Interview with Tim Jessup, Mix Engineer of Chicago Live at Isle of Wight on VI Decades Live. By: Stephanie L. Carta

Tim Jessup brings over four decades of experience in recording, mixing, and sound design in music production, film, and television to his work with Chicago. His latest project is a complete restoration and original mix of their two-disc set at Isle of Wight, originally recorded in 1970 and mixed by Jessup in 2017. This live set is the earliest commercially-available live recording of the band, released by Rhino Records as part of their VI Decades Live boxed set, a full review forthcoming on this site.   

Tim Jessup at Chicago_Film Festival
Tim Jessup at the Sedona International Film Festival, 2016. Photo by Mark Short.

Stephanie: Many in the recording community and Chicago fans are familiar with your work with the band as the sound designer of the film, Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago and your innovation in building their first mobile recording studio known as “The Rig” used for their 2014 album, Now (XXXVI). How did you start working with Chicago?

Tim: Lee Loughnane (trumpet) had moved his family to our little town of Sedona, Arizona, in 2010. At the time, Chicago was finishing a concert DVD/Blu-Ray titled Chicago in Chicago, featuring the Doobie Brothers. Management wanted Lee to fly to LA to oversee the 5.1 mix for the concert film. As recent personnel changes in the band have demonstrated, it’s very hard on a family when the bread winner is on the road nine to ten months out of every year. Lee was home between tours and asked management to find someone here in Sedona who could provide 5.1 mixing services so he would not have to be away from his family. Long story short, they asked me to mix the project, but I would have only five days to mix the entire 26 song set before delivery. I told Lee that it was likely not possible to properly mix 26 songs in only five days and that they would probably be wasting their money to try. Lee was willing to roll the dice and asked me if I’d be willing to give it my best try. I literally did not sleep for five days, editing and mixing continuously right up to the manufacturing deadline. It was a Herculean feat, but we made it. No one died, and everyone was relieved and happy with the results. It reminded me of my early days as a staff engineer at Kendun Recorders in Burbank when I would not leave the studio for three days at a time. It develops an obsessive work ethic that you never forsake.

Stephanie: I also understand that you were able to personally witness a Chicago show at Saratoga Performing Arts Center in 1971. How did that experience shape your life as a young musician and your understanding of their musical direction?

Tim: I was a mere 14 year old pup in 1971. Chicago was actually the first real rock concert I had ever experienced, though I had been playing guitar in local garage bands since the age of 11. You never forget your first rock concert, especially with the huge sound of Chicago. Terry Kath’s fiery, mind-boggling solos, Peter Cetera’s stratospheric vocals, Robert Lamm’s smokin’ B3 playing, Danny Seraphine’s off-the-hook drumming, and that slamming horn section, it was inspirational in every way possible! I had already been sent well down the path of spending my life in music when I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in February of 1964, eating and breathing nothing but the Fab Four throughout the next 6 years, but hearing Chicago live in ‘71 showed me that there was a lot more to it. Their complex arrangements and masterful performances made it plain that I had a lot to learn and much to master. I used to spend many hours listening to and analyzing CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) and Chicago II on headphones. Those mixes became such a part of my DNA that 47 years later I never need to reference them to mix live Chicago recordings.

Stephanie: Fast forward to the fall of last year, Lee Loughnane approached you with a new project, mixing their show from the Isle of Wight, a festival that is often called “Britain’s Woodstock.” Rolling Stone reported at the time that “the piercing brass of Chicago started the campfires on Devastation Hill,” a reference to a colorful campsite just outside the official festival grounds. What was your initial impression about mixing such a historic piece of music history?

Tim: My initial impression was that the Isle of Wight project would likely never be mixed again, and that I would have but only one chance to get it right for all time! The band had considered mixing and releasing the show nearly 20 years ago and chose not to, because of the poor quality of the recording. So why now, what had changed? In a word, everything.

Very powerful and effective restoration tools have evolved recently, such as iZotope’s RX software, that can accomplish what was simply impossible 20 years ago. Even with such powerful tools and mega computer automation, I knew that Isle of Wight would present serious challenges and require innovative techniques to draw out a mix that both the band and the fans would care to lavish in. From the outset, I believed it could be accomplished, but I also knew it would be rife with unknown challenges, demanding solutions that I had yet to envision. Those who have collected bootleg recordings of the IOW show know to what I am referring. In hindsight, there is no way I could have predicted some of the challenges encountered or what it would take to solve them. I re-mixed the entire show five times to bring it to its ultimate fruition, using eight different pairs of monitors, wrestling to get the mix to translate properly on a wide array of home speakers. The final mix was created after (mastering engineer) Dave Donnelly took his first mastering pass at it. We were obsessive about getting it right.

Stephanie: Many have wondered why more archival live shows from Chicago and other legacy artists are still “in the vaults” so to speak. The Allman Brothers and Neil Young are two contemporaries to Chicago who have different models of successfully opening their archives. It’s a chicken and egg question but what came first, the technology (hardware and software) to restore flawed archival recordings or the demands of the market and fans to release them?

Tim: There have long been rumors circulating that there is a “vault” filled with unreleased Chicago recordings. In my experience and conversations with the guys, this is simply not the case. When Rhino Records bought the Chicago catalog, they went through everything that existed on tape, organizing and identifying everything. The simple fact is, Chicago was way too busy touring all of those years to be very conscious about documenting everything on tape. When Peter Pardini was producing the documentary film, he had a very hard time finding anything that existed on old films or video. Thank God, Jimmy (Pankow) had kept some old 8mm film from the early days, but there just isn’t that much material to be found. It was a regret of various band members that there wasn’t more archival material to use in the film. This is why the new Rhino release of Chicago: VI Decades Live is so important. These are truly rare recordings.  

But to complete my answer, archival material has a tendency to be embarrassing to recording artists, whether it is due to a poor recording, the performance, or both. So the factors dictating whether an artist is willing to release certain material publicly are going to be determined on an individual basis. An artist like Neil Young made it a priority to record and document most everything he did, and he has few qualms about releasing any of it. Other artists tend to be more judgmental about their historical body of work. The good news is that the technology does finally exist to resurrect archival recordings that were once considered “not commercially viable.” Chicago’s Isle of Wight mix is a perfect example of this. The technology itself has migrated over from the film industry, and has been used for many years to clean up bad audio and noisy dialogue. Music mixers are really just starting to catch on to the miracles of iZotope’s RX software. But software such as this will now make it possible to bring forth many more archival recordings that were once considered “unreleasable.”

Stephanie: The young crew from Pye Records and their mobile recording studio are credited with recording the festival, overseen by the CBS team of engineer Stanley Tonkel and producer Teo Macero. Since CBS didn’t initially release this recording in the early 1970s, you’ve essentially picked up on work started 48 years ago. What was the condition of the source tape that came from the archives of Warner Music Group?   

Tim: The show came to us on four reels of one-inch 8-track tape. Physically, they were in great shape. Normally, tapes that are newer than 1972 have a back coating that becomes brittle and sheds badly over time. These tapes must be baked to re-adhere the back coating before they can be safely played. The Isle of Wight tapes from 1970 had no back coating and played beautifully. Magnetic print-through, an echo imparted from adjacent layers of tape after long-term storage, was also not an issue. From the tape box labels, it appeared they had been copied at Back Pocket Recording Studios in New York, not long after the show. There was no way of knowing whether they had been transferred with the European CCIR (Consultative Committee on International Radio) Equalization curve, or the American NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) EQ curve. We had to play the tapes with each calibration curve to choose which one translated best. The CCIR curve has more of a high frequency roll-off, like a pseudo Dolby effect, so the tape hiss was quieter, and the tracks sounded warmer, punchier and fatter with the European curve, especially Danny’s drums and Terry’s guitar. Even if the NAB curve was correct, we preferred the sound of the CCIR curve and that is what we used.

iow-70-pye-c-up
Stanley Tonkel and Teo Macero, foreground, inside the Pye mobile studio at Isle of Wight, 1970. Photo courtesy of the Tonkel Estate and UK RockFestivals.com

Stephanie: I was pleasantly surprised that Chicago’s full set survived on tape. Initially, what were the most difficult challenges you knew had to be addressed back at your Sedona studio?

Tim: We discovered during the tape transfer that a few songs were missing entire sections. Apparently, the Pye Studio engineers had only one multi-track tape recorder on their remote truck, with no back-up machine running to catch entire songs when the tape ran out during the show. They were changing reels of tape when the band began to play Beginnings and lost the entire intro. and part of the first verse. Similarly, the tape ran out right in the middle of Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?, losing a full chorus and part of the following verse. It was fortunate that these were discovered at the time of the transfer because we also had the 2” 16 track reels from the 1971 Kennedy Center performance. As a back-up, we also transferred the missing parts of the Isle of Wight recording from the Kennedy Center show.

Back in Sedona, I created matching “grafts” for the missing parts. This was one of the most surgical operations of the entire mix process. The two shows sounded very different and Beginnings was played at almost half-speed during the Kennedy Center show; an issue that Jimmy (Pankow) addresses in the documentary film. I had to tempo match the two performances by using iZotope RX to Time Compress each of the 16 tracks until I found the perfect tempo match. It was pretty extreme and, most times, compression software creates really nasty artifacts when it’s pushed that hard. But RX was clean as a whistle, thankfully. Each track was also slightly pitch shifted to match Isle of Wight, even the drum tracks, so the leakage would remain in tune. Then began the task of matching each instrument’s sound between the two shows, though they were recorded with entirely different microphones, preamps, a different tape format (16 track vs 8 track), different guitars, different keyboards, and entirely different environments (outdoor rock festival vs indoor concert hall). I actually had to dumb down the Kennedy Center tracks and make them sound worse than they actually are to get them to match sonically. The grafts turned out to be very seamless and saved both Beginnings and Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?. Now both songs appear as complete recordings in the VI Decades Live compilation, though parts of them were never actually recorded at all at Isle of Wight. I view my role in all of this as that of a museum curator, preparing 10,000 year old broken Sumerian Cuneiform tablets for display. No one wants to pay good money to hear a partially recorded Chicago song. It was most fortunate that we had a very similar vintage recording of the band to save the day.

