Album Review: Santana, "Corazón"

The best instrumentalists don't just play - they speak. Instruments can move freely without language or diction hampering them, but that also makes it more challenging to deliver a message or establish an identity. Yet the sound of Carlos Santana's guitar is unmistakable: angular melodies with a signature piercing tone, easy to distinguish no matter the genre, from rock to Latin to jazz.

No wonder that "Corazón," billed as Santana's first Latin album, is all about that guitar, despite boasting star vocal collaborators from around the world. The instrument's leading role lets "Corazón" be much more than what would typically qualify as Latin (music sung in Spanish), as the guitar's universal language turns the album into a global mixtape: You never know what you're going to get, or from where.

"Corazón" is a blend of covers and new material, ranging from standards like Bob Marley's "Iron Lion Zion," featuring Ziggy Marley and Colombian hip-hop act ChocQuibTown, to new songs like "Indy," an improvisational freestyle track that's basically a duet between Santana's guitar and Miguel's voice. But there's an element of surprise in the repertoire and delivery that separates "Corazón" from other duet albums, Santana's included.

Having Pitbull as a collaborator, for example, seems like a forgone conclusion these days. An exception is the song "Oye Como Va," perhaps Santana's most emblematic record, redone here at a faster tempo using a sample of the original recording. The sped-up version, coupled with Pitbull's staccato rapping as counterpoint to the percussion, is exhilarating, but it's sure to raise hackles among purists. Similarly, the bilingual, lilting "Margarita" features Romeo Santos singing pop/tropical beats, but surprisingly, it never adopts his signature bachata. Throughout the album, Santana tests the comfort level of his guests.

Then there's "Una Noche en Napoles," a Spanish-language adaptation of Pink Martini's "Una Notte a Napoli," which turns the original campy lounge track into a lyrical gem thanks to vocals from Spain's Nina Pastori, Mexico's Lila Downs and Argentina's Soledad. Each remains true to her own style and folklore within a track that somehow remains beautifully cohesive. And "Saideira," a Spanish-language version of a track by Brazilian rock/reggae band Skank, starts "Corazón" off on an unlikely foot. It features the group's lead singer, Samuel Rosa, trading his gritty vocals with pugnacious riffs from Santana over a fast, two-time ska beat. The song immediately snaps you to attention, even if the voice isn't as easily recognizable as the other guests.

Some of the experiments on "Corazón" don't work. "Feel It Coming Back," with Argentina's Diego Torres singing in English, is pleasant pop, but the singer seems to struggle with the language. And the improvisations in Miguel's "Indy," while sometimes beautiful, lack structure and tend to meander.

Still, it's fascinating to follow Santana through his Latin journey, all the way to his own "Yo Soy la Luz" (I Am the Light), a Latin jazz jam highlighted by Wayne Shorter on sax for an unabashed display of virtuosity from a second legendary musician. Paired with the spare beauty of the closing "I See Your Face," featuring the simplest of lines played on nylon-string guitar, it reminds us that an instrument can paint a picture worth a thousand words.