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Disc reviews: James Taylor, Chicago

Folk

James Taylor

Before This World

[Concord]

½

His first collection of original songs in 13 years, the disc proclaims with no small understandable pride. Yeoman jazz drummer Steve Gadd was there for company. So was veteran jazz keyboardist Larry Goldings. From the higher tax brackets of musicianship, so is Yo-Yo Ma on two tunes and Sting on one (the title song, which features Ma too in a solo).

“This is the 16th time I’ve taken a batch of songs into the studio; recently with these same musicians. I can’t describe how delightful a thing it is to do this kind of consensus collaboration; we’d choose the best take and overdub repairs, improvements and solos.” Because they still were recording into Taylor’s summer tour, they wound up improvising recording studios in hotels in San Francisco and Los Angeles. “We booked studio time in Buffalo and Philadelphia on days off,” he says.

The results sold like gangbusters everywhere it needed to from the first week.

As a melodist, he was fresh on “Sweet Baby James” four decades ago. He hasn’t developed there since. But, as a lyricist, he is, bless him, in another class altogether now.“Far Afghanistan” is about a soldier from Indiana where “they teach you right from wrong/how to hold your liquor and how to hold your tongue” who is now fighting in Afghanistan where they’ve fought “the Russians, they’ve fought against the Brits. They fought old Alexander.”

At moments like that, this overdue revisitation is worth every bit of the popularity that greeted it.

– Jeff Simon

Rock

Chicago

The Studio Albums 1969-1978 (10 discs)

The Studio Albums 1979-2008 (10 discs)

[Rhino]

 for first volume

½ for the second

The time has come to reassess Chicago. Knee-jerk disgust will no longer be permitted. Nobody has ever had much good to say about them – especially not the grinning, satanic wunderkinder in the first generation of problem children rock critics (Lester Bangs, Richard Meltzer, Robert Christgau). Albert Goldman, who went to graduate school at the University of Chicago, tried to convince Life magazine readers in the 1970s of their musical affinity to the stockyards (or Carl Sandburg, or something) but then Albert Goldman was the fellow whose toxic biographies of Lenny Bruce, Elvis Presley and John Lennon set some sort of record for vile and detestable bile as history scores these things, so he didn’t exactly carry the day.

But, somewhat incredibly, Chicago is still here and, despite all the changes, has never really stopped. For longevity, anyway, they’re almost up there with the Stones (they toured for a while with the Beach Boys). For this summer, they’re touring with Earth, Wind and Fire, giving the world their version of “rock with horns” (not a patch on Sly and the Family Stone at their best, but hey). Granted their tour this summer will take them to Bristow, Va., (something sponsored by Jiffy Lube, it seems) and Nobleville, Ind. But lots of lovely big cities, too.

Here in these two 10-disc sets comprising a “limited edition” of their studio work, you’ve got twice as much Chicago as any human being should be asked to stand, including original composer/keyboardist Robert Lamm, the most important functionary still in the band. (Vocalist and guitarist Terry Kath having famously killed himself while playing around with a gun.)

Albert Goldman still seems full of it with his music of “big shoulders” and all but so much of the early stuff from 1968-1978 holds up far better than anyone had a right to expect – even those obnoxious moments when producer James William Guercio thought that Chicago was the appropriate band to interrupt on disc with his impressions of classic electronic composer Edgar Varese. (Hey, if George Martin could do it for those electronic collages in Beatles records and Frank Zappa could do it on his own, why not Guercio? Guercio’s difficulty getting it exactly right continued when he made the motorcycle movie “Electra-Glide in Blue,” which starred future murder defendant Robert Blake.)

The fact is Chicago in the studio was one heck of a tight band – tight harmony in group vocals, tight horn ensemble playing. Some of the songs may have been drippy ersatz-psychedelia (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is” indeed), but the band always knew a thing or two about pop hooks and hit melodies. It’s almost laughably of its time now, at its best, but no less lovable for that.

In the second 10-disc box set, Kath is dead, Tom Dowd, David Foster and, yes, Peter Wolf take over for Guercio, and there’s a new version of “25 or 6 to 4” which should have resulted in jail time for Foster. That’s Paul Shaffer on “Night and Day’s” “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and if you think Chicago didn’t give him ideas for all those years of leading Letterman’s band, you’re crazy.

– Jeff Simon

Jazz

Bob Mintzer Big Band

Get Up!

[Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild]

½

The worst of the punchy-brass big band jazz tradition meets the worst of jazz-rock fusion. Nobody would question the professionalism of this disc. But if you want to hear how much vigor and vitality actually remain, by comparison in the 1970s and even ’80s music of Chicago, listen to the big band of the tenor saxophonist for Yellow Jackets as it does its version of James Brown’s “It’s Your Thing.”

Nobody ever said Mintzer couldn’t play his horn, but all the professional musicianship in the world couldn’t make this live concert festival of tedium and cliches into music that anyone was likely to want to hear again, much less all the way through the first time.

In other words, all the acceptable solos in the world can’t magically transform this disc into something anyone would want to live with even if Mintzer’s bassist is David Letterman’s man Will Lee.

Mintzer says he was inspired to make this recording by James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, the Isley Brothers, Otis Redding, the Four Tops, Igor Stravinsky, B.B. King, Gil Evans, the Ohio Players, Tower of Power, Weather Report and the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics. The only ones I can easily imagine returning Mintzer’s kind words would be members of the New York and L.A. philharmonics and only then because they were being nice.

– Jeff Simon

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