Re-packaging Santana’s greatest hits is, naturally, nothing new. For one example, there was a previous The Essential Santana released in 2002. That version didn’t include samples from his newer albums as Columbia didn’t then have the rights to Arista recordings like 1999’s mega-seller, Supernatural. Now, the bulk of Santana’s work has been pulled together under the Sony mega-umbrella, so a retrospective of a nearly 40-year career is now possible.
To organize what is “essential” in a 28-song, two-disc set, however, leads to somewhat debatable choices, even if Carlos Santana himself made those choices. Obviously, tracks from the 1969 debut, Santana, shouldn’t be ignored. Essential indeed opens with “Jingo” from that iconic album. Later on in the mix, the first single, “Evil Ways,” makes its obligatory appearance. Likewise, the ubiquitous “Soul Sacrifice” shows up in its most popular incarnation, the live version recorded at Woodstock. Strangely, it is included as the last track on the first disc. This means The Essential Santana isn’t a chronological history of Santana demonstrating his artistic growth over the years. That’s the most questionable choice of them all.
Equally obvious, “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” and “Oye Como Va” from 1970s Abraxas couldn’t be excluded. But why was the instrumental lead-in to these songs, “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts,” omitted? Clearly, at the other end of the spectrum, Supernatural had to be represented. So, on disc two we get a generous chunk of the superstar tracks from that 15-times platinum Grammy winner including “Smooth” (with Rob Thomas), “Put Your Lights On” (with Everlast), “The Calling” (with Eric Clapton), “Maria Maria” (with The Product G&B), and “Hold On.” These numbers, along with songs with Chad Kroeger (“Into The Night”) and two versions of “The Game Of Love,” including a poppy rendition by Michelle Branch and a more soulful rendering by Tina Turner, makes the second disc of Essential mostly the essential duets and sideman sessions of Carlos Santana.
Also obvious, and certainly essential, are tracks taken from the years between Abraxas and Supernatural. From 1972’s Santana III, we get the derivative singles, the R&B cliché-fest of “Everybody’s Everything” and “No One to Depend On,” the latter echoing the “Cisco Kid” era of War. I was happy to see three of my favorites: 1976’s “Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile),” 1977’s “She’s Not There” (from Moonflower), and the title song from John Lee Hooker’s 1989 The Healer. Again, these songs don’t feature in any particular order. For example, “Everybody’s Everything” is the second song on disc one. “The Healer” shows up midway in disc two after a batch of the Supernatural selections that were recorded a decade after the Santana/Hooker collaboration.
Along the way, there are many demonstrations of all the bases Santana has touched over the years. There are nods to jazz-rock fusion (“Love Devotion and Surrender,” “Stormy”), arena rock (“Open Invitation”), rap (“Maria Maria”), Christian rock (“Somewhere in Heaven”), and disco (“Hold On.”) Happily, we get a number of Santana instrumentals showcasing his distinctive, linear style as in two tracks finishing off the collection, “Blues for Salvador” and “Victory is Won.”
Obviously, despite the song order being rather arbitrary, the emphasis was on the hits of the various musical congregations helmed by Carlos Santana. For some, “essential” recordings should include more live material where the guitar master typically soars to his musical heights and often exceeds what was laid down in the studio. Oh well. This wasn’t a box set. There are helpful liner notes from drummer Hal Miller that do shed useful insights into how this collection was assembled. The name of the game is—if you don’t already have what you consider the essential music from Carlos Santana, this is a good overview of where he’s been. Look over the track list and, if you’re missing a third of what you see or more, this package is essential indeed.