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CD Review: Earth, Wind and Fire–Illumination

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Somewhere, somehow, disco replaced 70’s soul and the world grew dark. Beat replaced music and real R&B fans everywhere were forced to dark corners of record stores and small clubs to find the sounds they loved.

But in the middle of that dance driven mass hysteria that was disco a clarion voice arose. Fusing the disco beat with great soul riffs, incredible jazz breaks, and a show that you simply could not take your eyes off of, Earth, Wind, and Fire soared out of the crowd and strode above it, somehow managing to be fantastic muscians and great entertainers.

Drawing, this reviewers believes, on the lessons and traditions of jazz where the line between showmanship and muscianship was carfeully monitored so that the music would not suffer, this band made it happen and achieved incredible popularity. The bio released with their latest album “Illumination” put it this way

When Memphis-born Maurice White left his plum gigs as a Chicago session drummer and member of the Ramsey Lewis Trio – as the `60s became the `70s – he had a plan. He wanted to form a band that abolished the lines between musical genres, freely borrowing from all styles without regard to convention. “I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before,” Maurice explains. “Although we were basically jazz musicians, we played soul, funk, gospel, blues, jazz, rock and dance music…which somehow ended up becoming pop

They were huge!

What goes up, always comes down and their popularity waned. But good music lasts, even if popularity doesn’t. Taking a break and pursuing solo projects the members of the band have continued very successfully in the music industry. But they have been back for a while and getting better and better.

This latest album, Illumination, is a collaborative effort with some of R&B’s biggest players today, but unlike so many collaborative efforts these days, it is not the old-timers trying to cash in one last time by strapping themselves to the current craze. This album is the old-timers taking the kids to school.

This is a distinctive EWF album. Oh sure, it has a few rap breaks, and features everyone from Will.I.Am to Brian McKnight to (shudder) Kenny G, but it is clear their job was to find a place among the masterful muscianship of EWF. From the retro cover art to that fat, fat sounding horn section, this album, dare I say it? – swings! (My jazz buddies are going to kill me)

If anything, EWF is better than they were in their hey-day – well, except for the fact that Maurice isn’t on the road with them. I also miss the soaring high register vocals of Phillip Bailey. Age, as it does with all of us, has thickened his vocal chords enough that he cannot soar as he once did, but he does show moments of that flight and is still a top notch, first rate vocalist.

But the real point is this, without the incredible showmanship requirements that popularity places on a band, they have been able to focus on the music. And while I loved the over-the-top shows of the late ’70’s and early ’80’s it was the music that made them great, and it is the music that makes them amongst the best these days.

Illumination is no nostalgic trip down memory lane. It’s an exploration of what made EWF great and the trends of today. That exploration results in the discovery that the basics matters. No amount of marketing, imaging, or other industry concerns can make great music. Only great musicians can do that, and EWF are GREAT musicians.

Best cut is “Liberation.” Without lyrics, but with harmonic voices performing as instruments, this cut comes dangerously close to being pure jazz. Maybe that’s the point of the title, they are liberating themselves from the need to be pop, and just making a great song. They certainly succeeded. The album is without clunker, and reasonably even accross all 13 cuts. Somehow, even when paired with the otherwise almost unbearable Kenny G, they make great music.

If you like jazz, if you like soul, if you like funk — if you just like music. Illumination by Earth, Wind and Fire is the album for you.

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  • mcconnell

    The real darkness came when hip hop and rap came on the scene. Disco was innovative and developed music, hip hop is a parasite music style that have almost never made anything new, it simply re-uses beats from Disco, Funk & Soul. I’m sorry to hear that EW&F have succumbed to putting rap into their new songs…that means I will not buy the album.

  • http://www.blogotional.blogspot.com John Schroeder (Blogotional)

    I’m not sure you are getting it about this album. In the first place, it is not a rap album, there are rap breaks — they place rap into a reasonable perspective, they tame it instead of it robbing the greatness of the past.

    It is a genuine exploration of musical forms, unlike so much of rap. At least give the album a listen and then decide.

  • Williams

    I am sorry you feel that way about rap music, but I assure you that Earth, Wind & Fire only worked with artists that exemplify the musical integrity that they are known for. Both Big Boi of OutKast (rapper) and Organized Noize (producers) are products of the Dungeon Family, who is particularly known for original live instrumentation and sample-less music. It is these qualities that earned OutKast the many music industry accolades and Grammy wins they have received, including Album of the Year in 2004. And the board is very stingy with Grammys when it comes to those who sample. Will.I.Am of the Black Eyed Peas is also known for producing original music with worldwide appeal. Floetry also works with producers that create only live music.

    Also, trust me when I say while hip-hop was integrated somewhat into this album (as it is greatly influenced by EWF) this album was engineered by the great EWF, who did not allow any elements with which they are unfamiliar to enter the album. If you listen their 1990 release, Heritage, you would find MC Hammer, an artist that has always been quick to borrow the nearest Rick James, James Brown, EW&F or any other soul/funk sample, with 2 spots on their album! Illumination is a righting of that wrong.

    I could go on with rappers/hip-hop artists that create original music, but the point here is to prevent you from missing out on this soon-to-be classic work due to a generalization of hip-hop.

  • mcconnell

    I guess I feel about Hip Hop/Rap like John Schroeder feels about Disco. I have been known to buy Hip Hop artists, a few of the one’s you mentioned, because of the originality. With Rap in general if it is based on a sample the rap have to be really! good to overcome, what I feel is miss-use of the great original Disco/Funk/Soul artists who created it. The last album I really enjoyed in its entirety from EW&F was ‘Electric Universe’ in 1983…after that I think they lost some of their soul? I’ll give this album a listen to see if they’ve regained some of what they’ve lost.

  • Takeit2dasky

    Uhhh….
    So you actually ENJOYED “Electric Universe” huh?

    Well, aaalllrrriggghhhttyyy then!

    More power to ya, gee!

    You can have that one.

    I think I’ll just keep my “Head to the Sky”.

  • http://www.thebmrant.com Matt

    This has been syndicated to Advance.net, a place affiliated with about 10 newspapers around the country.

    Also please let your contact know, if you had one, that this article, is published at another place.

    Thank you.
    Matt Freelove

  • yco

    I’ve been a fan of EWF since the mid seventies and totaly agree with the content of this article. EWF still shows that they are masters of music and blend naturally with contemporary sounds without losing their essence. Allso check out their superb multi platinum 2005 live dvd together with Chicago!

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