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Chicago - Chicago VII CD (album) cover




Jazz Rock/Fusion

4.01 | 89 ratings

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5 stars By 1973 the Chicago mob was undoubtedly aware of the spectacular advancements being made in the realm of jazz/rock fusion. One of the most popular groups on the planet, Santana, had brazenly eschewed their "hit machine" image via their landmark "Caravanserai" LP, Mahavishnu Orchestra had brought ferocious avant garde jazz out of cult status, stunning packed rock & roll arenas with it and exploratory groups like Weather Report, Return to Forever and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters were not only revolutionizing the fusion genre but cultivating enthusiastic audiences, making them hungry for more. Since Chicago's brassy rock competitors (Blood, Sweat & Tears in particular) had evaporated into the ether one by one they found themselves in a position somewhat like Alexander the Great in that there was no more land to conquer. Hit singles no longer thrilled them and touring the globe had long ago lost its glossy veneer. Eyeing the fun their jazzy peers were having, they yearned more and more to return to their fusion roots, find similar fulfillment and reignite the creative flame that, as the 60s drew to a close, had thrust them into the vanguard of a fresh chapter in the evolution of jazz.

Evidently they'd been leaning toward doing a jazz-laden record for some time, developing material in rehearsals and sound checks that would justify such an undertaking. The results were so invigorating that when it came time to go back into Caribou Studios they were excited about making a new album, more than they'd been in years. Despite the presence of a pair of Chicken Little party poopers (bassist Peter Cetera and producer James Guercio, both of whom predicted a veritable apocalypse should the group dare challenge their fans by presenting them with anything more complicated than "Color My World") the ensemble stuck to their guns and followed their hearts instead of their pocketbooks. They ended up with so many excellent tunes on tape that they were forced to return to the double LP format they'd abandoned after their third studio album in order to get it all out there in front of the public. Their determination and resistance to being artistic conservatives paid off. The record is one of their best efforts and one that they have every right to be proud of.

Speaking of Santana, the first time I lowered my needle onto the black vinyl of Chicago VII I thought there must've been a disc swap-out at the factory. Stickman Danny Seraphine's "Prelude to Aire" consists mainly of congas, muted drums and Walter Parazaider's flighty flute, not their usual routine. More surprises ensue in Walter and James Pankow's "Aire," a jazz instrumental built on a delightful swing in 7/8 time where the involved horn score belies a healthy respect for their big band ancestors. Guitarist Terry Kath's extended ride is one of his finest and Parazaider's fiery flute runs help make this a stunning ear-opener. Walt and Danny's "Devil's Sweet" has a fusionistic beginning that's jaw-dropping in its utter disregard for commercial appeal. The drum solo is striking and dare I say that the segment that follows is wildly abstract? I kid you not. There's a palpable Miles Davis aura that slinks around this complex number, proving they were dead serious about doing something radical this time around. Guest percussionist Laudir de Oliveira's congas and some spunky synth noodlings lead to Robert Lamm's "Italian from New York." The fact that we're this far in and have yet to hear anyone sing a note is very strange, indeed. The talented horn section is once more the focal point but Terry does inject a peppy, "talking" wah-wah guitar lead. Robert's "Hanky Panky" is mostly a drum-fueled, intricate intro to a jazzy jam where James' trombone impresses. They then segue to Lamm's "Life Saver." After laying down a funky groove and crowning it with a sleazy-in-a-good-way horn arrangement, they finally start to sing. Yet they throw another twist in the dough by electronically altering the lead vocal and, to top it off, adding a quirky, Beatle-ish repeating chorus.

The false start for Peter's "Happy Man" is a throwback to their earlier days, the song's light samba feel fits the romantic mood perfectly and the jazzy chord progression is alluring. Pankow contributed the tune that most personifies the album. "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long" was a genuine head-turner that immediately captured the fancy of everyone who heard it because it was so superior to the average AM radio fare of that era. Not only does it touch on a subject that strikes home with millions but its blending of lush symphonic orchestration with a growling synth bass line in the second half is incredibly memorable. James' "Mongonucleosis" is a spirited, Latin-flavored instrumental delivered with mucho enthusiasm. The 3-man horn section never sounded better or more unified than they do on this cut and that's saying a lot. The album takes a nap during Kath's "Song of the Evergreens," though. It's a slower-paced, loping tune that retards the momentum. It does perk up later on but the whole thing is fairly disjointed. Terry's "Byblos" is an improvement. The Bossa Nova vibe is pleasing and it's comforting to hear their silky harmonies floating in the background. It's not a great number but kudos to them for staying with the record's jazzy motif and for their willingness to experiment with their "pop act" persona.

A waves-on-the-shore sound effect launches Cetera's wistful ballad, "Wishing You Were Here," one that benefits fantastically by having a trio of Beach Boys intertwine their expert vocals into the arrangement. The unexpectedly punchy bridge offers a stark contrast, setting it apart from the majority of their soft-as-butter hits. Trumpeter Lee Loughnane didn't write much but his "Call On Me" is not only a catchy tune but it charted highest (#6) of the singles culled from this album. Continuing the Latin beat mindset, this staple of "lite rock" gets a jolt from the bright horns that color the background along with Seraphine's spiffy drum fills. Robert's "Woman Don't Want To Love Me" is a case of Curtis Mayfield-styled funk receiving the Chicago treatment, making for a fun romp. Kath turns in a playful wah-wah guitar solo and the boisterous ending is in-your-face rowdy. Lamm's "Skinny Boy" is the closer, a soulful jaunt that's very cohesive. The decision to bring in the Pointer Sisters to pump up the chorus was pure genius. The song doesn't sound like anything else on the record and its uncharacteristically loose ending is appropriate for an album that takes a lot of risks.

The band, usually fast as jackrabbits in the studio, completely invested themselves and their time into four months worth of sessions for this courageous project and probably suffered through demeaning landslides of pre-release criticism, negativity and end-of-career warnings for its content. Yet the great ones don't sit on their laurels. Rather, they try to elevate the musical consciousness of their followers by giving them something they're not accustomed to hearing and, by bowling them over with quality material, they lead their flock into greener pastures and expand the group's freedom to be versatile. After two discs in a row that portrayed them as a band without a focused direction, Chicago VII was a treat for those of us who'd been waiting for these guys to unleash their jazz dragon and scorch us with their top-notch musicianship on more than just a couple of cuts. The nay-sayers were wrong. This record, despite a higher price tag, rose to #1 and remains a favorite of Chicago fanatics who just knew they had this kind of album in them. Four and a half stars.

Chicapah | 5/5 |


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