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Chicago - The Chicago Transit Authority CD (album) cover




Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.08 | 266 ratings

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Easy Livin
Special Collaborator
Honorary Collaborator / Retired Admin
4 stars An "L" of an album

It took Chicago a while to finally settle on the name they have traded under for the last 40 years or so. After a number of amusingly quaint titles, they settled on Chicago Transit Authority, releasing this their eponymous début in 1969. The real Chicago Transit Authority (i.e. the public transport body of the windy city) would however soon voice their objection to the name, and the "Transit Authority" part was dropped before the band's second album was recorded.

Chicago Transit Authority (the album) was a brave move for both the band and the record label (although the latter did reportedly impose a cut in the royalties payable to the band). The group boasted a seven piece line up, including a three piece brass section, at a time when trios and quartets were still considered to be the norm for contemporary music. The album itself would be a double LP release, a luxury usually reserved for bands with a proven track record well into the 1970's. (It should of course be borne in mind that an LP ran for around 20 minutes per side; this album now fits comfortably onto a single CD). Such bravery was however handsomely rewarded, the album achieving top 20 success on both sides of the Atlantic. This is perhaps all the more surprising when we remember that the singles that we now know so well, which were taken from the album, appeared gradually over the following two years or so.

Those familiar with Chicago only via their later Peter Cetera led schmooze will undoubtedly be surprised to hear just how dynamic and inventive the band was in their early years. This album is a superb mix of commercially orientated jazz rock and jazz fusion/big band improvisation. The opening "Introduction" sets the scene perfectly. This is no brief overture, but a wonderfully progressive mix of styles which sees the band laying out their stall with a confidence bands of much greater maturity could only aspire to.

The first of the two LPs generally contains the more commercial songs. "Does anybody really know what time it is" and "Listen" (later combined as two sides of a single, in the UK at least) represent the pinnacle of the chart orientated jazz rock which bands such as Blood Sweat & Tears and Chase would also perfect. Without their big band brass and superb vocal arrangements, songs such as these would still be appealing, but the way they are presented here makes them irresistible. My personal favourite is the strangely named "Questions 67 and 68". The title evidently refers to a relationship songwriter Robert Lamm had in 1967/68, where his partner asked many questions. In any event, it is the song's arrangement and majestic melody which set it apart as a classic of its type. Here, Lamm and Cetera combine vocally, the pair offering a contrast similar to that of Lesley West and Felix Pappalardi in Mountain or Davies and Hodgson in Supertramp. As far as these more accessible tracks are concerned, while the dominant brass naturally suggests a jazz rock orientation, they are first and foremost rock numbers.

"I'm a man", which was probably the best known of the band's early singles, is unusual in that it is the only cover version on the album (OK, "South California Purples" does contain a brief clip from "I am the walrus"), the song being written by a young Steve Winwood (then of the Spencer Davis group) and producer Jimmy Miller. It is also unusual in that it is devoid of brass, the brass players apparently adding further percussion instead. The song is a fine vehicle for the three main vocalists in the band to combine on, but I do have to warn that it also contains one of those tedious drum solos.

The 8 minute "Poem 58" which closes the first LP really fits better with the tracks on the second album, indeed had it been swapped with "I'm a man", the difference between the two LPs would have been even more defined. The track is essentially a lead guitar improvisation with dominant drums (in some ways reminiscent of Uriah Heep's title track to "The Magician's birthday", which it may even have inspired).

"Free form guitar", which opens the second album, is indeed just that. Whether it is an improvisational masterpiece, or simply an unashamed exercise in self indulgence is for the listener to decide, but Neil Young must surely have heard it prior to his "Arc Weld" deviances. For me, it is the only track on the album which demands the use of the "skip" button.

The closing three part suite of "Prologue" (a chant of "The whole world's watching"), the fine "Someday" and the instrumental "Liberation" combine to form a captivating side long (LP) closing statement. Admittedly, the 14 minute third section ("Liberation") is an over-long live improvisation of the type euphemistically referred to as filler, but it does showcase the instrumental talent within the band.

It really is essential to check the year of release of this album. As a first statement from a band which was recorded over 40 years ago, this is truly a milestone in the history of rock. It is not perfect by any means, but there is so much here which was new, exciting and ground- breaking that it is an absolutely essential Listen for those who seek the formative albums of our genre.

Easy Livin | 4/5 |


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