Category Archives: Maurice White

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Rejoice” by The Emotions

Sisters Wanda,Pamela,Jeanette and Sheila Hutchinson (whose celebrating her birthday today) made up the Chicago vocal group The Emotions. Beginning their recording career on Stax records in the early 70’s,most notably their appearance in the 1972 concert film Wattstax. The group added youngest sister Pamela when they signed to Columbia in 1976. Their debut album Sunflower was produced by Earth Wind & Fire founder Maurice White. And as well the rest of their albums for the next few years,most of the EWF crew were among the many session musician greats who played on the album.

A week or two ago,I purchased a used vinyl copy of The Emotions second Columbia album Rejoice. Its one that I turned down 20 years ago on CD,and came to regret it. What it happy news is that the album is consistently strong from start to finish. Everything from musicianship,arrangement and general creativity is at a premium. Maurice White even said a decade ago that it was his personal favorite production outside EWF. Its best known song is the iconic uptempo hit “Best Of My Love”. And for good reason. That’s the first song on the record. Its final song,the title cut,is perhaps even stronger for another reason.

Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion and James Gadson’s drums start out the groove with a bouncing Afro Brazilian thump-complete with hand-claps. On the third and fourth bar,this is augmented by melodic accenting slap bass,guitar and flute. A thick wah wah guitar,string and horn arrangement come in before the first refrain. The chorus has the same basic instrumental set up only in a more conventional funky disco beat. That Afro Brazilian intro represents both the setup to and the choruses themselves. And that chorus extends itself up to the songs fade  out.

The entire vibe of “Rejoice” seems to come from the same spirit as EWF’s All ‘N All of the same vintage did. Maurice White says he got the “Brazilian bug” musically when travelling to the country with his wife at that time. And this songs mix of positive thinking lyrics and the pure gospel joy of the Hutchinson sisters really reflect some of the strongest mixtures of Brazilian rhythms and American funky soul of the late 1970’s. Its also the perfect bookend to an album that begins and ends with its strongest cuts. With much strength in between. Musically,it caps off one of The Emotions’ finest recorded moments.

 

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Switch On Your Radio” by Maurice White

Maurice White,one of the musical icons who passed away this year,it best known as the founder of Earth Wind & Fire-the most commercially successful of the 70’s funk bands in terms of crossover. On the other hand,the band broke up in 1984. And one of the many reasons brought up was that White had it in his mind that Columbia (the bands record label) were looking for him to do a solo album. This album got released in 1985. Its biggest single was with a (mostly) uptempo version of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”. But it still remains something of a footnote in EWF history.

When I first heard the album on vinyl album around 18-20 years ago,am not 100% sure it came off as anything all that exciting. Of course,that could’ve just been a case of seeking something different from it than what it was. And what Maurice White’s self titled (and sole) solo debut does is present a series of electronic,pan African rock/funk/soul fusions with a mild melodic pop new age vibe about them. The EWF message is still intact. Its just going more for an attitude than a sound by a large. The one song that always got my attention strongly was the opener “Switch On Your Radio”.

A totally electronic synth orchestration fades slowly on the intro. Than suddenly the song bursts with a bluesy funk melodic statement. And it has all the instrumental elements of the song itself. The drum machine and Paulinho Da Costa’s percussion play off the guitar,electronic hand clap and slap bass lines with this melodic electro funk wall of sound. This represents the choruses of the songs. On the refrains and the bridge,the mix is somewhat more stripped down to focus on the vocals a bit. An extended chorus with vocal ad lib’s finish out the song as it fades.

“Switch On Your Radio” has a sound that crosses a lot of musical bridges. The overall drum programming of the song has the bigness of sound that was very much of its time. Yet the live percussion accents along with Martin Page slap bass,Marlon McClain’s rock guitar and the ethereal synthesizers of Robbie Buchanan  make for a powerful sound that basically amounts to a progressive dance/funk sound. And the melody has that strong song construction White and Page are so noted for. Its an extension of the EWF sound for sure. And it also pointed to a possible future solo direction for White which didn’t continue.

