Last year, composer, bassist, and all around musician’s musician, Gerald Stockton released his first solo album, the aptly-titled My Gentle Breeze. Now he’s back with his second album, A New Dawn, an even more ambitious melding of styles that reveals his deep roots as a jazz musician whose experience extends to composing and orchestrating for radio and television. Clocking in at over 76 minutes, the album makes room for generous helpings of jazz-informed pop, 1970s-style progressive rock, jazz fusion, and even nostalgic ballads. The outstanding musicians are gifted with extra leg room to show off their considerable chops. Throughout, Dan Jordan is a star on woodwinds with a cool and refreshing mid-century style.
The title track, A New Dawn, is a beautifully meditative tune recalling my memories of South Africa, the soft tangerine glow of the sun and good evening roars of lions in the distance. I was merely a visitor. Gerald grew up in South Africa, emigrating to America in 1979 to study at the University of North Texas. From the cities to the townships, South Africa is rich in jazz history with many potential stars laboring in relative obscurity. The instrumentation sets the tune’s mood. Dan Jordan’s lilting alto flute, backed up by Gerald’s gentle piano comping, contrasts in range and texture with Syndon Bundens’ evocative cello.
Doppler Effect jolts my contemplative state with a gust of upbeat jazz fusion, guest starring Steve Wiest, Gerald’s long-time friend and collaborator and current bandmate in Vinyl Hampton. Steve delivers his trademark stretched-out and funky Pankowian-style on trombone. Show Me The Way harkens back to the progressive rock tradition of the 1970s, also recalling the syncopated rhythms of African pop.
Midnight shows off the considerable improvisational chops of the players in a traditional jazz combo setting, Dan’s tenor laying down the main melody. Steve Luciano delivers a clean and bright guitar solo. Feeling From My Heart features a wispy-toned and melodic flute solo while Memories of Tomorrow and Sky Train would fit in on “smooth jazz” formatted stations and streaming services.
Without irony, Gerald and friends travel back in time to the era of the sentimental torch ballad. Time Passes By is straight out of monochrome Hollywood romanticism. Another Perfect Day, in the bossa-nova style with Gerald and his wife Avryl on vocals, advances to the technicolor era of 1960s European pop. Their vocals and harmonies are breezy and beautifully, the perfect companion to lounging at the beach or backyard.
Empyrean, is the most adventurous and eclectic composition of the album, a suite-like composition with a pastiche of styles, infusing influences from diverse musical cultures. Take out your passports. The G-train travels express to both Chicago and East Asia! Featured on the first movement is a teen-aged cello star, Matthew Wiest, a young man who practices diligently and is destined to make his mark in music. Empyrean is rocked up by another son, with Will Stockton of the indie rock band Warm Soda on drums! Centrifuge is also a daring track, combining an organic horn section augmented by synth horns, a creative meeting of the production styles of the 70s and 80s.
In totality, A New Dawn, is impossible to sum up. Gerald has shown what musicians can accomplish in this new era, freed from expectations from record company executives, commercial considerations, or confining genres. In the tradition of modern art on jazz album covers, the very hip urban psychedelic cover art is from a painting by Marianne Davidow. Purchase A New Dawn at CD Baby.
I Called Him Morgan, a film by Kasper Collin, tells the story of jazz trumpet player Lee Morgan, from his debut as a cocky teen-aged protege of Dizzy Gillespie to his tragic death, shot dead at age 33 by his common law wife Helen Morgan. It is a film rich in jazz and the experiences of African-Americans who wrote their personal and collective histories through music. The film debuted on the festival circuit in 2016, garnering many rave reviews and awards, now available to a wider audience through streaming on Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes. I purchased it from Amazon in 1080p resolution with 5.1 surround sound, pleased that the sound design of the film preserves the most defining sonic quality of many of Lee’s albums, the wide separation between the trumpet and saxophone, each isolated in its own channel.
Unflinchingly, I Called Him Morgan explores the gray area between guilt and forgiveness. Any jazz fan discovering Lee Morgan’s trumpet playing, his prodigal talent for improvisation and story-telling on his horn, is sure to feel a sense of mourning for the fact that his time on Earth was so short. Yet, Helen Morgan is a figure who will inspire some sympathy for her own determination as well as her crucial role in revitalizing Lee’s life and career in second half of the 1960s. Her story is symbolic as she becomes an iconic example of the urges of bravest to escape to a better place, in her case New York City, where she defined herself rather than let the provincialism of her native North Carolina define her.
As we learn, Helen Morgan became something of a den mother to jazz musicians attracted by her home cooking and kind persona. Yet, despite the revelations in such symbolism, she is humanized by the cassette tape recording made by Larry Reni Thomas, an educator, journalist, and torch carrier of jazz history. Larry interviewed Helen Morgan after she was in his adult education class where he discovered her intimate connection to Lee. The conformation of Helen Morgan’s humanity is her voice, as played on the cassette. The audience hears her story, in her own words. Hence, a three-dimensional figure emerges, and she can no longer be perceived merely as the woman who shot Lee Morgan.
We also hear first hand accounts from many of Lee’s collaborators and friends. In a most touching moment, Wayne Shorter, a legend of the saxophone and oft collaborator with Morgan, is gazing at a photo of Lee with a bandaged head, admonishing his friend in the present tense as if he is still alive. Shorter was Lee’s bandmate in the The Jazz Messengers, and a collaborator on his later solo albums. The Jazz Messengers were a combo seen by some as the epitome of hard bop, a summation of everything that was hip about jazz in its most fruitful era. A contemporary critic lends his view:
“…his fine Gillespie-inspired trumpet was shown off to great advantage above Blakey’s furious drumming. He was equally at home on more restrained pieces when his excellent control and even vibrato became more evident.” (1)
Between one audio interview of Lee Morgan from 1971, the cassette tape (a character in itself), and original interviews with friends and bandmates, Lee Morgan’s life story is aptly portrayed in overview. I would have liked more details about his upbringing and his influences, which by other accounts extended beyond jazz. Lee’s personality bursts from the screen most strikingly from the archival photographs taken by Francis Wolff of Blue Note Records. (The story of the “Animal Brothers,” Wolff and Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion, would make for a wonderful documentary in itself.) Of particular interest are the photographs taken inside the famous studio of Rudy Van Gelder (1924-2016). Gelder revealed little about his recording techniques, so such insights are invaluable.
Most of all, it is the music that moves, and listening to the soundtrack I felt transported to the smoky clubs, breathing in the wails from the brass and feeling the sense of liberation the music provided in an atmosphere of necessary revolt outside. Photographs from places such as Slugs, the ones “where you can hear the real cats,” strike me as evidence that the jazz scene in the early 1970s was racially integrated, white intellectuals and African-Americans inspired by the same music mingling together.
Collin’s compelling film should be welcomed by jazz aficionados as well as newer fans discovering Lee’s music through reissues and You Tube. For all the lesson is the same. Jazz is a genre fused with the history of America in black and white. It connects us to frontiers beyond our national one and can be a stark reminder of the best and worst impulses in everyone.
Search For The New Land (1964):
(1). McRae, Barry. The Jazz Cataclysm. Cranbury, NJ: AS Barnes and Co. (1967), p. 55.
Sometimes, the right song comes along at just the right time. One Song by Vinyl Hampdin, is a proverbial primal scream in song form, the words and theme inspired by Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech. Steve Wiest’s composition is an inspiring reminder that our planet is one mere tiny spec in the universe, that we transcend (and will hopefully survive) the moment of our present crisis. The spirits that are larger than ourselves are incomprehensible, but the need for communion is primal. Surely, there must exist a greater intelligence, on earth or beyond, than what humanity has wrought lately. Fans of classic horns bands are no strangers to music that asks us to challenge assumptions about the ways in which we live and ask why we contribute to the destruction of what should be precious. One Song carries on in that tradition of consciousness-raising.
If the Earth could talk, she might ask..
Can you hear me?
