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George Whitty on Working with Santana

santana live on stage at woodstock

One day in about 1998, I got a call from someone asking if I was available to do some recording with Carlos Santana. Rodney Holmes, who was then playing drums with Carlos, had recommended me. They were recording at Electric Lady in Manhattan, and of course I was available to record with Carlos Santana - as a true believer I was thrilled to get called. That was right around a time, also, where I had become quite obsessed with Woodstock (the original, of course!), making various pilgrimages up to the site, reading several books, grooving on the excellent documentary almost nightly.  And of course Carlos really lit that festival on fire. 

SO, we arranged to have all my gear carted down to Electric Lady Studios and I walked in having little idea what to expect. One thing I definitely didn’t expect was that that record was going to sell 30 million copies!

When I got there, Carlos was starting to work on a piece of music with Dave Matthews, who I’d never met but was really looking forward to working with. They had two tunes in mind, and they were both just germs at that point.  One was based loosely on a Brahms melody, and the other was an original tune. There were no words, and they were kind of figuring out the musical end in one of the lounges in the studio. 

I got all my gear set up, went in to the lounge with a piece of paper and a pencil, made some quick charts of what Dave and Carlos were doing, and away we went.  We were set up in a pretty classic recording fashion -  I don’t think anybody was in a booth, just all in the same room and everything mic’d up except me and maybe the bass, who were going direct.  Carlos’s amps were on the far wall from where I was set up.  On the first track, which I wish they had released because it came out to be a really cool piece of music, I played Hammond B3 and overdubbed some pads and so forth on my synths. 

I remember it was LOUD in the studio - Carlos gets that famous tone by really overdriving the amp, rather than with too much fussing with pedals, I think. But it went down great; the rhythm section was the great Carter Beauford on drums (from Dave Matthews Band) and Carlos’s excellent bassist and percussionist, Benny Rietveld and Karl Perazzo. Fun track, went down pretty quick, and then we were on to the Brahms-inspired one. And this is where things got interesting. 

They had some idea of what Dave was going to do with the vocal, but no words at that point, so he just kind of scatted a melody on there as we recorded.  For the first pass I played a sort of moody synth pad, we did a couple takes and got a good basic, and somebody had the idea of taking it into a double-time Latin feel at the end. I switched to piano to do my best impression of a Latin piano player. We all know what a piano Montuno feel sounds like, or at least I’d heard it done incredibly so many times that I could fake a basic one. 

We went out there and laid a few of these down, which was so great for someone like me who’d grown up with so much of Carlos’s music in my head, to be actually playing that on one of his burning tracks. But then I made a little tactical error:  we went into the booth to listen once we felt we’d gotten a good one.  And everybody’s loving it and dancing around, and I had to open my big mouth and say “well, you know, let me just do one more - I think I can do one better”, when everybody was happy with the first one.  So I went out and sat down, and now it’s just me and the red light.  And I played another one that was “more perfect”, but not “better”, a common recording syndrome.  And everybody who had been playing with me was now sitting in the booth analyzing. 

Listening back to the first 30 seconds or so, I waved it off and said “give it to me again”, which they did.  But now I was trying too hard, yet ANOTHER common recording syndrome. So then Carlos gets on the talkback mic and says “George…you know…music is like a flower. It must be nurtured and watered and encouraged to grow and…”. 

So I went back out and did another pass, trying to make something that had more of a growing feel to it.  And now Carlos got on the talkback and said “George…you know…music is like a woman.  She must be cradled and appreciated and cared for and…” I forget what it actually was, but that was the kind of direction, which I thought was a very interesting, and to my delight by my interpretation, a very “Woodstock” way of producing a CD.  So I went back out and tried to play one now that was more like a woman. 

Then Karl, the percussionist, had some other ideas of different styles of Montuno to lay on it, so he started singing those to me.  REAL Latin piano playing is a very specific art form;  there’s a kind of pushing and pulling with the time that’s unique to that style, a place that the notes belong in space that’s a very important part of those grooves.  Whoever came up with it is a certified genius; a great Latin band is anything but quantized, everybody is working a real feel against the time, not just hammering it out precisely on the subdivision of the beat.  And I was already pressing my luck with my limited Montuno skills, but I took what Karl and Benny were singing to me and made several more passes working those ideas in there. 

I recorded for two more hours after the original pass that everybody loved on everybody, thus learning the lesson of the day: 

If everybody’s loving it, SHUT UP and see if you can love it too! Listening to the mixed cut when it finally came out, I think they either used the original track or one of the earliest re-takes, and it sounds cool.

I am deeply honored to have played on a Santana disc, especially one that was as huge as that.  His music is the very definition of the word “iconic” - I used to listen to it on my record player in Coos Bay and just imagine the giants that were laying those grooves down and marvel at the elasticity that made them go.  I got to do a lot of playing with the great percussionist Don Alias before he passed away, and he was another guy who played such a great combination of “deliberately” and “effortlessly” - everything he did was made so much heavier by the feel he put on it, but it never sounded labored. 

The next thing that happened, of course, was that “Supernatural” sold supernaturally well, as it should have - t’s a truly great disc.  Wish they would do some kind of anniversary edition of it and put the other cut out on it - it smoked!  

*Well George, you're in luck - they did and here it is:


jazz piano lessons with george whitty

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