 

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Filed under 1985, dance funk, drum machine, Earth Wind & Fire, elecro funk, Marlon McClain, Martin Page, Maurice White, Paulinho Da Costa, percussion, Robbie Buchanan, rock guitar, slap bass, synthesizer

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Biyo” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire’s eighth studio album Spirit is an album that did a lot to help me to personally conceive of #1 hit funk in terms of an album medium. It celebrated its 40th anniversary this year. And I’ve already covered the album itself here. First purchased it on a cassette tape about 22 years ago. At that time,I remember fast forwarding through it to get to funkier songs. Upon upgrading to a CD copy a year or so later,it became clear that this was one of those very special funk era albums. Each time I listen to these songs,they improve like fine wine with each listening. Almost to the point of transcendence.
One member of EWF,who joined up on the bands fourth album Head To The Sky in 1973 was Andrew Woolfolk. This multi reed player primarily played soprano sax within EWF. As he describes it in the documentary on the band Shining Stars, the elements that he added into the band came from the jazz and funk side. He enjoyed a strong,melodic groove. He also loved to improvise in such cases too. Throughout the years,he’s done just this on many of EWF’s most popular and enduring songs. One song from the Spirit  album that amazes me to this day is the Maurice White/Al McKay composed instrumental “Biyo”.
Larry Dunn’s glassy space funk synthesizers open the song before the opening fanfare kicks in. Its full on drums,Afro Latin percussion,Verdine White’s pumping bass line,McKay’s percussive rhythm guitar and the Phenix Horns running on their usual adrenaline. Verdine’s echoed five note bass slap,Maurice’s four note Kalimba melody and Johnny Graham’s bluesy guitar accents make up the refrains. Four members of the band get a chance to solo. Woolfolk does twice-starting and at the end. Graham and Dunn do a solo that dovetail right into each other before Maurice’s Kalimba solo before its fade out.
Earth Wind & Fire added many instrumental interludes/bridges to the albums from their late 70’s crossover period. But for me this is the finest full instrumental based on their sound of that time. The production and recording is a fine example of the band making some of the best recorded funk of that era. Its a melodically and instrumentally busy number with a lot going on sonically. But the powerful Afro-Caribbean funk arrangement still leaves enough room for several amazing solos to interlock with each other. And as a showcase for Andrew Woolfolk,its one of his shining moments of the mid/late 70’s.

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Filed under 1976, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Al McKay, Andrew Woolfolk, drums, Funk Bass, instrumental, Johnny Graham, Kalimba, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, percussion, Phenix Horns, rhythm guitar, Saxophone, space funk, synthesizer, Verdine White

‘Spirit’ Turns 40-Earth Wind & Fire Discovering What Imagination Could Do

Spirit

Earth Wind & Fire’s seventh studio album Spirit turns 40 in the month of September. Which by no coincidence to me considering that was the name of one of EWF’s major hit records a couple years later. Its also no coincidence today that my personal thoughts are on the now departed Maurice White-founder and conceptualist of the band. This album was released when EWF,following up their breakthrough album That’s The Way Of The World with its first proper studio followup,lost Charles Stepney to a heart attack at the beginning of the sessions for this album.

The sad part about this album was that the band members were mourning the loss of what amounted to a un-credited member in Stepney. He helped arrange for Ramsey Lewis when Maurice White drummed for his trio. And was the key to EWF’s breakthrough hits “Shining Star”,”That’s The Way Of The World” and ‘Reasons”. His production style matched White’s Unitarian style spirituality and positively inspiring lyrics. At the same time,I am reminded of a quote that my friend Henrique’s father once told him: what we don’t see is our opportunity.

In that “spirit”,the positive part about this album is that Maurice White could showcase all that he’d learned from working with Charles Stepney as a producer for the past few years. That’s because he’d be producing this album himself. And with the band,Phenix Horns and guest players such as Dorothy Ashby,Harvey Mason and Tom Tom 84,he had the wherewithal to extend on the sound Stepney had laid out for the band. I am listening while writing this to a vinyl copy of this album given to me by another beautiful human being with an amazing record collection named Scott Edwards.