I’m calling you
Please don’t leave me alone
One Song carries a poignant message for sure. It is also simply great music performed by virtuoso musicians. So, who is Vinyl Hampdin? Vinyl Hampdin is a brand new horn band, a venerable supergroup, the brainchild of trombonist/composer/arranger Steve Wiest, the Co-Chair of Jazz Studies, Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver. Vinyl Hampdin also features Chicago’s Ray Herrmann (woodwinds), Art Bouton (woodwinds), Frank David Greene (trumpet), Ryan Davidson (guitar), Eric Gunnison, (keyboards), Stockton Helbing (drums), Gerald Stockton (bass), and Lisa Dodd Watts (vocals). Some might be familiar with Wiest’s previous projects or his stint touring with trumpet legend Maynard Ferguson. His genre-bending concept album from 2014, Concerto For Folded Space, a soundtrack to his science-fiction novel, The Dover Stone, is an aural adventure that enthralls fans of progressive rock, fusion, and contemporary classical music, and also features some notable Chicago guest stars: Jimmy Pankow, Keith Howland, and Jason Scheff.
The cinematic drama of One Song, a very visual approach to writing and arranging that is characteristically Wiestian, evokes a sense of wonder for the great unknown. The flutes of Ray Herrmann and Art Bouton add a lightness of being, representative of an exemplary way for compassionate human beings to walk and live on this planet, a foil to the heavy-handed authoritarianism we now sadly witness. Collectively, the horn section carries on in the traditions of Chicago, Tower of Power, and Blood Sweat & Tears, playing as a cohesive section to create a huge sound that is larger than the sum of its parts. Dual woodwinds opens up further possibilities of texture and harmony within their arrangements, in the studio and live. The rhythm section, anchored by the jazzy touch of Gerald Stockton on bass, and raucous but tight drumming of Stockton Helbing, keeps the band in the pocket. The searing guitar of Ryan Davidson is a cleansing release of righteous anger. The gritty vocals of Lisa Dodd Watts are so impactful that surely the SETI Institute should use them to communicate with the intelligent life out there.
Vinyl Hampdin has now released six videos, all free on the internet, and will return to the studio this summer to record more tracks with an eventual release on physical media (vinyl!! and compact disc). Their first round of releases shows the diversity of their repertoire. An added bonus with this visual presentation of new music is the beautifully saturated cinematography of Andy Laviolette.
So far, they’ve covered Paul McCartney’s My Love and Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, both unpredictable arrangements of 70s classics; paid tribute to the 2016 World Series Champions, the Chicago Cubs, with Diamonds; delved deep into funky fusion with Flowers on the Wall, and more. Vinyl Hampdin hopes to tour in the future, a very exciting prospect, especially for the chance to show off the considerable improvisational abilities of this band. Look no further than Eric Gunnison’s piano solo below for some hard evidence! For now, please visit (https://www.vinylhampdin.com/) for more music videos and information about this unique project. Be sure to follow them on Facebook as well at (https://www.facebook.com/vinylhampdin/).
Once Upon A Time, a jazzy, psychedelic, hippy rock band with horns stormed the college campuses of South Carolina, playing Furman University in 1970, Clemson University in 1971, and the Greenville Memorial Auditorium in 1974. Back in the early 70s, Chicago played to their peers, young people who may or may not have understood the musical education they received at those respective shows. Last weekend, Chicago triumphantly returned to South Carolina, and I was honored to attend two sold out shows, one at the Township Auditorium in Columbia and another at The Peace Center in Greenville. I heard a band celebrating their 50th anniversary, reinvigorated and playing with as much energy, if not more, as decades prior. Their setlist is full of huge hits, album tracks, and fan favorites, from their 1969 debut, Chicago Transit Authority, to the six times platinum Chicago 17. The utter charm of their songs, sounding just as urgent and relevant as ever was pure joy for myself and the entire audience. Most of all, it is beautifully apparent just how much fun Chicago is having at the twilight of their careers. Their survival is an unlikely story, against the odds, and a testament to their resilience and skill at navigating all the changes in the musical and social landscape over the decades.
Before the Greenville show, I was honored to sit down for a chat with Lee Loughnane. His insights on Chicago’s evolution as a band provide a life lesson on perseverance and flexibility. We talked about some classic records, his development as a trumpet player, Chicago’s future, and more.
Stephanie Carta: Jeff Coffey sounded fantastic last night. Congrats on your new addition to the band.
Lee Loughnane: From the first time we got together, we were happy with what it sounded like from that first day. We just played a couple James Brown tunes, and I’m A Man. Everybody took solos. It’s important that people are able to play The Ballet because there’s so many different time changes, musical transitions, and feel. It goes from rock and roll to classical. You have to be a fairly well-rounded musician to just play the song. It’s important to play that one, but we haven’t had that many auditions in fifty years. People just sort of join the band, and they know the material. With Jeff it was a little different because we had to replace him fairly quickly because we had no idea how long Jason (Scheff) was going to be gone and when he said it was four months. We can’t take four months off. We’ve got to keep going. We’ve got seventy shows booked. We can’t stop playing and not show up. So Jeff came in, and we rehearsed for one or two days, and we were playing. If he had two rehearsals I’d be surprised, so he was very well prepared by the time we hit the downbeat on our first show.
SC: People call the 70s the classic era, but I think you’re living in it now. This is the classic era.
LL: It’s classic because we’re able to still be living.
SC: You embrace your whole history in your shows.
LL: Yeah. It covers the first album, from Introduction all the way up until today.
SC: I want to congratulate you, first of all, for keeping the band in the spotlight for fifty years.
LL: We’ve had ups and downs, and it’s amazing to me that we’re still able to do it, especially at this level. We’re selling out shows every night now as a result of the notoriety of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and then the documentary (Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago) being on CNN. It’s been fabulous for us. I just did another interview, a radio interview, and he asked if someone would have come up to you and said, ‘do you think that the band will be together for fifty years,’ we would have just laughed, just like you’re doing right now. There’s no way that you could imagine this would go on this long. Figure, by the time you’re thirty, it’s done. Usually, five years.
SC: Or you’re just an ‘oldies act.’
LL: Yeah. We’re an oldies act, but it’s like current. It’s sort of a strange way of putting it, but it feels current to me.
SC: It feels current to the audience too.
LL: That’s good.
SC: You once said Chicago VII was one of your favorite records.
LL: It’s because there were more writers that came. I wrote my first song. It was on Chicago VII, Call On Me. By the time I came up with an original song the band was very well established with six albums and major success. So I sort of came in with, ‘you wanna hear my song,’ very timid. I didn’t know if they wanted to do it. I didn’t think it was good enough. My personality, ‘I’m not good enough,’ and you know, ‘I’m just trying.’
SC: #1 on the Adult Contemporary charts in 1974.
LL: It made it, yeah. It made it to #6 on the Hot 100 or something.
SC: Did you enjoy playing the jazz on that record?
LL: Yeah, that was fun. We initially intended that record to be all jazz, and then realized that we’re going to need some other music besides that, so it kept developing.
SC: How about Chicago III? What do you remember about Chicago III, and how do you think it’s aged over the years?
LL: We still do a couple of songs off of it, but I don’t think it was accepted as much as I and II. I think maybe now it’s more accepted than it was back then, but I loved doing the Travel Suite. That was a lot of fun. I got to play guitar on the Travel Suite and sing a little bit because there were no horns on that one. Happy ‘Cause I’m Going Home, that was fun. Walt had a nice flute solo on that.
SC: He did. One part of Elegy that blows me away is Once Upon A Time.
LL: It turned very mellow, and then it got very powerful at the end.
SC: Almost like a protest song.
