Mutual admiration can be both a benefit and a detriment, but the passion and earnest energy shown by Carlos Santana and The Isley Brothers on Power of Peace (Legacy Recordings) is evident — and enough to overcome several imperfect choices.
The groundwork for this album began when Ronald Isley sang lead on two songs for 2016’s Santana IV, with the singer proving that he could blend seamlessly into that band’s Latin fusion rock ’n’ roll canvas. That formula has changed for this ensuing album, with Carlos Santana providing a chorus of spirited guitar phrasings as a foundation to the Isleys’ brand of soul, funk, pop and gospel sensibilities.
The album starts off in fine fashion with the Chambers Brothers composition “Are You Ready.” The opening salvo of Santana-esque Latin beats (by percussionists Cindy Blackman Santana and Karl Perazzo) leads Ronald to invite the audience to “Clap your hands/stomp your feet” — and who can resist? The interpretation is smart, compact and all-too short. Here, as in subsequent cuts, Ernie Isley uses excellent rhythm and lead guitar as a complement to Carlos Santana’s majestic workmanship.
Ronald provides some powerful vigor to Swamp Dogg’s 1970 release, “Total Destruction of Your Mind,” an interesting choice that helps provide the album with some welcome levity. The narrator, overwhelmed by society’s ills, plots complete destruction (perhaps to construct something better from the remains). The keyboard work of Greg Phillinganes and David K. Matthews gives this tune (and others) a tingling pop bounce, with bassist Benny Rietveld lending subtle funky support.
Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” is a victim of over-production, as every instrument used attempts to topple the others, and a mid-song transition into a rap by Andy Vargas (about basketball icons Michael Jordan and Julius “Dr. J.” Erving, et al.) does nothing to enhance the bloated pyrotechnics. Even Ronald’s vocals seem buried here.
Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” is given the gospel/pop reverence it deserves and is another highlight on this disc. Ronald adds a mountain of splendor to the oft-covered Hal David and Burt Bacharach classic “What the World Need Now Is Love” (listed on the liner notes as “What the World Needs Now Is Love Sweet Love”). By changing up the traditional opening, Ronald begins with the lyrics “Lord, we don’t need another mountain/There are mountains and hillsides enough to climb” as a plaintive intro, and his enunciations are embellished with irony and heartache. This may be the crème de la crème track on this album.
Other notable songs are covered as well: The Curtis Mayfield-written Impressions hit “Gypsy Woman” is given a soulful flamenco treatment, and Ronald’s hypnotic power holds the listener in the palms of his hands throughout what seems like a short seven-minute cut. The Willie Dixon-penned classic “I Just Want to Make Love to You” could have benefited from either a little more subtlety or more guitar remonstrations. And while it is almost impossible to match Marvin Gaye’s towering achievement “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” one must give the musicians and the vocalists (despite a synthetic, vocal-tuned sounding chorus) points for trying.
The album concludes with the Jill-Jackson Miller and Sy Miller hymnal “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” which in theory seems like a perfect fit for this collaboration. The result is a treacly treatment of a time-honored classic, better suited for inclusion on a Christmas album.
Carlos Santana’s spiritual guitar handiwork, a superb rhythm section, ebullient keyboard treatments, and Ronald Isley’s mellifluous vocals help overcome slight production lapses and a few well-intentioned but misguided song choices. Whether the album elevates the listener to a higher (and more peaceful) consciousness with its musical power is open to conjecture, but the inherent honest intentions make this a successful collaboration that rises above its imperfections.
— By Donald Gavron