Stephanie: As you’ve explained to me previously, an important process in taking raw audio tracks from analog tape to be mixed digitally is the process of analog to digital conversion. How did you accomplish this conversion?

Tim: Typically, tape transfer facilities use standard digital audio interfaces to capture audio from analog tape. For instance, a stock Avid Pro Tools interface is commonly used, often synced to a high-end external digital clock. As I said earlier, I felt that we would have only one chance to get this right. For the Isle of Wight recording, I wanted to ensure we were getting a digital transfer that maintained all of the warmth and character of the original tapes. To ensure this result, I literally drove Chicago’s Pro Tools HD rig, along with our Burl Audio B-80 Mothership interface, from Sedona to Penguin Studios in Los Angeles to achieve the highest quality transfer possible. The Mothership would enable the digital files to sound indistinguishable from the original analog tapes. The interface is unique because it has a very robust over-built analog signal path, much like the Studer A827 tape recorder used for playback, with transformers on every input. Compared to most any other digital interface, the sonic difference is night and day. We mix through the B-80 interface in the studio, along with our Chandler replica of the EMI TG12345 console from Abbey Road, circa 1969, the same mix bus that brought us Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. This robust hybrid of world class vintage analog circuit design and the most powerful digital tools available were a perfect compliment for the tracks of Isle of Wight.

Stephanie: Moving into the deeper trenches of the mix, what were some of the other technical challenges you encountered with the recording and what unusual techniques were required to resolve them?

Tim: The first step in restoring any vintage recording is clean up, which was forensic in this case. Many of the tracks had 50 Hz hum embedded in the audio. This is usually easy to remove. However, the Isle of Wight stage, running 240 volts, had some severe ground loops that created particularly nasty buzzes, with up to 12 audible harmonic overtones. Each overtone had to be precisely identified and individually removed using a combination of iZotope’s RX software and Universal Audio’s Massenburg 48 bit parametric equalizer. The later is quite the fine surgical tool, and helped to identify each of the offending buzz harmonics for removal. The goal was to take out all of the buzz components without changing the tonality or character of the musical instruments, or introducing any strange artifacts into the recording. Earlier in the show, there were also problems with microphone feedback on stage, especially on Mother during James Pankow’s trombone solo. RX removed it entirely. I spent a full week just tracking down and deleting buzz harmonics, trial and error, listening for the effects on the instruments and later, removing tape hiss from all of the tracks. Each track was rendered perfectly pristine, throughout the entire show. I also discovered many clicks and pops that showed up as audio spikes across all eight tracks throughout the show. Using a Wacom Graphic Tablet and Pen, I would manually draw out each spike in the waveform on every track. Those ancient high school drafting classes really paid off here.

Stephanie: Specifically, did you use the spectral repair functions of iZotope’s RX software for removing extraneous noise leaking into the microphones? I imagine this technique is time-consuming.

Tim: Primarily, I used RX to remove very narrow and specific frequencies related to hum, buzz and all of its harmonic overtones, on-stage feedback, as well as tape hiss. It can be a very tricky business to remove a narrow frequency band without appreciably altering the character of the instrument. The spectral analysis shows you precisely where the band has been stripped out of a waveform, and just how narrow it actually is, but ultimately you have to use your ears, not your eyes. Removing extraneous leakage from on-stage microphones is much more of a broad stroke operation. It’s important to use the right tool for the job, and spectral editing to remove stage leakage would just not be practical. A more useful purpose would be something like removing an unwanted resonant ring from a snare drum track, or tightening up the echoey room ambiance from a hotel room interview.

Stephanie: All of the bootleg recordings of this show are very muddy and washed out. How did you manage to tighten up and isolate all of the instruments so well?

Tim: “Manage” is the operative word. I literally managed or deleted all of the microphone leakage on stage that was possible to remove or attenuate. For instance, all of the brass were recorded to only one of the eight tracks. When the horns are playing, the stage leakage is naturally masked by their close proximity to the mics. But during rests, or between notes, the leakage is very apparent and washes out the mix. I manually edited out all of the leakage, much like a noise gate with adjustable fades. When the brass are not playing, their track is silent. I did the same with the vocal mics, Robert’s keyboards, etc. Whenever instruments are not playing, their channel is muted.

Each track became a patchwork of play regions on the Pro Tools timeline. This type of editing is very extreme, and is generally not done on live recordings, but Isle of Wight required extreme solutions. The technique worked only because Danny’s drum overhead mics had mega leakage from everyone else on stage and this leakage provided masking for all of the other channel edits. The end result is a lot more isolation and detail on each instrument and vocal. This process also removed most of the natural stage ambiance, so I used a combination of sculpted digital reverbs and delays to recreate the natural sound of the stage ambiance and better control its balance against the instruments. Truly, my secret weapon is a fortune that I kept from a cookie acquired at some Chinese restaurant in the distant past. It reads “Genius is the ability to take infinite pains.” I really should frame that.