LL: Which is sort of where we were at the time, young kids thinking we can change the world. But, a revolution? I think it was all in our minds as it turned out. The revolution is something that you can’t do anything really forcefully. We were still at the point where we were trying to educate people musically, and what we learned was people don’t want to be educated musically. They just want to have fun. That’s it. So, I think once we settled into that mode and realized that from the seventh album we wanted to just play new stuff and just the jazz tunes that we were doing. We tried that for one tour and realized at that point that it was going to be over if we didn’t play some songs that put us on the map. That’s when we started putting shows together that made sense as far as trying to make the audience as happy as us. Before that, I think we were mistakenly just trying to please ourselves. So, once that changed we started performing better, I think.
SC: How did your classical training help you?
LL: It just helped me be a better trumpet player, and I’m learning more now than I ever did back then. I think because of the volume that we always have to play at in this band, you end up over-blowing almost all the time, and I’m trying to get enough air and learn the art of playing the trumpet well enough so I will last until the end of the show the way I want to be lasting. By the end of the show I’m forcing myself to keep everything going, and I don’t think anyone else notices but me. I think that’s the biggest thing, right?
SC: You had to learn how to pace yourself and keep your tone.
LL: Exactly. That’s what you do.
SC: Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon, you play that every night.
LL: For some reason it works in the beginning of the show. We can open with it. We can play it in the middle, or we can play it at the end. We’ve put it in every phase of our show through the years, and it always works.
SC: A twelve minute suite, and people pay attention.
LL: Yeah, it’s bizarre! I just saw from the Songwriters Hall of Fame that he (Jimmy Pankow) wrote that when he was twenty-two. That’s a pretty young age to have something like that come through you.
SC: The three of you, Walt (Parazaider), Jimmy, and yourself, when you were just getting together, “blowing with one lung,” was that natural or did it take a lot of practice to play in unison?
LL: Just repetition, over and over, and you start doing things. It amazed us that we were taking breaths together, phrasing the way that we did, because it’s different than a big band. The way we play is different than the way big band stylists put their sections together. The lead trumpet player is usually the leader of the section, and then there’s a lead trombone player, likewise a saxophone player. We were the whole section, the three of us. Then when we overdubbed, we already knew what we played the first time, so we tried to match that playing different notes and we’d just fill out the chord, doubled-tracked and sometimes triple on the ballads. We would have one (track) in the center and one on either side. Sometimes it would be all three horns here, all three horns in the center, all three horns on the sides. Sometimes there’d be trumpet, trombone, then we’d switch and there’d be horns all over the place.
SC: A wall of horns. That’s your sound.
LL: A wall of horns! Right!
SC: What trumpet players inspired you the most?
LL: Clifford Brown, Doc Severinsen – incredible! I’m having trouble thinking of all the names, there’s so many guys. Clark Terry was incredible.
SC: Have you ever listened to Lee Morgan?
LL: Lee Morgan’s great. Yes, Sidewinder. Oh yeah, Lee Morgan’s one of the greats too.
SC: They just made a movie about him.
LL: Really! Is it out now?
SC: It’s out now, playing the festivals and theaters.
LL: What’s it called?
SC: I Called Him Morgan.
SC: Are there any plans to record again?
LL: If somebody comes up with a song and we want to record out on the road, we have the equipment to do it with. I think when we did 36, it sort of burned people out. I don’t think Robert (Lamm) was all that happy with recording on the road, and I don’t know if he wants to repeat the process. Although, we’ve learned how to do it, and I think we can make it better. I think we can improve on what we did before, and I’ve already improved on the equipment. With the engineer, Tim Jessup, we’ve built up what we have out here. It’s still the same size, but the guts are better, more powerful.
SC: Are you writing songs now?
LL: I’m in the process of writing a few songs, yeah.
SC: I really like America.
LL: Oh great, thank you.
SC: And you sent that to every member of Congress?
LL: We did! It didn’t become a hit though (laughs). It was a miss.
SC: It’s a fan favorite.
LL: Is it? Good! That’s great. We did it in concert for a while.
SC: Going back to the beginning of recording and how structured CBS Studios was with all their rules. How did that feel?
LL: The unions in New York are crazy no matter where you go, no matter what phase of life you’re talking about, whether it’s building a bridge or recording an album. The union is separate from everyone else. They have their rules, and you’ve got to follow the rules or you don’t play at all. So, we couldn’t touch the controls. We couldn’t touch the machine or the tape. It was all their purview. Things have changed quite a bit since then.
SC: How did it feel to go from that type of structure to the freedom that you know today?
LL: I don’t think it bothered us, per se, as much. All we did was play, and write, and sing, and do our best to make good music. The technical aspects were never really what we did. I listened, and I watched, and I looked at it. I kept wanting to learn more and more, and that’s why I’m able to do what I’m doing today. When the computers came out, I got into that. The computers get old so fast. You have to really keep going and moving forward. While we’re talking right now, the computer world is changing. That’s how fast it’s happening. And the internet is changing all the time as well. Record companies are trying to remain in business. They’re all trying to figure out how to remain powerful when the power is being taken away from them because of the freedom of anybody being able to record a record in their room and release it. So, they’re trying to keep that strong base of, ‘well, without us you don’t have a hit record’ stuff. That doesn’t always cover it anymore.
SC: How does that affect how you get your music out to the fans?
LL: We have to learn that too: what is the best way to do it. We’re learning along with everybody else. The only thing we know how to do is make music. Getting it out there to people is a tough thing.
SC: You’ve worked with whatever is thrown at you.
LL: Yeah. We’re lucky to be doing this. I’m having fun, and I think that’s the important thing is to always enjoy yourself.
SC: It’s heartwarming to see, after 50 years, how much fun you are having.
LL: Yeah. It’s great.
SC: What’s the future for Chicago?
LL: Well, we’re definitely finishing off this year. I don’t know how many years we have, realistically, left. Father Time is taking its toll. It’s harder to travel, all that stuff all the time. Travel’s never been easy, but once we get on stage, time goes away again. Travel time goes away. If you’re tired, it doesn’t matter. You just work. As soon as the downbeat comes, we’re kids. I’m very happy about Jimmy and Robert getting into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. They’re going to be in there with the best songwriters in the history of music.
SC: You were all very gracious to accept induction into the Rock Hall.
LL: Oh, that was great. It sort of showed the guys that aren’t with the band anymore, the reason why. It put it out there for everyone to see. We still enjoy what we’re doing, and it would seem like they would do it and want to embrace at least some of the childhood that we had together. But they didn’t want it. Even Danny (Seraphine) showed that he was a little bit different.
SC: You should just be proud of yourself.
LL: When I go home, I get to raise my son. He’s going to be fourteen in April. By the time I get home I will have recorded four episodes of Walking Dead and three episodes of Lethal Weapon. He’s looking forward to watching those with Dad. They grow up in the fast line now, faster than the fast lane that we grew up in. I know my parents didn’t want me to grow up that fast.
SC: I found your second album in my parent’s basement. That’s what started my love for your music.
LL: What year was that?
LL: Oh my God, so we were already making the fifteenth or sixteenth album. Sixteen. We were calling it fifteen, and then CBS, that we had just left, released the Greatest Hits album which became Chicago 15. So, we had to change our number to 16, the first album with David Foster, that David Foster produced, with Hard To Say I’m Sorry.
SC: I liked that Foster gave a good interview for the movie (Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago).
LL: Yeah! He definitely showed his personality as well.
SC: You have this mythology that Foster ruined Chicago, wherever that comes from.
LL: Same place that Yoko ruined The Beatles, just people’s heads. That’s what they decided, and that’s what everybody thinks. People think we’re a ballad band, still to this day. You come hear the show, and you know that we’re not. We play all sorts of music and all sorts of styles, and the ballads, they still work every night too. There’s some power ballads, and even David realizes that he took it a little too far with how over-produced it is. But, regardless, it still works.
SC: I have the Friday Music reissue of 17, and that sounds fantastic.
LL: Good. Joe Reagoso, he’s a big fan as well. He’s a stickler for making it sound as good or better than the original.
SC: I hope you get to remix the first record too.
