Soaring Leads and Soulful Groove: A Jorge Santana Playlist, Courtesy of Latin Jazz Cruise

May 22, 2020

Jorge Santana, who died on May 14, left behind an impressive but often undervalued body of work.

He was a formidable guitarist, and while he never received the same attention as his older brother, Carlos, he deserves much wider recognition. This selection of tracks is a good place to start.

You’ll notice several things in Jorge’s playing. First: much like Carlos, he built on his blues foundation to explore other musical expressions, with a lyrical tone that reflects the fact their father was a violinist. Second, his use of distortion to create dynamism. Third, he uses economy in his solos, with repetitive motivic phrases. Fourth, when he’s not soloing, his comping is indeed skillful.

And as with Carlos, his playing touches your soul.

Malo, “Nena 72”

Jorge's early work started in high school with blues groups from which he eventually joined a band called The Malibus, which morphed into Malo. From their 1972 Warner Bros. debut, “Nena” opens with a face-grabbing bass riff by Pablo Telez over a driving son montuno with rock rhythm generated by Victor Pantoja (congas), Coke Escovedo (timbales) and Richard Spremich (drums), and a fiery brass intro. Trombonist Ron Murray, famed jazz trumpeter Luis Gasca and organist Richard Kermode are featured. The tune eventually goes into a double-time mambo with duel guitars provided by Abel Zarate and Jorge. It would be the harbinger of things to come.

Malo, “Latin Bugaloo”

Malo’s sophomore album — Dos, featuring an iconic Aztec-inspired snake logo designed by John and Barbra Casado — proved the band was a musical force to be reckoned with. From the start, this tune is stamped by Jorge's intense comping with distortion, along with his soaring leads and Arcelio Garcia's James Brown-influenced vocals. The explosive multi-movement arrangement by trumpeter Tom Harrell takes some interesting twists and turns, going from samba fused with mambo to cha-cha-cha/son montuno to bossa nova and back. It comes to a thrilling climax with a conga duel between Leo Rosales and Raul Rekow. 

Malo, “Entrance to Paradise”

Although the band had a million-selling pop hit, "Suavecito," on their debut album, Malo never watered down its approach, combining fine musicianship with experimentation. Yet another multi-movement piece, “Entrance to Paradise” is from their third album on Warner Bros. It starts with a slow, R&B-tinged intro, with Jorge playing lyrically; it gradually shifts into a faster funky cha-cha-cha for organist Ron DiMasi's solo feature. Check out Jorge’s comping during Ron’s solo. The third movement seamlessly shifts into double-time mambo with rock for an electrified trumpet solo by Ron Smith that would make Don Ellis proud. Then it suddenly shifts back to the original slow movement, with Jorge having the final word.

Malo, “No Matter”

Evolution, Malo’s swan song with Warner Bros., explored tight R&B vocal harmonies, crisp horn arrangements, and extended pieces that again featured the band’s musicianship. You can hear the influence of Tower of Power fused with mambo as Jorge soars over the band in an extended solo; the ending feels like a nod to another contemporaneous horn band, Chicago.

Santana, “The Healer” (Live at Watsonville High School Football Field, 1989)

Here is Jorge as a featured guest with Carlos’ band. Check out his lead playing. It’s as much his as it his brother’s, drenched in the blues and beyond.

Santana Brothers, “Reflections”

Jorge’s continued association with his brother shines on this 1994 project, which has yet to receive its due. He composed “Reflections,” which features his own playing, with accompaniment by Carlos and their nephew, guitarist Carlos Hernández. Picture Jeff Beck with Afro-Cuban percussion, and you’ll get the vibe here.

Roberto Ocasio Latin Jazz Camp Band, “El Ratón”

The Roberto Ocasio Latin Jazz Music Camp for high school students occurs every year at Case Western Reserve University. It’s the only music camp of its kind in the world, and I happen to be its Artistic Director and Artist In Residence. To celebrate its 15th anniversary, executive director Bev Montie asked me whether Jorge would be interested in being a special guest. He agreed, and when he got to the camp he was overjoyed with the talent of the students, sharing his life story with them in a Q&A session. 

I decided to recreate some of the magic that Jorge had been part of on Aug. 24th, 1973, when he performed with the Fania All Stars at Yankee Stadium in the first mega salsa concert. He tore down the house on this tune back then, and he tore it down again with the kids. Always the gentlemen, he made sure that a young guitarist named Evan Carson got to shine with him on this big band version of “El Ratón,” arranged by Jeremy Fletcher.