Spirit is an album I’ve listened to on three formats: first cassette tape,then CD and now in its original vinyl release. As I do I think of the energies of Maurice White and Charles Stepney in an unknown world-back together creating a type of music that we the living will not hear. Also thinking of Maurice’s own words about the album being very hard to get through. This is expressed in his dedication to Stepney on the inner sleeve. He describes him having left to the next place-leaving behind much beauty and inspiration to feed upon. On a musical level,here’s what I wrote on Amazon.com about this album


Even though it was a hit there were many elements of their 1975 breakthrough that hadn’t quite defined how EWF would develop in the future. Between the sleek,very live and mic’d up production on this album and the astounding arrangements this album,coming mid decade during the bicentennial year (a great year for funk in general,by the way) this actually was the beginning of the sound most people during the late 70′ associate with EWF and also the middle ground between their mid and late 70’s period.

“Getaway” really points the way to the future as the rhythm becomes more elaborate and the funk grows a bit faster. One would be hard pressed to find a song more determinedly and genuinely positive minded than “On Your Face” and,also the chunky rhythms and point on horns and hand claps tell as much of the story of the vocals. This is also an excellent place to hear both Philip Bailey AND Maurice White singing in falsetto at the same time.

“Imagination” is one of the all time triumphs of Philip Bailey’s career as a vocalist and the orchestration and dynamic arrangement is indeed poetic and imaginative,showing once and for all with all the right parts in place how glorious mid tempo R&B/funk was and how much that style contributed to the genre during this period. The title track is a mass of layered keyboard parts and rhythms that was intended as a tribute to Stepney but also serves as a tribute to the human spirit in general.

“Saturday Night”,upon first listening comes off as a somewhat slicker production of “Shinning Star” but the upbeat hooks easily give it away as a totally different song. There’s even a tune here named for the band itself,another dynamically orchestrated mid tempo funk arrangement that puts into the play the entire manifesto of the band,a blend of their different varieties of spirituality set into something that comes very much from a terrestrial source.

“Biyo” is a very interesting instrumental as it does strongly anticipate the disco sound of the next several years but also shows you how essential funk is to that genre,kind of sealing the concept that disco was less a music than it was merely a dance style based on a certain variation of funk. “Burnin’ Bush” takes another dynamic arrangement and brings to everyone,non Christians included an interpretation of a biblical event interpreted EWF style.

Because of this albums far reaching musical and lyrical themes it’s very hard to figure out how exactly this kind of music would be totally erased from the pop charts a decade later-barely ever to return at all. I cannot say exactly why or how;there are too many reasons to go into but the fact this did exist in the context it did is likely a lesson in and of itself.


My own personal experience with this album is itself having an anniversary this year-the 20th in fact. Since I first experienced this fully during the summer of 1996 when I picked up the CD. Spirit did succeed at maintaining EWF’s mid/late 70’s commercial winning streak-with songs such as “Getaway”,”On Your Face” and “Saturday Night”. On the other hand,there was just something almost intangibly special about this album. The melodies,vocals,how they are arranged and played on are some of the most beautifully soulful and funky ones EWF ever made. And for me,that is Spirit‘s enduring legacy.

 

 

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Filed under 1976, Amazon.com, Charles Stepney, classic albums, classic funk, Earth Wind & Fire, Maurice White, message songs, Music Reviewing, Philip Bailey

Kalimba Helps Keep Earth,Wind & Fire’s Music Alive: An Article By Ron Wynn

KALIMBA_-_ALL-IN-ALL_+_BandKalimba helps keep Earth Wind & Fire’s music alive

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Filed under Chris Siegmund, Dereke James, Earth Wind & Fire, Gary Tobin, Jeff Haile, Jeff Lund, John Groves, Kalimba, Maurice White, Michael Cole, Ray Baldwin, Ron Wynn, Sheldon Reynolds, Thomas Chazz Smith, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Gratitude” by Earth,Wind & Fire

Verdine White was just 19 when he took up his brother Maurice’s offer to join his then new band Earth,Wind & Fire in LA. It may have very well been the best choice Verdine ever made in retrospect. He once discussed feeling he’d make it big for sure having met Richard Roundtree and Jimi Hendrix upon arrival. The next six year’s found the band paying their dues for the massive crossover success their funk got in 1975 with “Shining Star and the That’s The Way Of The World album. Verdine is 65 today,and sadly his brother Maurice isn’t here for the event. Still whoever lives or dies,the funk is its own reward.