LL: Me too! Our engineer, Tim Jessup, he’s got his hat in the ring with Rhino. Hopefully, he will do it rather than the guy from Britain. (The Wilson Remix of II) was in a computer, what they call “in the box.” The equipment that we have will take it as far out of the box as we can possibly get it and still be in a computer, without going into a studio and actually re-recording it. I don’t even know what the technique would be, but you’ve got to take the tracks and do a different format, a different machine. I don’t know the technical aspects of it, but we can make it sound better, that’s for sure.
SC: The albums you recorded at Caribou, the quad mixes, I thought were fantastic on the Quadio box.
LL: The quad mixes, going back to putting everything into different speakers, it’s just different than the album was envisioned in the first place, mechanically and sonically. You’re quite the aficionado.
LL: This has been fun.
SC: Thank you.
All of human history is a story of continuity and change. There are common strains throughout the times, as well as breaks with the past. Chicago is no different. The songs endure, endlessly inspiring. Everyone who remembers Chicago from the 1970s is treated to three familiar faces on stage, and I treasured the connection to the original band. At the same time, the entire current lineup of Chicago makes their catalog sound brand new, everyone playing with a fresh vigor to musical perfection. Chicago, not only endures for their 50th anniversary, but also gracefully takes their place in history as a great little rock band with horns.
A big thanks to Lee Loughnane for the conversation and showing the music world how to come out even stronger than where you started.
The artistry of Chicago II and its place of honor in Chicago’s canon is unquestionable, regardless of the format. It would be impressive if heard over a transistor radio. Chicago’s second album incorporates rock and roll, jazz, and classical influences into a four-sided journey with these different strains of music absorbed and re-imagined by these seven musicians. Chicago II including the suites: Jimmy Pankow’s Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon and It Better End Soon, a collaboration between Robert Lamm and Terry Kath featuring Walter Parazaider on an extended flute solo. The second side starts off with a 2:34 minute sweet pop song, Robert Lamm’s Wake Up Sunshine, seemingly tailor-made for retrograde AM radio but never released as a single. The orchestration on the Memories of Love suite is reminiscent of The Moody Blues’ album, Days of Future Passed (1967) and on Beatles’ songs such as Eleanor Rigby. Even with disparate styles of music on II, the album flows together with perfect synchronicity. As the liner notes state in a direct message, which I read for the first time thirty years ago as a preteen Chicago fan, and symbol of the earnestness of the album and its song order: “This endeavor should be experienced sequentially.”
Chicago II is a revered album, and I greeted the news of its being remixed by Steve Wilson, whose previous work including remixing Yes, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, with excitement and also some trepidation. There is a substantial difference between a remix and a remaster. For those unfamiliar with recording techniques, think of making any typical rock album as a multi-step process. First, instruments and vocals are recorded on tracks, starting with the rhythm section, and then overdubbing the rest of the instruments and vocals. Chicago II is a 16-track recording, and all recordings from the 1970s and prior were analog recordings. While listening to this record, as well as Chicago Transit Authority, I often think about the challenges posed to the engineers* of Chicago’s earliest albums who had to put a seven-piece rock band onto so few tracks. While this was a manageable task with typical rock band instrumentation, the horns required separate tracks for the arrangements, usually double-tracked, and the solos. The recording engineers at CBS Studios were in charge of this entire process, from setting up the studio, placing the microphones, recording the musicians, and then mixing and mastering the album. Producer James William Guercio was limited in what he could do as only those who were members of the CBS union could use the equipment in their studios per standard practices.
Once the recording is finished, the individual tracks of the song are mixed, adjusting things like frequency, volume, dynamics, and where each particular track will be heard in the stereo spectrum. The next step is mastering for release on a physical format such as a vinyl record or compact disc, with the mastering engineer ensuring that the full album has a cohesive sound. The remastering process that takes places for usual reissues does not touch the individual tracks. A remix, however, goes one step further back in the process. The task of remixing Chicago II by Steve Wilson involved digitally remixing the 16 individual tracks of the album. In essence, Wilson was able to overwrite the work of the CBS engineers and create something that was very different than what we are used to hearing. However, Steve Wilson stayed close to the original mix of the album, producing a clearer and cleaner mix than Rhino’s previous remasters of Chicago II.
Remixing any classic work by an iconic band is something like playing God. If there is one moment in Chicago II where some divine intervention might be helpful, it is during the horn solos following the soli section on Movin’ In. Walt belts out an alto sax solo, full of passion and dissonance, his shout out to the free jazz movement, beautifully ironic that it was recorded in a studio with so many rules as CBS. Jazz fans might have been reminded of Ornette Coleman or some of John Coltrane’s freer works from the last phase of career. Lee Loughnane on trumpet and Jimmy Pankow on trombone then take the solo section back down to earth, all together forming a symbolic and attention-grabbing moment on the first song of the record. In the original mix and the remix, this part of the song has some odd dynamics, the comping louder than the solos, and it would have been more powerful to hear the solos louder and much more present in the mix. In comparison, on Ballet the original dynamics are something close to heavenly perfection.
Chicago’s history recording at CBS Studios in New York City from 1969 to 1972 is, sadly, not well documented. They worked in studios where if the walls could talk, they would tell large chapters of American musical history. Usually, Chicago recorded at Studio B at 49 East 52nd Street, home to recording engineer Don Puluse. Occasionally, brass was recorded at the studio known as “The Church” at 30th Street, a studio that was particularly suited to big orchestral groups and big bands who were recorded playing live as a group, originally onto three or four tracks with little or no overdubbing. Engineers of Chicago II include Don Puluse, Brian Ross-Myring, and Chris Hinshaw (who famously conspired with The Byrds to break the studio rules). The remastering engineer of Chicago II, Robert Honablue, was the first African-American engineer at CBS Studios.
The work of the CBS engineers was truly commendable considering the milieu in which they operated, and no remaster would sound good if the source (the master tape) was faulty or deteriorated. The best reissue of Chicago II shows the beauty of their work as it was done in 1969, released on dual-layer super audio compact disc (SACD) by Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. However, MoFi reissues are limited editions, and it is now out-of-print. MoFi remasters their releases using the original master tapes that, in their words, “exponentially expands the soundstaging dimensions, imaging proportions, and dynamic information, allowing the songs to breathe and enjoy a roominess that enhances the stellar performances and interwoven structures.” The tape hiss of the original master is actually noticeable louder on the SACD, making the experience feel and sound closer to the source recording, as if one were listening to the master tapes in a studio. Even though it is a digital format, this SACD retains the warmth of analog, especially noticeable on the naturally resonant baritone voices of Robert Lamm and Terry Kath which have a presence on this remaster that is especially appreciated on Poem For the People and Colour My World.
The original sound quality of Chicago II was limited by many factors, the physical characteristics of the studio facility and the limitation of the recording equipment available to them at the time. With today’s technology, audio engineers have limitless options. MoFi’s reissue preserves the analog warmth, while the Steve Wilson remix embraces the advances in digital mixing and emulation. Wilson has taken heed to respect the integrity of work done by those brave and talented men at CBS records. The MoFi SACD revealed the beauty of the recording techniques and studios, a vintage sound that is still appreciated and emulated with new electronic technology. If Chicago were to remix their own works using the best available technology of today, I can only imagine just how beautiful the result would be.
On the other side of the audio spectrum, for Chicago fans who would rather listen to their “old records,” the Friday Music reissue of II is the best way to listen to Chicago II on vinyl, preserving the sound quality and familiar experience of playing a record. Friday Music uses 180 gram weigh records, a slightly heavier record than the first original pressing of Chicago II by Columbia Records. This reissue was remastered by Lee Loughnane and the founder of Friday Music, Joe Reagoso, using the Chicago Records master tapes.
While vinyl lacks the enhanced frequency range and extremes of stereo separation of the digital formats, many Chicago fans will appreciate the analog warmth and replication of the original listening experience as you remember it, perfect for introducing your children or grandchildren to vinyl records. These pristine new records are free from skips and pops and come in a replica of the gatefold record cover, with each record housed in an anti-static sleeves. This whole package is a faithfully reproduced by Friday Music, lacking only the poster, but reminding me of my initial discovery of a vintage copy of Chicago II in the family basement but without the deterioration caused by years of improper handling and storage (which happened before I claimed it).
The re-release of The Beatles catalog in 2009 on two boxed sets, stereos mixes for modern tastes and mono mixes for purists, showed how the newest technology and processes could make recordings from the 1960s sound even better. While Rhino’s Chicago Quadio box on Blu-ray appealed to the audiophile market, new reissues on compact disc would appeal to a larger audience. The new transfers from the master tapes of The Beatles catalog for the ‘09 reissues were a large factor in the improved sound quality and expanded frequency range, greatly improving upon the first remasters when The Beatles were first put on compact disc in the late 1980s. Chicago’s catalog deserves the same respect as The Beatles has been given. Whether new remasters of the classic era of Chicago were packaged together in a box set or sold one-by-one, it would be worth my money to repurchase Chicago’s first eleven albums again.
* Tim Jessup, Chicago’s current sound engineer, and Jim Reeves, recording engineer at CBS from 1969-1972, have kindly shared their insights with me. The work of audio engineers tends to go unrecognized, but it truly makes a difference.
To great fanfare and anticipation Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago premiered on CNN on New Year’s Day. Filmmaker Peter Pardini and Chicago have collectively produced a definitive history of the band, extensive enough to delight long-time fans and concise enough to tell their story to a wider audience and for the posterity of rock and roll history. This film cuts through the mystery and the myth, and to tell the tale Pardini intersperses vintage footage and photographs with original interviews and stylized cinematic recreations. Earlier in the year, the film debuted at several festivals, winning the “Best of Fest” audience choice award at its debut at the 2016 Sedona International Film Festival and also the People’s Choice award at the Fort Myers Film Festival. A release on disc with bonus materials is forthcoming. Since its showing at the festivals, the film has been updated to reflect Chicago’s long overdue 2016 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Now More Than Ever transcends the genre of rock documentaries. Most importantly, the film retains focus on why their story is important and compelling: the quality of Chicago’s entire catalog of music and their bond as a band of brothers. Peter Pardini brought a refreshing perspective to documenting Chicago’s history on screen. He is the nephew of Chicago’s keyboardist and vocalist Lou Pardini and has worked with the band on projects for the past five years. Chicago’s sound engineer Tim Jessup took the film from the theater to our living rooms by mixing it in stereo specifically for the CNN Films broadcast. Those who saw it at the festivals were treated to the full 5.1 surround sound mix, and it is hoped that the 5.1 mix will be available when the film is released on disc so audiophiles can hear the soundtrack as it sounded in theaters.
A culmination of three and one-half years of work by a dedicated team pays off in a forever endearing and glorious ride through the history of a great American rock band. The editing of the vintage footage, a perfectly paced narrative, and recreations elevate the film to cinematic grace. Pardini’s possesses a delicate sense of perspective, creating the effect of the viewer as a fly-on-the-wall for the most iconic and prescient moments: the lights on the piano keys symbolizing Jimmy Pankow’s divine inspiration leading to Just You ‘N’ Me and the “flashing lights” of Robert Lamm’s 25 or 6 to 4. The use of the chimes from Fancy Colours as a harbinger and symbol of their most difficult moments throughout the film was truly clever.
From Robert Lamm, Jimmy Pankow, Walter Parazaider, and (especially) Lee Loughnane, we see their honest emotions, their humor, their strength as people who have been tested and came out stronger, and, in the end, the grace of their years is touching. It is now forever impossible to call them a band without a face. The 1960s and 1970s are a time often clouded in a mist of nostalgia, but though the clarity of hindsight and maturity, an unvarnished picture emerges from their remembrances. Robert Lamm breaks down the myth of Caribou Ranch. It was the “devil’s playground” in his words, not really a creative community but an isolated and hedonistic milieu that was a “recipe for disaster.” Robert also emphasized how they navigated a changing culture throughout the decades, and by extension the sheer impossibility of the band and music staying the same.
Chicago always spoke to me across time, dusty records found in old crates and at tag sales, intriguing because their music was so unlike anything else I had heard and yet unknowable because there was so little of substance written about them before the digital age. My experience as someone two generations removed from the classic era of Chicago meant that most of their history is new to me. It was a different time when they were a young band, when music was a social experience and Chicago Transit Authority spread via word of mouth and FM radio on campuses, the old school version of “going viral.” I was thrilled with the additional insight into Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon, “a series of classical movement sewn together” in Jimmy’s words, all the movements except Colour My World originally conceived with Baroque titles. I can also imagine all the inspiring words in Robert Lamm’s lyric book that maybe never made it to record. Lee’s early feelings, fearing fame and feeling inadequate as compared to his bandmates, tells something about his current drive and dedication to his trumpet and also about the quality of music for which Chicago has always been known. Yet, with all the romanticism of the past, I felt a sense of admiration for the men they are now.
Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago is a compelling lesson in talent, ambition, adaptation, group dynamics, hardship and terrible loss. Out of one tragedy comes an affirmation of life, and that is the grace of the men who carry on the legacy of their brother Terry Kath. Ultimately, Chicago’s story is one of perseverance and rebirth. It would be ever more heartwarming should this film introduce another generation to Chicago’s artistry and break down the misconceptions of them as merely a ballad band or something belonging to your parents. With the wide reach of CNN, that transmission has surely happened already. I wholeheartedly recommend this film to fans of all ages and also as an introduction to those beyond their loyal fanbase. Any musician will learn from their story what it takes to stay grounded in a musical vision while being dynamic and flexible at the same time.
Congratulations to Peter Pardini, Chicago’s wunderkind filmmaker, for letting this story tell itself and creating a comprehensive and exhilarating historical overview in one gorgeous film. Thank you Lee, Robert, Jimmy, and Walter for your wisdom, for dedicating yourselves to the music you share with us, and all the sacrifices it entails. In the end, we learned the story from the only people qualified to tell it, Chicago themselves. While recording the Chicago Transit Authority album, Walter said, “this is gonna be forever.” Amen to that.
(John Honoré as Terry Kath. Photo courtesy of Peter Pardini.)
What does it mean to be a songwriter, to write an original song and lyrics? Before I was old enough to think about the answer to that question, I knew how it felt to be moved emotionally by a song’s words:
Does anybody really know what time it is?
Does anybody really care?
If so, I can’t imagine why
We’ve all got time enough to cry
I was in high school when I first heard Robert Lamm’s classic song from Chicago Transit Authority, Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? Like most teenagers, I was thinking ahead to the inevitability of my adult life, determined to avoid the predictable and boring. At the time, I did not know anything about Robert Lamm but took great comfort in his message as encouragement to be different, to take time out to think deeply and appreciate art of all forms. My high school years overlap with the era of grunge and the heyday of MTV, yet I was taking solace from a song and album from 1969. Perhaps it is rare that a song that one relates to as a teenager continues to inspire, but in the end, Robert’s words express a mature sentiment.
Robert Lamm is a truly intelligent songwriter with an amazingly diverse catalog of songs ranging from the profound to the joyous, sometimes in the same tune. Mr. Lamm’s more recent compositions are just as urgent and relevant as his classics. Chicago fans have heard him mature as a songwriter and superlative lyricist, throughout his career remaining a dynamic and relevant artist who also keeps his ear open to talent (who might go unrecognized by the mainstream) with whom to collaborate. His contributions to Chicago’s albums have helped ensure that they are much more than just a classic rock or catalog band. His songs, never formulaic, are relevant in the present, not just nostalgia.