Stephanie: Ray Foulk, the original promoter of the Isle of Wight festival, claims that film footage of the entire festival exits, which is an interesting development. Yet, with only the photos released by Rhino and on fan sites devoted to the Isle of Wight festivals, we can see that the stage plot for Chicago varies from where the instruments are panned for your mix. In particular, it sounds like Jimmy is walking to the center of the stage for his solos, which is a great effect. Did you create a soundstage in your imagination, essentially melding the vintage configuration with the contemporary stage set up, and then mix accordingly?

Tim: My original mix of Isle of Wight (version 1) was actually much like I would mix the current band. I had stereoized the brass left and right, as well as Robert’s keys, with a stereo Leslie effect on his B3, and Terry Kath’s guitar was front and center. It was fun to listen to a modernized version of Isle of Wight, but it did not fit with the concept for the VI Decades Live box set. So it was decided to go with a vintage panning configuration that had been used on previous live Chicago recordings. The instrument’s pan positions were also chosen for how they establish the fundamental balance of the mix. Terry’s guitar is very beefy and produces a lot of low frequency energy, so he can hold up the entire left side of the mix. We needed a similar energy to balance that out on the right, so Robert’s keyboards balance Terry’s guitar on the right side. The kick drum, snare and Peter’s bass fill the middle, with the drum overheads spreading out the stereo field.

These elements create the general balance or scaffolding for the mix, distributing the energy relatively evenly. From there, the brass, solos and the vocals can sit anywhere on top of that foundation. I tried to strike a balance between the brass section sitting mid-right, yet not feeling too static, as if they never move. So, it made sense to have some of the solos take center stage on occasion. It makes the mix sound more alive and dynamic.

Stephanie: How would the soundstage we are hearing on your mix have differed from what the actual audience at Isle of Wight heard in person?

Tim: Ironically, the actual live mix at the Isle of Wight festival was very likely mono! Most live mixes were mono in 1970. On looking at photos of the band’s stage setup, if the mix were literally panned in stereo where the guys were standing on stage, the whole mix would feel whacked out of balance. The brass would be far left, with Robert Lamm just next to them, Terry Kath in the center, and the drums and bass would be way over on the right side. What is historically accurate does not necessarily translate into a well balanced mix.

Stephanie: I know you have a very deep knowledge of and experience in analog recording techniques and equipment. Your Sedona studio is equipped with many plug-ins that emulate those classic sounds. What technology did you employ on Isle of Wight?

Tim: I used both analog-modeled plug-ins and actual outboard analog processors. On the plug-in side of the equation, I have always strived to use tools that model the harmonic saturation, character and behavior of the classic processors heard on most hit records made over the past 50 years: Universal Audio’s emulations of the Neve 1073 EQ and preamp, SSL E channel, Urei 1176 compressors, Teletronix LA-2A, Pultec EQ, Oxford De-Esser, Neve 33609 stereo bus compressor, Slate Digital Virtual Console Collection, and the Slate Virtual Tape Machine. These kinds of plug-ins used to be essential to give digital audio a more familiar, warmer, analog sound.

However, due to our studio upgrades such as the Burl Audio Mothership interface, the Chandler summing mixers, combined with the actual analog tape source of Chicago’s Isle of Wight recording, the digital recording already sounded completely analog, and digital emulations would often provide too much “color” or harmonic saturation. So it was necessary to simplify the mix in terms of plug-in use, choosing more transparent processors like the Massenburg EQ or the Eiosis Air EQ, keeping it more organic.

Stephanie: Danny Seraphine’s drums sound amazing, and we hear details of his performance that are lost on other live recordings of this era. What is going on there?

Tim: If you’ve seen photos of the band on-stage during the Isle of Wight festival, you can see that there are only three microphones on Danny’s drum set: two overhead mics placed in a rather wonky “XY” pattern and a bass drum mic on a boom stand, raised up above the drum and placed roughly two feet in front of it. This is about the worst possible way to record a drum set live on stage. Therefore, Danny’s drums required more attention than anything else in the mix. I copied all of his tracks and gave the drums ten Pro Tools tracks. Three stereo pairs of overhead mics involved various degrees of parallel compression, blended with the uncompressed main stereo pair. One pair of overhead tracks were intensely “musically limited” by an outboard pair of vintage Inovonics 201 limiter-compressors. This device was a secret weapon of a handful of top engineers in LA during the 70’s and 80’s, such as Bruce Swedien who recorded Michael Jackson and one of my most esteemed mentors, Barney Perkins, the top Motown mixer of the day. Barney would not do a mix session without a pair of Inovonics 201s on hand, as they were an essential part of his unique fat sound.

Stephanie: Wow! You have some analog rack gear from the “old days” in Sedona that have become rare these days.

