one glorious jam session.

Given the context of the show, it’s not surprising that some of the songs have vaguely political overtones: i.e. Bob Marley’s “Get Up Stand Up” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, but they’re performed in such a celebratory way that they become testaments to the enduring power of the human spirit. In fact, the entire show succeeds in doing what it sets out to do—it celebrates the universality of inner peace as a means of world salvation. The fact that it rocks nonstop for three hours doesn’t hurt one bit.

About Ray Ellis