Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Once upon a time, there was a band called Chicago. As an ex-trumpet player and as a drummer, I loved that band, with its unique blend of rock and roll with horns. Their drummer, Danny Seraphine, was a monster player, and one of my early influences as a drummer.

Then Terry Kath, the guitar player who even Hendrix idolized, suffered death by stupidity (gun), and the band that had become known for setting trends, instead began following the latest vogue. First it was disco (Chicago 13), which resonated with a resounding “thud.” Then, starting with 1982's Chicago 16, Chicago was resurrected by embracing the fat 80s sound, as well as moving to slick urban contemporary “power” ballads. These mostly insipid tunes, many of which were not written by members of the band, featured bassist Peter Cetera vocalizing, and did not feature horns. Chicago gained a whole new following in this genre and again achieved great success, but lost its soul in the transformation.

Then Cetera left the band for a solo career. Three years later, unbelievably, the band fired co-founding member – and drummer – Danny Seraphine.

Seraphine’s firing seems to have completely destroyed the relevance of the band. In 1991, Chicago Twenty 1 went in the tank big time, 1993's “Stone of Sisyphus” was rejected by the record label and shelved for another decade and a half, and Chicago failed to release an album of original material for another 13 years. When it did, Chicago XXX’s material was, with a few exceptions, mediocre at best, and the album was annoyingly over-produced. While replacement drummer Tris Imboden is a fine drummer, his body of work with Chicago has been lackluster, at best.

Seven years – and a bunch of Christmas albums – later, Chicago has been relegated largely to the oldies band circuit. While Chicago member Robert Lamm’s 2003 “Subtlety and Passion” featured good writing and outstanding horns, afficionados of “jazz-rock” largely have given up hoping for any significant new music in this genre.

All this history is prelude to the welcome news, however, that there is joy in Mudville. Danny Seraphine, who emerged in 2006 from 15 years of self-imposed musical exile to form California Transit Authority (CTA), still wants to create horn-integral “jazz-rock.” CTA’s sophomore effort, “Sacred Ground,” is easily characterized in one word: triumphant.

Originally named “Promise,” CTA decided to change the name of the record to emphasize the connotation that the “Sacred Ground” of jazz-rock music for which Chicago became incredibly successful is worthy of continuing into new iterations and for new generations. Biased as I may be, they are right.

Seraphine has assembled a bunch of talented musicians in the new CTA: Marc Bonilla on guitar, Ed Roth playing keyboards, Mick Mahan on Bass, Peter Fish on Keyboards, and a host of guest singers and players. The result of this musical confab approaches brilliance.

From the opening title cut, through “The Real World, a sly but powerfully well-arranged cover of Blood, Sweat & Tears’s “I love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” to the boss hit-bound single candidates, “Strike While The Iron’s Hot” and “Out of Reason,” as well as the evocative “Full Circle” and CTA’s furious re-arrangement of the classic “Take Me Back to Chicago,” this band thrills the listener with its tight arrangements, unselfish playing, killer horn charts and performances, and of course, Seraphine’s spot-on pocket playing. There are few drummers who seamlessly can play the various funky grooves embodied on “Sacred Ground,” including some wicked 15/8 time (in the middle of a straight 4/4 groove) in “The Real World.” We shouldn’t be surprised, however; Seraphine practically invented (and certainly perfected) playing in off-time rhythms, especially in the earlier Chicago days. Except for a short solo section at the beginning of “The Real World,” he doesn’t step out on his own, but rather provides that rhythmic backbone that is essential to any good song.

"Sacred Ground" is a dense album. A listener who keeps listening to the record will find more and more musical layers to explore. The “Oh Yeah Moments” – those passages that make the listener stop and say, “oh yeah!” abound. “Sacred Ground” is a record that will make the listener smile in many, many spots.

As a horn guy, I just love the album. One of my many Chicago beefs is that they have stylized their horn sound so much that it sounds like a fat trombone; you can’t even hear the saxophone holding down the center.

Not so with CTA. The horn parts are multifarious, and essential to the integrity of the various songs on the album. While it is clear that the various horn arrangers are stylistically tipping their collective hats to the brilliant arrangements of Chicago trombonist James Pankow, they extend the form into new territory. In addition to unison playing, there are multiple instances where the brass plays off against the woodwinds, and vice versa. The dissonance in places works as it did in the early days of Chicago. Seraphine and company have found some great song endings, as well, such as the capper to "Staring at the Sun" (think "Introduction"). And when the horns break out into a solo section, the listener just wants to jump for joy. Well, this listener does, anyway.

This record marks Seraphine's return to mid-seventies form, featuring Adventurous song structures that challenge the listener, without resorting to side-long solo sections. In this respect, "Sacred Ground" is remiscent of Chicago V, VIII, X and XI.

Ultimately, “Sacred Ground” is a renaissance for Seraphine himself, as well as proof positive of the talent and group synergy that Chicago threw away when they fired him. After being summarily dumped from the band he co-founded and led for two decades, he withdrew from playing music for a decade and a half. Now, as he says in “Full Circle:”

I’ve held on long enough inside It’s time I made a stand Day by day the darkness pulls away And pushes me to understand I feel the spirit lift again

I’ve come full circle All the clouds have flown I’ve come full circle Sweet music calls me home

“Sacred Ground” hearkens back to Chicago’s early period before 1982, and brings that singular rock and roll with horns sound to the post-millennium. Chicago would do well to listen closely to – and learn from – the songs, the performances and the production values that make “Sacred Ground” a triumph. Based on this record, the legacy of the real Chicago lies with Danny Seraphine and CTA, and not with the group that still bears that iconic name.

It's a pleasure to say: He's back. They're back. It's back.

Sacred Ground is available at Amazon, CD Baby and on the band's web site.