Tim: They’re not easy to find. We probably have the only three Inovonics in Arizona. I wish one of the plug-in manufacturers would build a software version, but it’s just not on their radar yet. It really was a well kept secret. The Inovonics 201 was originally invented as an early VCA style radio broadcast limiter, to keep live program content loud and even, like the later Orban Optimod limiter. But the 201 has a wonderful effect on drums and bass, making them fat and even, with a uniquely extended slap attack. The combination of four pairs of stereo overhead drum tracks, with the Inovonics as part of the blend, made the snare and toms actually sound close mic’d. But the kick drum still needed to be dealt with. This is where I made the first decision to go rogue from the budget and just do what needed to be done, though I would personally have to pay for this next adventure myself.

I spent five days carving up every single kick drum beat with the Wacom pen and graphic tablet, making each kick beat an individual Pro Tools region, isolating the kick beats from all other drum sounds and stage leakage. This enabled me to radically sculpt and compress the kick drum sound like a sample, and then blend it back into the linear, unedited kick drum track. The result had the effect of moving the microphone from two feet away from the drum, to placing it inside of the kick drum. The process increased the overall foundation of the mix 100-fold and brought out amazing detail in Danny’s foot work. At times, it sounds like he is playing a double kick drum set, but he’s doing it all with one foot. It was a painstaking process, an insane amount of detail work, but it was worth every one of the thousands of edits I made to achieve Danny’s forensically enhanced drum sound. After all, this mix is forever.

Stephanie: The recording industry today is increasingly mixing new releases to be optimized for streaming and download services such as Spotify and iTunes, which on the one hand increased the audience for this boxed set but might be unfortunate for some audiophiles who appreciate fidelity. With a set of Barefoot MM27s in your studio, how does this dual market reality affect your mixing?

Tim: It doesn’t. I mix to achieve the highest quality and greatest detail possible from the source material, equipment and software I have on hand. I was inspired by the work of the great engineers who came before me; such as Roger Nichols (Steely Dan), Phil Ramone (Chicago, Billy Joel), Chet Himes (Christopher Cross), Joe Chiccarelli (Frank Zappa, Elton John, U2, the White Stripes), Humberto Gatica (Chicago, Michael Jackson), Barney Perkins (DeBarge, Steely Dan, Dr. Strut) and Bruce Swedien (Quincy Jones, James Ingram, Michael Jackson). The list goes on. These men set precedents for the highest achievements in sound recording long before Pro Tools and audio streaming ever existed. Their achievements have yet to be surpassed in this digital age. I am honored to have worked alongside many of them in my days as a staff engineer.

Whenever I do a mix for Chicago, I am cognizant that I am standing in the shoes of Phil Ramone, and other great engineers. It falls to me to live up to their legacy and at least maintain the bar of excellence that they’ve set, while striving to raise it. Spotify and iTunes do not enter my consciousness at all, as I am mixing for a pure, jitter-free, uncompressed, high resolution digital file, or for vinyl. The streaming and download services do all they can to maintain that quality, but Bruce Swedien did not mix Michael Jackson to optimize for audio cassette. One of the requirements for that little “Mastered for iTunes” label, is that the compressed audio file must be derived from a 192 kHz, 24 Bit master.

Mixes are fickle things. Ideally, you want them to translate perfectly no matter how they are played. But if you mix for the highest possible listening scenario, streaming and compression techniques will yield the best sound they are capable of. Archival recordings like Chicago at Isle of Wight bring with them a unique set of challenges. Due to the radical limitations of the source material, the mixes sounded very different on different kinds of speakers. A modern, well recorded rock project will translate beautifully when mixed on the Barefoot MM27s. But as expensive and revered as these monitors are, they were not the right speakers to mix IOW on. It was a trial and error process of listening on up to eight different pairs of monitors, and getting feedback from band members, from the label folks, and from DNA Mastering, until I finally arrived at a mix that translated well on most anything. Sometimes it’s not always a straight path to that goal, but I think Isle of Wight will make a lot of people happy, whether they are streaming or listening to the CDs on a vintage McIntosh home stereo system.

Stephanie: From the photographs of the band onstage, we can see that Terry Kath was playing his Les Paul Professional, an unique guitar in the annals of Gibson history, through a Vox cabinet. Was one track dedicated to his guitar alone? How did you treat his guitar to sound so upfront as we are hearing on Isle of Wight?

Tim: Fortunately, yes, Terry Kath’s guitar was assigned to its own track. The Vox was a prominently mid-range forward speaker cabinet. On its own, it did not produce the beefy tone that Terry later became known for, nor did the Les Paul Professional have the bite of Terry’s later guitars, such as his infamous Pignose Telecaster. Given the importance of this recording to posterity and for the pure blissful enjoyment of Terry’s fans, an important decision needed to be made. It was a Giles Martin moment. What I mean is that there were moments when Giles was re-mixing the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album, that certain decisions had to be fretted over as to whether they would be considered sacrilegious, like panning the Beatles vocals to the center of the mix. I felt compelled to make Terry Kath’s guitar track sound a bit larger than life. In this mix, his guitar track has been re-amped through three separate guitar amplifiers, which are then blended back into his original Vox guitar track perfectly in phase. Amp number one is a vintage Music Man that came straight out of Chicago’s warehouse in LA, an amp that Terry likely played through at one time. Amp two is a vintage 1964 Ampeg flip-top B-15 bass amp, which provides a thick bottom end to his tone. Amp number three is Lee’s modern Egnator that normally lives in the studio. Guitarist Keith Howland has long used Egnators on stage with Chicago.