During this period of working closely with Charles Stepney,EWF were on the road constantly on their first massive tour-one that included visual illusions from Doug Henning and David Copperfield. They didn’t have time to record a full studio album so they released a double album-consisting mostly of the best live renditions of their songs up to that point from their touring. There were also five new studio tracks-the two most successful being “Singasong” and “Can’t Hide Love”. The album was another major smash hit too. One track Verdine participated in as a writer was the title song ‘Gratitude”.

Larry Dunn and Verdine start off the song with a close walk down on Fender Rhodes and bass,until a muted horn breaks into the full horn charts that begin the main song. The drums have a slinky,rather slow tempo with the Rhodes,slap bass and the horn charts accenting Maurice White and Philip Bailey’s vocal turns. Al McKay plays some occasional rhythm guitar licks and,as the song progresses Johnny Graham takes turns with his amplified blues licks.Before the song fades out, the melodic pitch goes up for it’s last couple of choruses.

Musically speaking,this song is a heavy stripped down funk relative to the more filled out “Shining Star” and 1976’s “Saturday Night”. This makes sense as it was made exactly between the two. It epitomizes EWF’s funk sound while Charles Stepney was involved in their production. It had the slickest studio based variant of that ultra bluesy Chicago style funk. With the studio hits off this generally live album were huge successes,this title song seems to be a bit neglected. And that’s interesting because it’s the heaviest funk among the albums five studio tracks. Any way around it,Verdine’s bass is a major star of the show.

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, Charles Stepney, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Fender Rhodes, Funk, Funk Bass, guitar, horns, Johnny Graham, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, Phenix Horns, Philip Bailey, Verdine White

Anatomy Of THE Groove: “Let Me Talk” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire are one of those funk bands who included two guitarists and two drummers. In terms of the latter,there was Maurice White’s brother Fred and their main drummer Ralph Johnson. Johnson for his part is still an active part of EWF to this very day. Upon seeing him interviewed,he discussed his close instrumental relationship with the bands bassist (also still actively involved) Verdine White. He stated that if he didn’t play drums,he’d have been a bass player due to his close musical relationship with rhythm. And rhythm remains one of the key elements of the Earth Wind & Fire sound.

After an enormous run of successful hits from 1975-1979,Earth Wind & Fire were likely the most popular band of that time period. At the strong encouragement of Maurice White,the band traveled to Egypt among other locations the world over. When they returned to record their next album,music and not sales figures was foremost on their mind. So they cut a musically elaborate double album in 1980 entitled Faces. While it had their signature melodic sound,the rhythms were major game changers for them. The opening song really emphasized this,and it was one that Ralph Johnson co-wrote: “Let Me Talk?

Larry Dunn’s deep bass synth tone begins this song. What accompanies it are the Phenix horns riffing at hyper-speed through the musical magic of a sped up tape loop. The rhythm behind this is the same as  the refrains: a danceable Afro-Brazilian samba deep in the Latin clave. As the rhythm guitar and glistening synth accents play along with the horns and vocals,the bass hugs the rhythm tightly. On the choruses,the beat becomes more conventionally funky/pop-with synth bass taking a strong roll. That musical pattern continues throughout  this song until a quirky bit of recorded conversation concludes it.

“Let Me Talk” begins an album that Verdine White describes as them thinking “let’s cut something we wanna cut”. It was actually one of Maurice White’s personal favorite albums by EWF. And this song begins the album with a bang. With it’s Afro-Brazilian/Cuban rhythms and percussion,it’s structurally somewhat closer to the type of song EWF would’ve done in 1973-74. It still has their melodic pop craft that developed later further later in the decade though. Ralph Johnson and Al McKay wrote a song together here. And the rhythms of the song really showcase their instrumental interactions.

Thematically, Maurice and Philip Bailey make this song a lyrical dialog  about America’s escape from the beauty of and attention to blackness as the 1980’s began. Maurice is saying that a message burns within him everyday,while Philip’s part has him countering with a request to “play your role just as you’ve been told. As I write this,America is still embroiled more than ever in this attempt to deny the potency of black culture within and without it. And for both Independence Day and Ralph Johnson’s 65th birthday,its just the right funky “people music” to project for this time and place.

