Memories of the voodoo child

Carlos Santana is one of the host of top names contributing to a new Jimi Hendrix tribute album. He talks to Phil Johnson about the man, the myth and the music

Despite his unimpeachable status as the ultimate guitar hero, one still gets the feeling that Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) is more talked about than actually listened to - that his music is less influential than his sound. That is entirely understandable, for how can mere songs hope to compete with the dazzling shock effects of Hendrix's revolutionary guitar-playing, that blur of smeared notes with burring, live-wire electricity? Once heard, it's never to be forgotten, but that doesn't mean that you want to hear it very often. The songs that stick in the memory are also so iconic that cover versions by other artists (and many of Hendrix's best performances, such as "Hey Joe" or "All along the Watchtower" were covers themselves) have little chance of success.

Despite his unimpeachable status as the ultimate guitar hero, one still gets the feeling that Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) is more talked about than actually listened to - that his music is less influential than his sound. That is entirely understandable, for how can mere songs hope to compete with the dazzling shock effects of Hendrix's revolutionary guitar-playing, that blur of smeared notes with burring, live-wire electricity? Once heard, it's never to be forgotten, but that doesn't mean that you want to hear it very often. The songs that stick in the memory are also so iconic that cover versions by other artists (and many of Hendrix's best performances, such as "Hey Joe" or "All along the Watchtower" were covers themselves) have little chance of success.

So what are we to make of a new tribute album, prepared for release by Hendrix's family and their Experience Hendrix foundation? Power of Soul: a tribute to Jimi Hendrix aims to highlight Hendrix's art in the context of rhythm and blues rather than rock, bringing together versions of his songs by Prince, Lenny Kravitz, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Earth Wind and Fire, Bootsy Collins, George Clinton, Musiq, John Lee Hooker, Sting and Sounds of Blackness, among others. "A lot of the tribute albums that have come out have concentrated on Jimi's rock side," says his half-sister Janie Hendrix, the president of Experience Hendrix. "This is really more of the soul, R&B feel. He was in Chitlin' Circuit bands and played with Diana Ross, the Isley Brothers and Little Richard, so I'm trying to shine that light, too."

That the project was able to call on so many big-name stars shows the high regard in which Hendrix is still held by his peers, and the strong sense of obligation felt to his surviving family (the voice of Jimi's father, Al, opens the album with a short speech thanking everyone for their participation). Santana, whose track, "Spanish Castle Magic", features the bassist Stanley Clarke and the great Miles Davis drummer Tony Williams (who has died since the recording), talks to me about Jimi Hendrix.

"To me, Jimi Hendrix is like John Coltrane or Bob Marley or Miles Davis," he says. "He belongs to a group, the Beethovens, the Stravinskys, the Picassos, people who transcend trends or fashions or anything like that - they are all like Da Vincis to me." His voice has a strong Mexican accent, even though he moved from Tijuana to San Francisco in 1961, when he was 14. "I'm very honoured that I met Jimi Hendrix, and also that I got to play with Tony Williams, who was the Jimi Hendrix of the drums. I very seldom play Hendrix's music, because I respect him a lot, but in this case I couldn't say no, because I've known the Hendrix family for a long time. So I said yes and I'm very happy."

It was at the Woodstock festival in 1969, where Hendrix performed his famous version of "The Star-Spangled Banner", that the group Santana (which had begun as the Santana Blues Band in 1966) made its first breakthrough. By then, Carlos had already met Hendrix. "I first saw him play at the San Francisco Fairgrounds, but we never really talked until later," he says. "He was very generous to me, saying I had 'a nice choice of notes'. At that time I was still a chicken coming out of the egg of B B King and listening to Gabor Szabo, Mike Bloomfield and Kenny Burrell. Their music taught me that you can still play the blues but be multi-dimensional at the same time. You can be playing the blues but hear the Pyramids, South America or anything, like when you play for 10 hours and start to play music where everything fits. It's like discovering a vortex, like John Coltrane did, finding a key that opens all the rooms in the hotel on all the floors, and Jimi had that, the key for every floor..."

For Santana, Hendrix was complete in all respects but one. "He had everything - he had the vision, the mentality and the will. What he didn't have was the self- discipline, like Wayne Shorter or John Coltrane. His problem was, he didn't have the right person, the right woman, to say: 'Put this aside,' or: 'What do you see yourself doing 20 years from now?'

"He had the responsibility of being black and of having been in the army, but he didn't have anyone telling him to keep things in perspective," he says. "It's like if you start thinking you're God then find yourself going to the bathroom, you soon discover that you're a human being all the time and only a god sometimes. You need people to tell you when you're too coked-out to play."

Santana was able to see that Hendrix, in the latter part of a solo career that lasted for only five tumultuous years, was suffering. "He was in Berkeley and I saw him, and I could see he needed something he wasn't getting. Sometimes you need to step back from a circle of friends and habits - as Coltrane and Miles did - into a period of just crystallising your existence. Otherwise, you become a performing monkey: everyone gives you more cocaine and says you play like God, but one night you play like a genius and then the next night you suck. It's like Coltrane or Wayne Shorter or Herbie Hancock. Few musicians take the time to crystallise their existence. Hendrix took LSD, like I did, but he never realised what I did: that this is what you do but it's not what you are.

"I think if Jimi had had the right person, she would have said: 'Let's go to Hawaii and get rid of Jimi for a week,'" he continues. "You need to crystallise your existence and achieve that clarity of vision. This is the word that separates human beings from gods: willingness. Most people don't have that willingness to break bad habits. They have a lot of excuses and they talk like victims. And, like Jim Morrison or Jimi Hendrix or Marvin Gaye, they die as victims. But John Coltrane didn't die as a victim."

When I ask Santana what a young guitarist can take from the example of Hendrix, whose influence can often be an unproductive one, too reliant on flash and effects, he pauses thoughtfully. "Learn to play things that are from your heart," he says eventually. "You can take things that Jimi Hendrix took, from Curtis Mayfield or from Buddy Guy for example, because we are all children of everything, even Picasso. But if you want to stand out, you have to learn to crystallise your existence and create your own fingerprints. With one note people know me, or Eric, or Jeff Beck, or Jimi Hendrix. I would say to him or her: learn to develop your own voice. It's like someone said: if you take from just one person, it's stealing. But take from everyone, and it's research."

But Santana's ultimate guitar tutor is the blues. "If you can hear someone who sounds like they're crying and laughing at the same time, that's the blues," he says. "You can have all the licks you like, but if you don't have that when you play, I will not believe your story. Even Beethoven, I believe, is blues. In order to manifest the blues, you have to feel in a profound way, not just copy licks. You have to see birds, see clouds, create colours and emotions that we don't have names for yet, like Charlie Parker. I don't want to hurt artists by naming them, but some of them are about as deep as a spoon. They look good on TV, but the music is no good at all. Sonny Sharrock (the avant-garde jazz-blues guitarist) never got the credit he deserved - he scared me and he scared Jimi, too."

"Jimi Hendrix had a real purity of passion for the blues, and you can't fake the blues. Albert King, BB King, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Bo Diddley - if you don't listen to them, it's like cereal without the milk; pancakes without syrup. I don't want intellectual music without the blues. That's what gives it the flavour, like putting lemon on a fish."

'Power of Soul: a Tribute to Jimi Hendrix' is released by DVD UK Ltd

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