Stephanie: By “blended” did you initially make three additional Pro Tools tracks, one for each amp, and then bounce them into the original guitar track or did you keep the four guitar tracks separate?

Tim: Terry’s re-amped guitar parts are each on separate Pro Tools tracks, with their own individual processing. Once I arrived at the tonal balance that worked well, I grouped all four guitar tracks to lock in their balance and automate their levels as one guitar track. I don’t like to bounce tracks if I can avoid it. The four guitar tracks are then routed to a stereo pair of analog inputs on our Chandler summing mixers and panned to appear wider, filling out the left side of the mix, rather than emanating from a single point. The six guitar input transformers on both the Mothership interface, and the Chandler summing mixers also add a weighty, beefy character to Terry’s overall guitar sound, giving it more of an intimate studio character. It was a no compromise way to honor and memorialize Terry’s performance at the Isle of Wight festival.

Stephanie: What inspired using a mix of different amps for Terry’s guitar sound? Is there a precedent for this technique or your own innovation?

Tim: Stevie Ray Vaughan was known to record his guitar through up to 12 different amplifiers simultaneously in the studio, so Terry is in good company having his guitar sound layered through four amplifiers here. It really felt like a holy moment to hear Terry rocking loud and proud out of an actual guitar amp again! I had chills. The additional amplifiers were not used to add more overdrive or change Terry’s tone significantly, but only to beef up his recorded sound and add more presence to it. It’s akin to walking out into the studio and adjusting the guitar tone on his amplifier or moving a microphone, rather than reaching for an equalizer on the console. Engineering icon Al Schmitt has long preferred to move or change a microphone on an instrument, rather than use EQ at all. Re-amping Terry’s guitar was a similar organic process. It was like having him back in the studio for a few short hours and it gave me a much bigger guitar sound to work with. In addition, three separate 48-Bit Massenburg EQ plug-ins were used, each one corresponding to one of Terry’s three pick-up switch positions on his guitar. Whenever he switches his pick-ups during the show, a different EQ is engaged which is optimized to that particular switch configuration. All of his pick-up switching is automated in the mix.

Stephanie: Chicago is captured in this moment in time, in front of an audience of many hundreds of thousands, as a young and hungry band. On your mix, each vocalist has retained their character and urgency, despite the use of some substandard microphones that were common in 1970. How did you treat the vocal tracks for an authentic and emotive experience for today’s listeners?

Tim: All of the vocals were originally recorded to only two of the 8 tracks. I separated each vocalist and gave them two individual vocal tracks each, with their own unique signal processing and EQ. The harmony background vocals were also moved to a separate track and stereoized to emanate from both sides of the mix, surrounding the lead vocals in the center. This really helped to open up the vocals and give them much better definition and presence overall. I also used a lot of subtractive EQ on each vocal to remove unwanted or harsh frequencies inherent from the dynamic microphones. This tends to make funky inexpensive microphones sound a lot more expensive! A similar process was used on Robert Lamm’s keyboards, which were also combined onto a single track. All of his Hohner electric piano sounds and his Hammond B3 organ were each separated out onto their own individual tracks for tonal optimization. In all, the original 8 tracks of the Isle of Wight recording became almost 50 tracks in the final mix.

Stephanie: While this show capture an era when Terry Kath was very much the band leader, what are the unique challenges of mixing a seven-piece band where you have a combination of amplified electric instruments with acoustic brass and woodwinds, particularly in terms of the volume levels? I recall during the film, Now More Than Ever, that David Foster has to mediate some conflicts between band members by trying to keep their hands off the faders!

Tim: Truthfully, because everything is close-mic’d, it’s a pretty level playing field to work with. It matters not that some instruments are electric and some are acoustic. I do prefer to isolate the instruments from one another as much as possible, which allows better control over their harmonics and tone. So technically, volume levels are not really an issue; it is purely an artistic choice. In the old days, the band members did spend a lot of time in the studio. Prior to the existence of mix automation, it was necessary to have many hands on the console riding faders. The mix was a performance by the band and this would lead to the kinds of volume battles that David Foster alluded to in the film. Everyone would have their own preferences for balance.

