Artist: Santana

Title: Shape Shifter

Label: Starfaith Records

The release of an instrumental-only Santana album in 2012 could mean there will be a number of listeners soon enough asking, "Hey, where are all the special singing guests?"—not realizing that Carlos Santana had a life before teaming up with Matchbox 20's Rob Thomas, Michelle Branch, and Nickelback's Chad Kroeger for a more recent string of hugely successful pop radio hits.

Indeed, Shape Shifter moves the guitar great back toward a fusion of mostly wordless classic rock and electric jazz that first made him famous in the 1960s and ‘70s. Rhythmically charged by his band mates and then distinctly colored by Santana's expressive fretwork, these thirteen tracks were written, "to honor the first people of the land," says Carlos referring to American Indians.

Thus we have emotive chanting in the opening title track that eventually segues into a tribal rock beat and escalating duel between guitar and Hammond organ. "Dom" follows with a slower yet spicier groove and the sort of beefy low-note soloing that Eric Clapton sometimes employs.

Even without lyrics, a cut like "Nomad" has the immediacy of a feel-good summer jam, and the guitar shredding featured there and on "Metatron" points to where Slash likely received some dose of melodic and technical influence. Shape Shifter definitely rocks at times.

The casual vibe of such rock is balanced by a sophisticated modern jazz approach on "Angelica Faith" and "In the Light of a New Day." You could dine or await an appointment to this music—and still appreciate its relative edginess in comparison to much of the genre.

Santana's distinct Latin element also runs throughout Shape Shifter, especially on such latter selections as the "Smooth"-like "Macumba in Budapest" and the sparkling percussion-centric "Mr. Szabo." Spanish vocals are featured on "Eres la Luz" bringing to mind the band's classic hit "Oye Como Va," and the stirring "Canela" should bring listeners to their feet as well.

As an instrumental outing, there's not much to warn against here in terms of theme. Carlos Santana has always been a soul searcher and spoken in recent years to the media about his blossoming belief in Jesus. That said conservative Christians might still find some of his liner notes a bit too mystical for their own tastes.

Outside of classical, jazz, world, and new age niche markets, the mainstream doesn't easily embrace instrumental projects, but Shape Shifter deserves some degree of wider recognition.

*This Review First Published 5/25/2012