Cindy Blackman Santana is a virtuoso drummer whose artistry spans the realms of jazz and rock. As a bandleader and as a musician, Cindy is a sound innovator with a passion for pushing creative boundaries and exploring movement and change. She is as known for the nuances and colors she brings to her beats and fills as she is for the sheer power of her soulful playing. “Some drummers act, some react. Some keep time, others create it. Cindy Blackman Santana is among the few who can,” writes Mike Zwerin for the International Herald Tribune.
“I think of playing as controlled freedom, and in jazz, especially, that’s exactly what you have. I love it,” says Cindy. “You know the forms of the songs, but you have the freedom to stretch over them. You want the music to grow and breathe, and you want to invite creativity from all the musicians. As you’re going along, you can change the color, the feel, the mood in different ways, or go off the chart and open it up to something new. Controlled freedom is an incredible discipline in itself, requiring a lot of focus. Improvisation like that is art in its highest form.”
Cindy has been creating magnificent musical time and space since the beginning of her career as a busking street performer in New York City in the ’80s through the present day, touring the globe and making albums at the top of her game—including her latest, the critically acclaimed Another Lifetime (2010). In addition to collaborating onstage and in-studio with her own group—also known as Another Lifetime—she has toured and recorded with artists including Pharoah Sanders, Cassandra Wilson, Bill Laswell, Joss Stone, Joe Henderson, Buckethead, Don Pullen, Hugh Masakela, and Angela Bofill. From 1993 to 2007, she was also the drummer in Lenny Kravitz’s band, through multiple world tours and hit albums. In 2010, she was part of the all-star line-up performing “Bitches Brew,” a tribute to Miles Davis’ seminal album staged at the San Francisco Jazz Festival and NYC Winter JazzFest.
More recently, Cindy has been sitting in with Santana on the road. “They have a great band vibe. It’s nice to play with people who have grown together, built a sound together, and stayed together,” she says. “When that happens, you can create so many different levels of communication. That’s what they’ve done, and I love interacting with it.” Cindy first played with Santana in spring 2010, when drummer Dennis Chambers had a previous commitment. They had first met several years earlier at a festival in Europe when Cindy was touring with Kravitz.
Electricity onstage generated chemistry offstage—Carlos proposed to Cindy during a July 2010 concert, and they married in December. Looking ahead, they will collaborate artistically as well, on projects that will no doubt reflect their shared passion for improvisation, and belief in the transcendent nature of music. “To me, music is completely spiritual, it’s the way you connect with your higher self, with the universe,” says Cindy. “It’s also a way to share light with millions of people. They don’t need to speak your language, have your beliefs, or be in the same place you are. The music speaks, it channels good energy, and makes a difference in people’s lives. Carlos and I are both conscious of doing that.”
On her own, Cindy is continuing to develop the heady jazz-rock fusion that she drives so powerfully on 2010’s Another Lifetime. The tour de force album is a tribute to her mentor, the legendary drummer Tony Williams, and features reimaginings of eight songs from his seminal ’70s group Lifetime, as well as three original tracks by Cindy. In its review, All About Jazz wrote, “Blackman’s sonic explorations take jazz-rock beyond where the late drummer envisioned it when he was putting heads to bed with guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Jack Bruce and organist Larry Young…Jazz-rock as performed by Williams, and now Blackman, is very much alive and well.” The Guardian (U.K.) review called it “a firebreathing session,” adding “the mad-axeman guitar and boneshaking drumming this style invites is certainly present…but Blackman balances it with tonal splashes of abstract colour.”
“I loved everything about Tony’s playing. He changed the sound of music several times with different tunings and configurations, and innovated with every limb,” says Cindy—who first met Williams in her teens when he did a clinic at the drum shop near her home in Connecticut. “His attitude and bravado behind the kit was incredible, and his technique was impeccable.” Another Lifetime was recorded on both coasts, with New York sessions featuring Mike Clarke, Doug Carn, and Benny Reitveld accompanying Cindy, and L.A. sessions including Vernon Reid, Patrice Rushen, Joe Lovano, and David Santos. Going forward, Cindy is planning to incorporate more of a vocal element into her music.
Cindy remembers first asking for drums when she was about five or six—“My mom says I was born hitting things and making rhythms,” she says. She graduated from a toy drum kit to her first professional one at age 13, and went on to play in her high school band. She was living in New York just a few years later. Cindy took advantage of abundant opportunities to see legendary drummers perform live, including Max Roach, Al Foster, Jack DeJohnette, Roy Haynes, and Art Blakey, who became another of her major influences and mentors. Outside of the jazz realm, other greats she admires include Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown), John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), and Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix).
Her recording career began in the late ’80s, and she has released albums with an acoustic ensemble—the Cindy Blackman quartet—as well as with her electric outfit. One she cites as among her favorites is 2000’s Works On Canvas. “I like where the band was at that point, our sound was becoming really cohesive,” she says. The review in Jazz Times noted that the album, “proceeds like an impressionistic suite in which she not only functions as the main rhythmic engine of the music, but also a magnificent colorist…Works on Canvas is an amazing portrait of one of this generation’s most colorful drummers.”
Cindy Blackman Santana continues to build a body of work and artistic legacy that make her one of the finest drummers of this or any generation.