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.