While 1999's best-selling Supernatural brought Carlos Santana many new listeners, Shaman followed the same formula -- pairing his guitar with pop vocalists -- with diminishing returns. Santana tries to undo the damage on Shape Shifter, the debut from his Starfaith label. All but one of these 13 cuts is an instrumental. Producing and co-producing every track, he tries reinvention toward what he has always believed himself to be: an innovative and exploratory guitarist. While there's no denying his signature tone and style are intact , 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 powerful soloing and riffing. 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. The brief, 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 hip-hop, snare and hi-hat shuffle, it's a contender for a contemporary jazz single. "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 ham-fisted production problems are balanced by the fact that Santana is not coasting on his rep; he's trying to play the hell out of the guitar again. While ambition and reality are different things, any step away from the music of last decade would be an improvement -- and Shape Shifter delivers that.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek