Inside Carlos Santana’s New Jazz-Rock Supergroup
No matter who you are or what skills you bring to the table, starting a new band with keyboardist Herbie Hancock and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, two of the jazz world’s most iconic luminaries, is serious business. Not so serious, though, that Carlos Santana, a legend in his own right, hesitates to crack wise about the origin of Mega Nova, the jazz-rock supergroup he’s formed with Hancock, Shorter and two more heavyweight players: bassist Marcus Miller and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, the guitarist’s wife.
“I asked them if it was OK for me to start a rumor that we were going to do something together, and they said, ‘Of course,'” Santana tells Rolling Stone, laughing. “So I started a rumor, and here we are. And I feel so excited, because with these musicians, anything and everything can be transmitted.”
The new band, Mega Nova – named in tribute to Shorter’s 1969 solo album Super Nova – will make its debut in a one-off concert at the Hollywood Bowl on August 24th. It’s not the first time these players have met onstage; most of the band members have played together on various occasions, and Santana and Shorter toured together in 1988. Shorter and Hancock collaborated with Santana in a program called “Hymns for Peace” at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2004, and Miller and Blackman Santana were among the supporting musicians that joined the core triumvirate for a Hancock-led event, “Celebrating Peace,” at the Hollywood Bowl in 2012.
“Carlos is a big jazz fan, a big supporter of the music,” Hancock tells RS. “With his heart, he honors jazz. But it’s not just words; it’s also his deeds. This is the kind of action that he’s taken to include jazz, because he has so much respect for it, and he respects Wayne and me – as we respect him: as a musician, as a storyteller in music. Nobody can deliver a melody like Carlos.”
The admiration is mutual, emphatically so. “For me, this is a real blessing,” Santana says, “to dream of something, and then to see it come to fruition.” To be in the company of Shorter and Hancock – whose work with trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis in the mid-1960s launched trailblazing careers in jazz, fusion and pop, individually and in collaboration – is a lesson in humility, as Santana describes it.
How does Santana find common ground with his illustrious comrades? “It starts with surrender,” he says without hesitation. “I immediately defer to both of them, and I wait my turn to see when they invite me to come up with something. I’m very honored and grateful that they trust me. So for me, it’s about learning to defer – I learned that word from Magic Johnson, when he said he deferred to [Kareem] Abdul-Jabbar. It means you have the courtesy to honor those who came before you.”
Respect also animates Blackman Santana’s approach to Mega Nova – specifically, her admiration for Tony Williams, the trailblazing drummer who worked in Davis’ band with Hancock and Shorter, and for Jack DeJohnette, the protean percussionist who played on Davis sessions as well as Shorter’s Super Nova.
“Tony is to me unparalleled in his sound concept, the amount of things he innovated on and with,” she tells RS. “From tuning my drums to concepts of playing inside the music, taking drum solos, composition – he’s influenced me in every way.” DeJohnette, she notes, started as a pianist, “so he approaches [drumming] in a very musical way. He’s got a lot of good energy, a lot of good fire. And he puts together really good projects.”
Blackman Santana, a noted bandleader and composer who has collaborated with such heavyweights as Lenny Kravitz, Cream’s Jack Bruce and Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, holds Hancock and Shorter in special esteem. “Not only is it a pleasure and an honor to play with them, but it’s also a challenge to step up to them,” she says. “If I can somehow make those cats feel inspired, I’ll feel like I’ve reached the mountaintop.”
But as Shorter sees it, Mega Nova has to provide optimal conditions for Blackman Santana, as well. “She needs to be free from any kind of rigid arrangements,” he tells RS. Shorter cites two performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that Santana and Blackman Santana played before NBA Finals games in 2015 and 2016. “They were respectful,” he says, “but Cindy had carte blanche. She was playing riffs and rises” – Shorter reels off rhythms and rolls vocally, illustrating Blackman Santana’s unbridled free playing.
That boundless exuberance is consistent with what Shorter set out to express on Super Nova, the first album he recorded after leaving Miles Davis’ band. “When you’re going fishing, you want to throw the line out as far as you can,” he says. “I was throwing the music at a distance, where it would challenge me, and also sharing the challenge – like when you’re kids playing, maybe in a vacant lot, and you play all day and you’d discover stuff. It’s like, what are you going to do after you leave Miles Davis? So, Super Nova: You’re on your own, you’re an astronaut – let’s jump out into space.”
“The whole concept of building something together: That’s what this is about.” –Herbie Hancock
Even so, every astronaut knows careful planning and a safety tether are crucial to success and survival. “The best improvisation has a solid base,” says Miller, a celebrated bassist known for his work with Luther Vandross and with Miles Davis in the 1980s. He recounts something the great arranger and producer Quincy Jones once told him: “The biggest hindrance to creativity is a blank page.” Impose a few parameters, he recalls Jones saying, and creativity flowers instantly.
“When you’re an improviser, it’s a really ethereal kind of thing, because you’re not really sure what you’re going to do when you go onstage,” Miller tells RS. “This is kind of a freaky feeling, to be standing there with 7,000 people waiting for us, and we don’t really know exactly what it is that’s going to happen out there. Imagine that feeling – it’s a huge leap of faith.”
Both Santana and Hancock view that collaborative uncertainty as an accurate reflection of Mega Nova’s design and ideals. “We have hearts that are very compatible in the way we look at the world, the way we look at humanity, and our responsibility as human beings, as musicians, as storytellers from the cultural community,” Hancock says. The inevitability and necessity of globalization, he notes, is a key concern.
“We have the capacity for creating a world that we can all believe in, one that we can look forward to for ourselves and our children,” Hancock says. “What we want to do is make a step toward bringing cultures and ethnicities and people in general together, and show the value of collaboration from the standpoint of respect. The whole concept of building something together: That’s what this is about.”
Santana is even more pointed about the objective. “I want to be able to travel with this band eventually, and be the peace ambassadors, which is what Louis Armstrong used to be, and what I would say Bob Marley or John Lennon represented,” he says. “Let me say really clearly: Wayne and Herbie and I and Cindy and Marcus, we are the frequency to do the opposite of Donald Trump. We don’t see walls – we saw the Berlin Wall come down. We’ve been to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we saw what that stuff is. We play music to bring, once and for all, inclusiveness and family. This is the band.”