These days, mix automation is fully in control, and the band is far too busy performing to ever attend a mix session. On occasion, Lee will sit with me when he is home, but primarily I work on my own. I can literally draw minute mix level changes with a graphic tablet that are humanly impossible to reproduce with a hand on a fader. Our reflexes just aren’t that fast. But over the years certain mix conventions have become standards for the band. For instance, when I mix the brass, you will always hear trombone on the left, sax/flute in the center, and trumpet on the right. Overall, major brass parts (hooks) and solos are about equal in volume to the vocals. It is part of what makes up the “Chicago Sound.” As part of this convention, the brass are typically always doubled, except for solos. They have been doing this since the days of CTA and the chorusing effect of doubling each of the horns has long been a part of the band’s signature sound.

Stephanie: Do you have a favorite personal favorite track from Isle of Wight? I appreciated Mother very much because it was a time when audiences were open to hearing songs they didn’t know yet but soon would. Plus, the band was really tight on the harmonized section, and it shows their dedication to the carefully crafted songs in a time when free-form jamming was becoming more popular.

Tim: It’s a tough choice, as there are so many wonderful moments on both discs. I do appreciate your viewpoint on Mother, and the fact that audiences back then were more open to the adventure of new music, new ideas, and in fact, awaited with baited breath for the next new album to be released. Artists did not feel so pressured by their success to just play the hits back then, and recording or performing were still purely about the art of music. not about the money, for the Baby Boomer generation. I think that Chicago’s recent decision to feature the songs of Chicago II on their tour this year is an inspired attempt to move back towards those values, being driven by the art of music and not just playing it safe with the hits. One of my personal favorites in the Isle of Wight collection is It Better End Soon on disc two, track one. It captures the band in full jam mode with Terry Kath ecstatically on fire. It is among the most passionate and high energy moments the band has ever recorded. If you could make love to music, It Better End Soon would leave you a sweaty, saturated mess when it was all over.

Stephanie: In terms of attendance, Isle of Wight in 1970 was estimated to be a bigger festival than Woodstock. In addition to the sheer size of the band’s audience at the time, what do you feel made the Isle of Wight mix a milestone for Chicago and how did you approach your mix accordingly?

Tim: When Robert Lamm first learned that Rhino Records were going to resurrect this recording, he said that he always thought Isle of Wight was “a sow’s ear that could never be turned into a silk purse.” Until recently, the technology needed to resolve many of the recording’s technical issues did not exist. But three months later, Robert was calling this an “enhanced mix.” As an original member of the band, lead singer, and a primary writer, Robert is not easily impressed. He’s seen it all. I felt it was going to be a near impossible feat to elevate the Isle of Wight recording into a master that Robert could feel good about. I have never been more pleased that Isle of Wight reached this high water mark.

One of the final stages that put it over the top was a two-tiered mix process I worked out specifically for this recording. Many top engineers use their own unique parallel compression methods on their final mixes to make them sound as big and as loud as possible. After considering what might work well as the icing on the cake, I developed an idea that seemed well suited to preserve the dynamics of the mix, while increasing overall presence. I made individual stems of each main part of the mix: Terry’s guitar, the vocals, the brass, Robert’s keys, Peter’s bass, and Danny’s drums. Next, I imported the final 96 KHz stereo mix into a new Pro Tools session, along with each of the stems. Each stem was then individually compressed and blended very slightly into the final mix, with their respective levels automated throughout the show. Rather than using parallel compression across the entire stereo mix bus, I adjusted the compressed stems individually according to their dynamic relationship to the full mix at any given point in time. Very subtle use of the stems went a long, long way in creating more presence, without diminishing the dynamics of the mix. Perhaps only 5% to 10% at any point in the mix were used. Ultimately, this is why Terry’s guitar and the vocals sound so present and the drums are also so solid, though they were recorded with only three microphones. The Isle of Wight mix represents a number of milestones and innovative ways to resolve vintage audio limitations. But mostly, it’s just plain fun to listen to, and that’s really what it’s all about.

Stephanie: Also on VI Decades Live is your mix of Goodbye from a different show, Chicago at the Kennedy Center (1971). It’s acoustically perfect and perhaps the best sounding vintage Chicago live track that I’ve ever heard. How does your mix of this track differ from Isle of Wight?

Tim: This is probably my favorite mix in the entire box set. It was simply well recorded by Don Puluse, the original engineer for the Chicago II album and staff engineer for Columbia Records. Goodbye was recorded to 16 track 2” tape at 15 ips (inches per second), using excellent microphones, a quiet signal flow, and it all made my job so much easier. The entire mix and restoration for Goodbye was completed in just two days. Isle of Wight required nearly three months to mix, with an unbelievable amount of processing, editing and automation. Because of its superior recording quality, Goodbye (from Chicago’s 1971 Kennedy Center performance) required very little processing, and it just sounds gorgeous and organic. I did use iZotope’s RX software to remove the minimal tape hiss that existed on each of the 16 tracks. This step alone made it sound like a modern HD recording. Goodbye is perhaps the finest archival live Chicago mix to date, and required the least amount of studio processing of any previous live show I have ever mixed for the band. I have to give all of the kudos to Don Puluse for doing such an impeccable job recording the Kennedy Center performance.