Chicago’s most recent studio album, Now (XXXVI), showed all of us that Mr. Lamm is still unafraid to comment on issues larger than ourselves. Naked In The Garden Of Allah (co-written with Hank Linderman), about recent American actions in the Middle East, ranks with the best of his topical songs. The term “protest song” does not adequately describe this song or his other socially conscious tunes. Instead of being simply divisive or opinionated, the tone is one of collective introspection. His use of the first person “we” is especially powerful. The second verse shows the contradictions of our times, that no complex issues can ever be boiled down to simplicity:
We are children
We are discontent
We are fatal
We are broken
We are impotent
We are lost
Naked In The Garden Of Allah is also musically daring, bringing out intensity of the original Chicago Horns who play a series of fierce triplets and sixteenth notes. The arrangement also features an evocative Middle Eastern-inflected fiddle, by John McFee of The Doobie Brothers, and gives the song a texture that was different on a Chicago album.
In the early 90s, Robert contributed Sleeping in the Middle of the Bed (co-written with John McCurry) to Chicago’s Stone of Sisyphus (XXXII) album, ultimately released by Rhino Records in 2008. The impromptu rap vocal added a force and spirit that completely suited the lyrics. The progressive hard rock vibe brought an updated faithfulness to the idea that Chicago as a band would express the urban roots of the city for which it is named. The New York City connection, the place of Robert’s birth and childhood, is also made with samples from the proto-hip hop group The Last Poets.
Another stand out track on Stone of Sisyphus is Robert’s song, All The Years (co-written with Bruce Gaitsch), a reflective tune featuring samples of speeches by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Robert Kennedy which symbolize the great optimism of American society in the middle of the 20th century. As he says in the liner notes, the tune started out as personal but “then it kind of morphed into a bigger subject, the political landscape of the early 90s.” The hope expressed in the first part of the song gives way to an ominous mood, followed by the chant from the chaos outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, “the whole world’s watching,” a symbol of the collapse of the collective forward momentum of society. Of course, this chant is heard on Chicago Transit Authority as well. These types of contradictions show up repeatedly in Mr. Lamm’s songwriting, a subtlety that sets him apart from some other topical songwriters. The most poignant lines of All The Years make me feel that all the dreams have certainly not died:
I’ve spent my life believing,
It would not end this way
These songs from Chicago’s more modern eras are among my personal favorites, and I’d argue some of his most creative. Going back to the beginning of Chicago’s history, it should be noted that Robert Lamm wrote or co-wrote about half of the songs featured on their first five studio albums. Saturday in the Park from Chicago V was not only a chart hit and an enduring fan favorite, but it is also a wonderfully visual song. Robert’s vivid imagery brings to life the scenes in Central Park that inspired his lyrics. The bridge of the tune will always be sentimental:
Slow motion riders fly the colours of the day
A bronze man still can tell stories his own way
Listen children all is not lost
All is not lost, oh no no
As with Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?, I was just a teen when I first heard Saturday In The Park, another tune that provided solace in the early 1990s when the mainstream culture espoused a fair amount of soullessness and cynicism. Yet, I truly believed that all was not lost, that the optimism of a previous generation shone through in Chicago’s words and music. Robert wrote all but two songs on their fourth studio album, Chicago V. The opening track on V, A Hit By Varese, was a reference to Edgard Varese (1883-1965), a composer who redefined the frontier between noise, sound, and music. The lyrics illustrates the ethos of Robert Lamm and Chicago as musicians:
Can you play free, or in three, or agree to attempt something new?
Chicago did all three of those things, and more. This is another Robert Lamm tune that provides a platform for the Chicago Horns to solo and play off of each other, their improvisations all reflecting the sentiment of freedom expressed in the words.
It would be fitting if Robert Lamm and James Pankow were recognized by their peers and inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame as members of Chicago. As we contemplate their upcoming 50th year as a band, I am grateful that Robert Lamm continues his songwriting and bravery as an artist, with his band brothers by his side. Astute fans also know that Robert Lamm’s solo albums, all of them very different, contain not only more of his original songs, but also adventurous arrangements and progressive production values. In the end, this one fan is thankful for his lifetime of compositions, his endlessly inspiring spirit and optimism.
(This photo of Robert Lamm was taken by the renowned photographer Harry Langdon, Jr. I merely purchased the negative. Please comment if you can date it.)
(A recording session posted by Chicago: Jimmy Pankow, Walter Parazaider, and Lee Loughnane recording their parts for Naked In The Garden Of Allah, overseen by Hank Linderman, producer and arranger, and Robert Lamm. I agree with Jimmy about the chops!)
Every time Chicago plays “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon” live onstage, the audience is treated to hearing a rock masterpiece that is much more than just a collection of songs or a medley. It is a fully formed, seven movement, rock suite. Certainly, it is a lot of fun, and maybe that hides the complexities underneath, but understanding the musicality of Jimmy Pankow’s composition adds to truly appreciating his songwriting and the brilliance of Chicago’s repertoire. Originally recorded in 1969 and taking up most of the second side of Chicago II, Ballet represents a synthesis of the classical tradition combined with the relevance of rock and the virtuosity of jazz. While it would take a music professional, which I am not, to fully explain the theory behind Ballet, even an average Chicago fan and hobbyist musician can begin to appreciate it.
It is amusing that even in the 1970s fans called out for the band to play “Make Me Smile.” A single was released consisting of an edit of the first movement, with part of the final movement tacked on, all reduced to 3:00 minutes. While this provided young Chicago some exposure on radio in 1970, Ballet is best appreciated when heard in its entirety. In order, the movements are: Make Me Smile; So Much To Say, So Much To Give; Anxiety’s Moment; West Virginia Fantasies; Colour My World; To Be Free; and Now More Than Ever. Fast forward to the 21st century, in our era of short attention spans, Chicago still plays Ballet in their live shows, clocking in at almost 13 minutes long, to the delight of large audiences. Clearly, Ballet has become a fan favorite as a unified suite, sounding just as urgent and passionate now as it did during their classic era.
The first question to understanding Ballet is defining “suite.” A textbook definition is a good place to start. A suite is defined as a composition “made up of a number of movements, each like a dance and all the same key or related keys.” (1) Suites originated in France in prototypical form and reached their apex in Germany during the Baroque era of the 17th century. The tempos of the movements quickened and slowed to give the dancers variety. Jimmy’s main inspiration from the Baroque era was Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. In the liner notes to Claude Bolling’s “Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano” (a very sweet album), Bobby Finn wrote about the “great fluctuation of mood within the movements” and the “constant dialogue between the jazz and classical elements which seem to fight, to interrupt, to stimulate, to mimic, and even to embrace each other.” It is easy to also think of Ballet with this description. Jimmy’s own invention and synthesis could be recognizable across the centuries if Bach could attend a Chicago concert or listen to Chicago II.
Each movement in a suite is enhanced by the contrasting movements around it, the beauty and grace of Colour My World are made more wonderful by the intricacy and complexity of West Virginia Fantasies. Each of the movements has its own feel and identity, the whole bigger than the sum of its parts because of the contrasts and relationships. In Baroque style, movements may have changes between complementary keys. In this rock suite, key changes are handled in more than one way. Sometimes they are modulations using pivot chords (a chord that is found in both keys) or the key changes using measures with no chords as transitions. Time signature changes abound as well, a characteristic feature of many Chicago tunes. This constant dynamism of key, tempo, time signature, and texture, provides an energy that keeps ears perked and blood racing, something that everyone can feel whether or not one has any background in music theory. In essence, Jimmy makes his challenging composition accessible to a very wide audience without compromising what is complex and technical.
In Make Me Smile alone, we hear three different keys. The introduction is in the key of Ab, modulating to C minor after the chord of Absus4 acts as a pivot chord. The key shifts again to E minor in the B section. Terry’s guitar solo in this section kicks off with a fiery 16th note riff that is something that jazz fans might recognize as originating as a classic horn riff, similar to Lee Morgan’s trumpet solo in Moanin’ by the Jazz Messengers. The key changes again for the last four measures, back to Eb to segue into So Much To Say, So Much To Give. In this transition between the first two movements, the woodwinds and brass give the mood a rather forlorn quality. This second movement of the suite features Robert Lamm’s only lead vocal in the suite, his excellent performance perfectly capturing the impassioned plea of the lyrics. Throughout Ballet, the vocals and instruments express a full range of human emotion through music, perfectly symbolic considering the theme and subject of the suite.
