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Remembering lucky "VII," Chicago's jazz album

"Chicago VII"
"Chicago VII"

Forty years ago, the band Chicago was about to embark on the most popular phase of its career … with a jazz album.
Released in March 1974, “Chicago VII” is a double album marked by jazzy instrumentals, most notably “Devil’s Sweet,” “Italian from New York,” “Aire” and my personal favorite “Mongonucleosis.” Indeed, it started as a jazz project inspired by the addition of Brazilian jazz percussionist Laudir de Oliveira to the band and the musicians’ growing tendency to integrate lengthy jazz instrumentals into their live set. Audiences in 1973 were not always pleased with the results but the band loved it and decided, after years of debate, to record a jazz album.
After the project got under way, however, producer James William Guercio grew concerned about the jazz tracks’ commercial potential. It was decided to include pop material and the album spawned the hit singles "(I've Been) Searchin' So Long,” "Call on Me" and "Wishing You Were Here.”
It is that material rather than the jazz instrumentals fans will hear when Chicago performs Tuesday at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa.
I interviewed Chicago co-founder Lee Loughnane a few years back at a time when he was overseeing the remastering of the band’s 1970s’ albums. It's perhaps not surprising that Loughnane, Chicago's trumpeter since its formation in 1967, pronounced himself pleased with the results. After all, the remastered albums sound far better than their vinyl and digital predecessors, and who's going to bad mouth a potential money-maker?
As Loughnane explained his reaction, however, it became clear his thoughts transcended issues of sound and sales. He is, first and always, a musician and it's the music found on those albums -- its complexity and what it says about the band -- that makes him smile.
"I think I'm my own worst critic and I think they sounded pretty damn good," Loughnane said. “The music that we recorded was difficult to play ... and it is still difficult to play. It doesn't get easier as it ages."
For Loughnane, then, those ‘70s albums reveal a group of talented composers and players who challenge as they entertain, who commit grand musical concepts to disc even as they cut hit singles.
One intriguing aspect of the remastered Chicago albums is the comparative dearth of previously unreleased material. There are a couple of reasons for that, Loughnane said. The first is that because of industry conditions in the 1970s -- bands were expected to release an album per year -- Chicago tended to issue everything it recorded. The second is that nearly half of the band's first 10 albums were multidisc sets, its label, Columbia, affording the group a remarkably amount of creative freedom. The band in the process granted Columbia, albeit reluctantly, the right to edit their longer works into hit singles.
The process began with "Chicago II" (1970). For the band, the creative high point of the album was "Ballet for a Girl In Buchannon," a suite of songs emulating the style of jazz and classical composers.
"I don't even know we were thinking about these as pop songs," Loughnane said. "We were thinking about it as music. I think that's why (the industry) was having such a hard time categorizing it."
Columbia might have been confused, too, but it smelled a single in one song from the suite, "Make Me Smile." The label was right, as the edited "Make Me Smile" reached the top 10 in the summer of 1970. A second edited track, "25 or 6 to 4," followed suit.
"We didn't want to do it but we were told pretty much by (Guerico) that this is the way the game is played," Loughnane said. "So we did it and we let them do it."
From that decision came the hits that established Chicago as the most popular American act of the early 1970s. The band scored 20 top 40 singles over the next seven years, many of which remain acknowledged rock classics -- "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" "Beginnings," "Colour My World," "Saturday In the Park," "Feelin' Stronger Every Day," "Just You 'n' Me," "Old Days."
The success changed Chicago, Loughnane said.
"It got to a point where, instead of writing long-winded music, if we couldn't get it said in three minutes or four, we didn't write it."
Although occasionally cited as pioneering the rock-with-horns concept, Chicago actually built on the precedent set by the Electric Flag and Blood, Sweat and Tears. The band took root, fittingly enough, via the horn section. When Loughnane met Walter Parazaider (saxophone, clarinet) and James Pankow (trombone) nearly 50 years ago, they were all students at Chicago's De Paul University and moonlighting in the city's nightclubs. There, they'd run across such gritty street players such as Terry Kath (guitar, vocals) and Danny Seraphine (drums).
Inspired by the Buckinghams' horn-heavy hit "Kind of a Drag," which Guerico had produced, Parazaider organized a band in February 1967. Rounding up his friends as well as newcomers Robert Lamm (keyboards, vocals) and Peter Cetera (bass, vocals), the group dubbed itself Big Thing and began writing original material.
A year later, Guerico heard the band and got it a deal with Columbia. Rechristened Chicago Transit Authority, the group released its self-titled debut as a two-record set. The album, which included chants from the 1968 Democratic National Convention, reached the top 20 without the benefit of a single. But it was only after Chicago agreed to Columbia's editing that the band finally stepped through that door.
The massive success that followed, however, didn't resolve all the group's issues. In 1978, it proved a turning point for Chicago, as the band decided to fire the Svengali-like Guerico and strike out on its own. Soon thereafter tragedy struck when Kath accidentally shot himself to death.
Chicago re-emerged later that year, but it was a different band. Gone was Kath, replaced by guitarist Donnie Dacus. The new album was titled not "Chicago XII" but "Hot Streets" and the cover featured individual shots of the band. Despite a hit single in "Alive Again," the album foundered, as did its follow ups. Dacus left the band, as did his successor, Chris Pinnick. In 1981, Columbia dropped Chicago.
The group started over at Warner Bros. and, working with producer David Foster, found renewed fame with an ‘80s sound that emphasized pop ballads over horn-driven rock. Starting with "Hard To Say I'm Sorry," a No. 1 hit in the summer of '82, Chicago enjoyed another lucrative, seven-year chart run with "Hard Habit to Break," "You're the Inspiration," "Will You Still Love Me?" "Look Away," and "What Kind of Man Would I Be?"
Chicago's sales have slumped since and there have been further personnel changes. But that has little effect on concert audiences who come to hear the hits, drawn, whether they know it or not, to the jazzy musical complexities that lie beneath Chicago's pop sheen.
"Why we're still around, I don't know," Loughnane said. "My best guess is that there is some sort of musical and emotional response that people get from hearing those songs. And, somehow, a new wave of fans hears those songs and they get a similar or the same response.”

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