By Ron Wynn
Few gigs are tougher than being a tribute band. Hardcore fans of the group or individual have memorized every note of their epic hits and rigorously analyze and assess any and all alternate or different versions. They frequently underrate the ability of the acts doing the tribute, minimizing the instrumental talent necessary to properly perform the music and the undeniable love and respect for the material any group obviously has in deciding to spotlight another band or artist’s compositions rather than their own originals.
But the members of the Pacific Northwest ensemble Kalimba: The Spirit of Earth, Wind & Fire, have never been intimidated or afraid regarding the inherent challenges in this area. They’ve been playing the classic works of the great band since 2011, when lead vocalist Thomas “Chazz” Smith and drummer Jeff Haile joined forces because of their joint love for EW&F’s sound. “It’s a music that combines so many great idioms, and it’s also a positive force in its lyrics, speaking to the need for unity and love among people,” Smith said. “There’s so many great songs in that legacy, and they really combine all the things that both Jeff and I truly love in terms of rhythm, and sound and message. So it was really a labor of love, but it’s also a nightly goal for us to bring that message and music to new audiences, while satisfying all the older fans out there who’ve loved their music and especially Maurice White since the ’70s.”
Kalimba: The Spirit of Earth, Wind & Fire made their Nashville debut Thursday night at 3rd and Lindsley. From their earliest days, they began immediately making an impact. A 10-piece unit with a full horn section and vocalists, Kalimba’s also named for the distinctive second instrument that drummer/bandleader White often played, the kalimba or African Thumb Piano. White, who attended Chicago Conservatory in the mid-’60s, had an impressive background as a studio musician for Chess prior to forming EW&F. He not only played on hits by The Impressions, Muddy Waters, Billy Stewart, Etta James and Fontella Bass, but was also the drummer from 1967-69 for the Ramsey Lewis Trio. Indeed it was while with Lewis that White began playing the Kalimba. But White envisioned something special, a group that could successfully perform all the idioms he loved and be commercially viable without sacrificing the artistry and originality he valued as a jazz musician.
The result was Earth, Wind & Fire, who began as the Salty Peppers for Capitol, and evolved into one of the ’70s and ’80s landmark bands. They would sell almost 20 million albums, enjoy multiple Grammy wins, and eventually be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Equally important in White’s vision was a desire to include upbeat, positive and inspirational lyrical themes alongside love and funk tunes. It’s that inclusive musical model that Kalimba follows in their shows and recordings. Among the tunes they highlight are such gems as “Shining Star,” “Devotion,” “Sing A Song,” “That’s The Way of the World,” and many others.
Their brilliance with the EW&F musical catalog eventually attracted the attention of premier guitarist Sheldon Reynolds, who’d been a member of EW&F for 14 years, and among many other things shared the writing credit for the Grammy-nominated tune “Sunday Morning.” “I heard what they were doing and I was both very impressed and tremendously interested in working with them,” Reynolds added. “It was and is very important to me that the legacy of the band and its music and message continue to be remembered and celebrated, and that’s what Kalimba does. We really get into the music and play it with the feeling and spirit that is our own, but is also very much celebratory of the Earth, Wind & Fire heritage.”
Reynolds’ resume is also quite impressive beyond his lengthy EW&F tenure. A child prodigy, he began his career with Millie Jackson. He’s also played with funk bands Sun and the Commodores, and with musicians ranging from saxophonist Kirk Whalum to vocalists Stephanie Mills, the Pointer Sisters and Paula Abdul, as well as stints with Experience Hendrix. But it’s his time with EW&F that has brought Reynolds his widest praise and fame, and he has very fond memories of that time.
“We were truly a family, and it was an incredible time,” Reynolds remembered. “Maurice wasn’t the type of bandleader who was overly egotistical or never wanted your input. All of us in the band could make suggestions or contributions. It was always about the music, trying to make it right, and about presenting to the people a strong show, an energetic and positive one. It’s also very much what I’ve found in working with this band, a similar type of spirit.”
“Earth, Wind & Fire’s music is so spiritual and special, yet it’s also very earthy and rooted,” Smith added. “Sheldon’s expertise and ability has brought us another added ingredient. He’s a fantastic player, and he’s so rooted in that music that he keeps us very grounded in terms of interpretation and direction. It has been incredibly exciting and valuable for us as a band to work with him, and we’ve got a lot of things that we’re working on for future shows, including the one in Nashville.” Along with Smith, Haile and Reynolds, other members of Kalimba include bassist Dereke James, guitarists Gary Tobin and Michael Cole, keyboardist Jeff Lund, saxophonist Chris Siegmund, trombonist John Groves and trumpeter Ray Baldwin.
Sadly, Maurice White had to stop touring with the group in the early ’90s due to Parkinson’s disease. He died this past February at 74. Reynolds is also battling Parkinson’s, but won’t let that stop him from continuing to contribute to Kalimba. During the show there was a silent auction, with all proceeds going to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s research.
“We are so thrilled about making our first visit to Nashville,” Smith concluded. “It’s one of the great music cities, and I think people are going to be really thrilled to hear this music. With the things that are happening right now in the country and all the divisiveness in the current campaign, Earth, Wind & Fire’s music is something brings people together and celebrates the good things and positive force in the world.”
(This story originally ran in the Nashville Scene’s Cream section).