The next two movements, Anxiety’s Moment and West Virginia Fantasies together form a mid section of the suite. The communion between Lee Loughnane’s trumpet and Walter Parazaider’s flute in West Virginia Fantasies holds a uniqueness not just in Chicago’s repertoire but in rock and roll overall. Their perfect execution exposes their formal training at DePaul University and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Lee trained on trumpet with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and Walter was a clarinet protege of the CSO’s clarinetist Jerome Stowell. (I do wonder if Lee learned his valve vibrato on his own or from one of his professors!) When Walter comes in on flute, he’s playing in harmony with Lee; then their parts diverge into counterpoint, two independent melodic lines. This approach is echoed by Terry Kath’s guitar and Robert’s organ in the next section of the movement. Writing for a band such as Chicago, a veritable rock orchestra, surely must have opened up the possibilities of what the writers, particularly Jimmy and Robert, could put on paper. Not only did a composition this technical have to be executed in the studio but on stage as well, and Ballet is no mere jam session.
The transition to Colour My World is a dramatic one. The tempo is taken down, the time signature shifts to a triplet feel in 12/8, and the change from brass and woodwinds to a simple acoustic piano provides for a beautiful shock. Again, Jimmy’s training and instincts as a writer inform the modulation to the key of F with C7 as the pivot chord between the last measures of West Virginia Fantasies to the opening arpeggio of Fmaj7. The arpeggios flow over unexpected changes inside and outside the key. Jimmy further proves his gift for melody with his direction of the flute solo, quite different from Walter’s own sometimes avant-garde style even though it is one of his most famous solos. Still, Walter brings his own warm, breathy tone and expressiveness directly from the soul. As a whole, Colour My World, often unfairly characterized as maudlin, is sophisticated pop perfection.
The suite finishes with the grand finale of To Be Free and Now More Than Ever, featuring the highly rhythmic strumming that is quintessentially Terry Kath, the horns blowing full bore, showing just how wedded Jimmy’s horn arrangements are to the essential melodies and identities of the tunes. Now More Than Ever reprises Make Me Smile, acting as a bookend and building to a jubilant conclusion. For the final measures, Jimmy’s trombone appropriately takes the fore in a proudly accented solo, a grand finale of his epic composition.
There are some truly great songwriters already in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. If James Pankow (and Robert Lamm) are inducted this year, the Song Hall would then include the composer of a very unique work, a rock and roll era suite with no regard to the conventional formulas of songwriting, transcending any unnatural boundaries of genre or musical era. These are the songwriting ethos that makes Jimmy Pankow and Chicago so valued by their peers and fans alike.
Chicago VII, originally a two-record set released in March 1974, contains an amazingly diverse kaleidoscope of styles with some of the best sounds that made the classic era of Chicago so great, including musically free and jamming moments next to some now timeless radio-friendly classics. Like all albums, VII is just one snapshot of where they were as a band, at one moment in time, but it deserves fresh reconsideration as an artistic and sonic statement. The new Rhino Record’s Quadio boxed set provides the perfect time for a new evaluation. So, what is VII’s place in Chicago’s canon?
I hadn’t been born yet, but I imagine that if I had been a young person in 1974, I would have felt a huge amount of anticipation for VII. Chicago V and VI were the first two Chicago albums to be single LPs. Both focused more on the craft of songwriting, with some mighty fine vocals and horn arrangements, rather than the extended solos found on their earlier works. V is one of my favorites, and VI is an album I have come to appreciate more recently (see previous essay). With VII there was a great deal of build up upon its release. In an article from the April 1973 edition of Circus Raves magazine, “Chicago VII: Inside the FM Experiment,” Jimmy Pankow told the reporter that “it was time to concentrate on complex things as well as melodious stuff.” Some fans had heard the complex direction well before VII’s release when Aire was added to the setlist in 1973.
This new Blu-ray reveals the full beauty of these recordings, and the Quad mix is, in my opinion, the most wonderful way to enjoy the first two sides. One could consider the first side, including Prelude To Aire, Aire, and Devil’s Sweet, to be its own suite. The tunes flow together with compliments and contrasts. The Quad mix on the first two tunes is lighter and clears up some muddiness, allowing the flute, brass, and electric piano to sound clearer and more discernible in the mix. Another highlight, Terry Kath’s blazingly fast and articulate guitar solo on Aire is even more appreciated due to the cleaner tone on the Quad mix. The wind instruments breathe! Listening to my vintage vinyl copy of VII, I never considered the mix to be anything by fantastic, but now hearing the Master Stereo and Quad mixes side-by-side on this brand new disc provides the contrast between the two.
Another ear-opener, the keyboards are also noticeably louder in the Quad mix. The different panning helped a lot. It felt like hearing for the first time all the great work on keys here, a great live feel. The tones of the analog synthesizers (a Fender Rhodes, an ARP, and a Mellotron are all used on VII) show why musicians are still interested in these neat vintage keyboards. Prelude to Aire features Robert Lamm playing a Beatlesque bassline on a Mellotron, and with Walter Parazaider on flute, it makes me remember the first time I heard it and wondering if it really was Chicago, beyond impressive.
Devil’s Sweet also features a considerable different mix in Quad as compared to Master Stereo. Kicked off by Walter’s soprano saxophone, he continued his embrace of this skinny horn. His fury of notes brings to mind the truth and intensity of other great woodwind players, like Coltrane, who also returned the soprano to prominence during this era. The tune settles down to a brassy and beautiful melody with Lee Loughnane’s trumpet and Jimmy Pankow’s trombone playing with great spirit and virtuosity in unison. Guest artist David “Hawk” Wolinski, then a member of Madura, a band who toured with Chicago and also recorded at Caribou Ranch, played the ARP synth on this track. The Quad mix lightens up on the ambient feel of the Stereo mix, less heavy on the percussion, and the whole mix continues the brighter and cleaner sound.
Side two also takes on the feeling of a suite. Robert’s keyboard work on the ARP and Fender Rhodes on Italian From New York show the contrast between his classical piano training and how he adapted to instruments like some of these synths that were not designed to be played like pianos. His comping meshes perfectly with the brass. Terry’s mid-rangey vowely guitar tone compliments the analog keyboards. On Hanky Panky, Jimmy’s trombone in the Quad mix has a fair amount of ambience, a sense of space, in contrast to the rather dry presence of the stereo mix. Personal preference will dictate which mix one prefers on this tune. Life Saver’s Quad mix tones down a lot of the harsh high end found in the Stereo mix. Side two ends with Happy Man, a jazzy and beautiful ballad by Peter Cetera and a perfect segue to the different character of the rest of the album. Lee has sang it with loads of convincing soul in concert in recent years. In all, the first record of VII is impossible to categorize. The jazz roots show but it is uniquely Chicago.
If the first two sides of Chicago VII present us with some of the most avant-garde music of their careers, the second record starts off with a slow and introspective ballad, all sweetened with orchestration. It is, of course, Jimmy’s song (I’ve Been) Searchin’ So Long. This is a good time to mention that Jimmy and Robert are both nominated for the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame this year, well deserved! Jimmy’s vocal on the verses, answering the lead vocal, provides a husky foil for Cetera’s pretty tenor and in retrospect foreshadows Jimmy’s later lead vocals. Searchin’ is another moment that makes me feel very glad that I invested in the Quadio set. There are so many different instruments and textures here that the Quad mix makes all the difference. Terry’s Binson Echorec was responsible for that under-watery sound all over this record. Also, just listen to the cello come alive in quad. Jimmie Haskell, who had an illustrious career, arranged the strings. With the brass arrangement, it is a golden combination. Searchin’ reached #9 on the pop charts, and VII attained Gold status a week after its release!