Stephanie: What’s next for Tim Jessup and Chicago Studios in Sedona? Are there any projects you’re currently working on, or would like to mix, that we can look forward to in the future?

Tim: Well, there has been some discussion about possibly remixing Chicago Transit Authority this year. We’ll have to wait and see if that happens. I’m currently working on several film soundtracks, including composing the score for one of them. However, mixing Chicago’s Isle of Wight performance enabled me to develop some very effective techniques to deal with the issues inherent in all of the Isle of Wight recordings captured by Pye Studios in 1970. It would be enjoyable to transform the recordings of some of the other artists who performed during this festival, for instance a re-mix of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Miles Davis, The Who, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and so many others. There were many iconic performances during this festival that can be elevated into mixes with far greater detail and clarity.

Lastly, Chicago is always writing new material, though their touring schedule rarely allows for recording it. There may actually be a window later this year when we can begin to record and release new material. Rather than tracking on the road, we would be recording much of it here in the Sedona studio this year. It remains to be seen how it will work out with their touring schedule, but the band does have a strong intention to record new material. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
VIDecadesLiveChicago’s set at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970 was symbolic of their forward momentum from playing dank and conservative Midwestern clubs only three years prior to playing in front of an international audience of hundreds of thousands on August 28, 1970 at Afton Down on the Isle of Wight. Flying to England on their second trip outside North America just for the momentous occasion, Chicago at Isle of Wight captures the band at the height of their musical experiment as a band unafraid of fusing genres and expressing their unbridled energy on a grand scale. Naturally, the comprehensive and meticulous engineering of Tim Jessup was the only choice for Chicago and Rhino Records to memorialize this iconic set. Tim’s work shows the professional audio community what is now possible when mixing archival tapes in a hybrid environment that employs innovative digital techniques while preserving the warmth of analog sound.       

Tim Jessup at Chicago_Film FestivalTim Jessup and Chicago Sound Studios can be reached through his website at http://timjessup.com and on Facebook. Stephanie Carta writes about films, music, and literature. She learned record production, and analog engineering and mixing at the Media Arts Center in Hartford, Connecticut. She can be reached at stephanie.carta33@gmail.com. 

 

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Album Review: Gerald Stockton – A New Dawn. By: Stephanie Carta

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.  

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Film Review: I Called Him Morgan, A Film by Kaper Collin By: Stephanie Carta

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.

 

Introducing Vinyl Hampdin – A New Horn Band! By: Stephanie Carta

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/).

Steve Wiest is a modern-day Renaissance man, learn more about all of his work at (http://steve-wiest.com/).

VinylHampdinHorns
The Vinyl Hampdin Horns: Art Bouton, baritone sax; Ray Herrmann, tenor sax; Steve Wiest, trombone; Frank Green, trumpet. Also pictured, Gerald Stockton on bass. Photo by Terry Shapiro.

Chicago In South Carolina: Interview with Lee Loughnane, By: Stephanie Carta

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.   

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Lee Loughnane on trumpet, at the Township Auditorium, Columbia, SC. Photo by Stephanie Carta. 

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.

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The brass out front, Jimmy Pankow and Lee Loughnane, at the Township Auditorium, Columbia, SC. Photo by Stephanie Carta.

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.

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The Chicago Horns: Jimmy Pankow, Ray Herrmann, and Lee Loughnane, at the Township Auditorium, Columbia, SC. Photo by Stephanie Carta.

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.

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Lee Loughnane singing “Colour My World” at the Township Auditorium, Columbia, SC. Photo by Stephanie Carta.

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.

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Jimmy Pankow, Robert Lamm, and Lee Loughnane, founding members of Chicago, at the Township Auditorium, Columbia, SC. Photo by Stephanie Carta. 

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?

SC: 1985.

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 Sound of Chicago II, By: Stephanie Carta

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.  

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Don Puluse, engineer for Chicago II, on a mandatory union lunch break at the Wienerwald Restaurant in Times Square, New York City. Photo courtesy of Jim Reeves.

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.  

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Lee’s portrait for the poster inside Chicago II. Photo by Herb Greene.
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Three of my copies of Chicago II. Top: Friday Music LPs. Left: Rhino’s Steve Wilson Remix. Right: MoFi’s SACD.

 

Film Review – Now More Than Ever: The History of Chicago, By: Stephanie Carta

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.)

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The Songs and Lyrics of Chicago’s Robert Lamm, by Stephanie Carta

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.)robertlamm

(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!)

Jimmy Pankow’s Opus: “Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon,” by Stephanie Carta

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.

(1) Politoske, Daniel T., Music. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1979: 120.

(Jimmy Pankow in London, December 1969)jimmylondon

(“Ballet For A Girl in Buchannon” by Chicago in 2014, featuring Robert Lamm on keys and vocals; Jimmy Pankow on trombone; Walter Parazaider on sax and flute; and Lee Loughnane on trumpet and vocals.)

Review: Chicago VII on Blu-Ray from the Quadio Boxed Set, by Stephanie Carta

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.)

viigatefold-edited