Surprisingly, I prefer the Master Stereo mixes for most of sides three and four. We should remember that Rhino has remastered the original Quad mixes rather than remixing them. Mongonucleosis puts the spotlight on Lee’s trumpet, a fan favorite and setlist staple to this day. The Master Stereo mix captures the intensity of the performance. Lee also takes his first lead vocal on a Chicago album with a song Terry wrote, Song of The Evergreens, a poetic song full of imagery inspired by their time at Caribou Ranch. Lee also makes his songwriting debut with the beautiful and melodic Latin-tinged Call On Me, making it to #5 on the pop and #1 on the adult contemporary charts.
Terry’s charming story song, Byblos, gives us an opportunity to hear this master of the electric guitar in an unplugged song. The Master Stereo mix shows how nicely the acoustic guitars were recorded and mixed. As a long time fan of The Beach Boys (my first Chicago show was with them in 1989), I was amazed at the combination of voices from both bands when I first heard Wishing You Were Here, a coming together of the urban Chicago with the epitome of the suburban southern California sound. That feeling of wonder has never worn off. The mixes are substantially different, both lovely in their own way. The Master Stereo mix retains all the lushness, while the Quad mix has a more minimalist and organic feel. Do listen up for Carl and Dennis Wilson’s vocals mixed up in Quad.
Ending Chicago VII are two truly funky Robert Lamm-penned tunes. Jimmy’s brass arrangement on Women Don’t Want To Love Me shows of the energy and dynamics of the Chicago brass. Robert’s Skinny Boy, featuring The Pointer Sisters on backing vocals, features his fiery vocal and syncopated comping with brass accents. This song (without the horns) became the title track of his first solo album also released in 1974.
VII is one of my favorite Chicago albums, The first two sides show the creativity of a band who dared to take risks, experiment with new sounds, and play their hearts out. Their underground status evolved into something greater. At the same time, they responded to the demands of the music business with very marketable songs, not that they sat down to write hits. Rather, they wrote personal songs that were well-crafted and sincere. Radio and their audience responded. Many moments on VII are forever enshrined as being among Walter Parazaider’s finest moments, and for that I am thankful. Admittedly, I am incredibly jealous of everyone who was lucky enough to hear him play Aire live, perhaps the most beautiful instrumental in Chicago’s canon. Chicago VII showed Chicago’s capacity to adapt to change, a trait that has lasted to this present day. This Blu-ray give us a definitive way to listen to Chicago VII and is my favorite piece of the Quadio boxed set.
(The gatefold of VII. Their second album recorded at Caribou Ranch.)
In our current era of hyper visuals and social media, would Rahsaan Roland Kirk, striking in his onstage persona with multiple woodwinds and assorted whistles hanging around his neck, have been more accepted than he was during his lifetime in the middle of the twentieth century? Maybe. Kirk was not the first to play multiple woodwinds simultaneously, but it is his life and music that has attracted new attention, discovered by a new generation fascinated and influenced by his unorthodox style. Recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, Rahsaan Roland Kirk: The Case of The Three Sided Dream, a documentary film by Adam Kahan, provides a very entertaining and invaluable look at a small slice of his life and career.
Kahan’s film is made up of interviews with Kirk’s family, friends, and bandmates; a small selection of televised performances; and original animated segments. Interspersed between the live action, the colorful and lively animations are charming, embracing a visual style somewhere between School House Rock and Yellow Submarine. This is a mostly uplifting film. Refreshingly, its production style does not pander to the hyperactive or inattentive. Although Kirk’s life was cut short by natural causes, there is no overarching tragedy to portray (unlike the subjects of other documentaries that will be reviewed here in the future), leaving Kahan free to indulge in a whimsical style appropriate to his charismatic subject.
Much of the discussion around Kirk’s legacy in jazz, or as he would call the genre, Black Classical Music, concerns whether or not one must downplay the visual spectacle of Kirk to appreciate his musical contributions. The documentary argues correctly that it was not a zero sum game between the visual and the sonic elements. Kirk sought attention not as a gimmick, as some critics claimed, a term Kirk reviled, but rather because of his child-like embrace of showmanship. The footage from his performances exude his infectious spirit.
He was an artist who sincerely embraced the idea that music was a way to move people emotionally. As a young boy Kirk turned a garden hose into a trumpet, reminding me of a six year old student banging a stick against a light post while proclaiming that you can make music with anything. Perfecting the circular breathing technique, Kirk embraced the musical equivalent of a stream-of-consciousness literary point of view. Not needing to pause for a breath, he was free to blow with uninterrupted improvisational invention. Along with Kirk’s emotional impulse was his innovation on woodwinds either together or singularly. Playing multiple instruments at the same time allowed him to explore new frontiers harmonically and melodically. He was a reed section “all together in one mouth,” also credited with creating “a brand new linear category on the saxophone.” I was particularly thrilled with the clips of him playing old school jazz on the clarinet.
Kirk’s life off-stage, shown in glimpses from home movies, portray a devoted family man, well-adjusted despite being blinded as an infant by a nurse’s negligence. Some episodes in his life evoke not just sympathy but one also feels the injustice of the treatment of man with many targets upon him: creative, disabled, proudly Black. He suffered a stroke at age thirty-nine and was left partially paralyzed. Yet, he made a comeback, using instruments modified so he could play them one-handed, before passing away in 1977 at the young age of forty-two. Most of all, the main impulse for his life was not bitterness but an intrinsic love of sounds and expression in music. Kirk was attuned to sounds both ecological and anthropomorphic, a classic example of how being deprived of one sense heightens another.
Prior to recording under his own name, Kirk played with Charles Mingus. Unfortunately, Kahan skips over the Mingus years, focusing instead on his time recording and gigging under his own name. Fans must scour for other sources to fill in the blanks. His early career was appreciated by writer Barry McRae who astutely chronicled this era in some detail his 1967 text, The Jazz Cataclysm. It is heartening that McRae, a writer contemporary to Kirk, described him as a “brilliant soloist whose playing is full of humanity, humour and the vital reality that distinguishes the finest players.” This humanity is what attracts me to Kirk’s music and the factor that most explains the renewed interest in his life. Kirk was someone who learned the formal rules of music and theory, then felt free enough to disregard them.
Other contemporaries appreciated Kirk as well. Walter Parazaider of Chicago, trained in classical clarinet before his vision of a rock band with horns came to fruition, has stated that he was a fan of Kirk’s and took a similarly heartfelt approach on saxophone and flute, boldly experimenting with free styles and injecting his own humor and showmanship at the right times too. Younger enthusiasts include guitarists Derek Trucks who recorded his own version of Kirk’s “Volunteered Slavery” and saxophonist Jeff Coffin who can play both alto and tenor simultaneously.
Looking at Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s legacy from a twenty-first century lens, I think Kirk would share in the disappointment that Black music and Black artists are underrepresented in the Americana or American Roots Music genre. The moniker of Black Classical Music had nothing to do with comparing it to European classic traditional. Instead, Kirk believed that Black musical traditions were rooted in the American experience. If the cerebral nature of post-swing jazz created a rift between it and roots music, Kirk did all he could to bring it back to those roots. Before viewing the film, I was unaware of Kirk’s activism and foundation of The Jazz and People’s Movement which took direct action to get more Black music and artists on television. Fast forward a few decades, the Americana scene is strangely made up mostly of white artists.
As someone fully enchanting by Kirk’s music in retrospect, I truly wish for a comprehensive and earnest biography of his life and career. Ultimately, The Case of the Three Sided Dream doesn’t give us that full picture. The film is, however, a heartfelt tribute. The joy Kirk brought to the stage, as well as the tragic misunderstanding of his music and mission, reverberated throughout. It is a communion with the fragile humanity of a blind Black man who was never afraid to speak his mind in music or in words and deeds.
(Rahsaan and his assorted instruments in an undated photo.)