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Filed under 1980's, Afro Funk, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Afro-Latin jazz, Afrocentrism, Al McKay, clave, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk Bass, horns, Larry Dunn, Maurice White, message songs, percussion, Philip Bailey, Ralph Johnson, rhythm guitar, synth bass, synthesizer, tape loops, Verdine White

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Sun Goddess” by Ramsey Lewis with Earth Wind & Fire

Don Myrick,the tenor saxophonist for Earth Wind & Fire’s Phenix Horns from 1975 to 1982,passed away over twelve years ago. Today would’ve been his birthday. He played solos on key songs such as Phillip Bailey’s vocal showcase on the live rendition of “Reasons” on the bands Gratitude  album,as well their 1979 hit “After The Love Has Gone”. The mans way with jazzy harmonics was by no means limited to ballads. Myrick first met Maurice White as members of the Chicago band The Pharaohs-which also included future Phenix Horns trombonist Louis Satterfield. And it all came together for White and Myrick through the man that got Maurice’s career going to start with: Ramsey Lewis.

It was actually on EWF’s Gratitude album that I first heard the song “Sun Goddess”. It was a live version where Maurice announced that they were going to perform a song  they’d done with Ramsey Lewis. I knew of this windy city soul jazz piano master from my father playing his Don’t It Feel Good album on vinyl for me around the same time. Just before I wrote this,Henrique Hopkins informed me that the studio version of “Sun Goddess” was basically an afterthought jam. And he and EWF felt the song off the album of that same title would be “Hot Dawgit”. But in the end this song ended up redefining Ramsey Lewis as a major player on the 70’s jazz funk scene.

Johnny Graham just strums away on a thick,rhythmic guitar on two chords-going up and down note wise. Verdine White supplies the thick yet metronome like bass.. Maurice himself kicks in the song on bass drum before Phillip Bailey’s conga’s kick in. Charles Stepney himself adds both the ARP string countering the rhythm guitar while adding a Fender Rhodes solo right along with it. On the choruses,Maurice and Phillip sing a beautifully melodic Brazilian style vocalese. On the second refrain of the song Don Myrick comes in with a sometimes squonking free-bop jazz style tenor sax solo. On the third,Ramsey comes in for his own Rhodes solo which closes out the song.

For all intents and purposes, this is an Earth Wind & Fire song instrumentally. Ramsey himself acted as an arranger and producer for it. As well as a soloist. It’s a musical showcase for the sonically beautiful tonality that funk rhythms and jazz harmonies can create when combined together by great musical talents. The sound of this jam creates such a visual impression in the mind. The guitar and keyboard orchestrations Stepney provided bring to mind the rising sun on a clear and hot summer morning,at least to me anyway. And with this combination of two talent’s (Ramsey’s and EWF’s) whom I’ve always respected,this is a reminder why funk is my main and favorite basis for music.

 

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Filed under 1970's, ARP synthesizer, Charles Stepney, Chicago, Don Myrick, drums, Earth Wind & Fire, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, jazz funk, Johnny Graham, Maurice White, percussion, Philip Bailey, Ramsey Lewis, rhythm guitar, Saxophone, Uncategorized, Verdine White

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Liberation” by Earth Wind & Fire

One of the things that struck me most about the 2005 (in my neck of the woods anyway) release of Earth Wind & Fire’s Illumination album is how much the social circumstances surrounding it were similar to how they’d been while EWF were in their peak period during the mid 70’s. There was an economic crisis,a resulting oil shortage and a good deal of cynicism about an unpopular war. To my thought and emotions? It was the perfect time for some serious funk to come in,move and than remove some of this negativity and hopelessness. And the release of this album,EWF’s final one with the participation of Maurice White was just what the doctor ordered.

Illumination was a very uptempo and funk oriented album. As with most records of it’s time,it featured a number of guest appearances. In this case from the Black Eyed Peas Will I.Am,Outkast’s Big Boi,Destiny’s Child’s Kelly Rowland,the British hip hop duo Floetry as well as Kenny G. It was very much a return to form in many ways for the band. My friend and fellow blogging inspiration Henrique already covered this albums wonderful opening number “Happy People” on Andresmusictalk. So this is dedicated as much to him as the late Maurice White-both huge inspirations in terms of this blog. One song on this album truly made the hair on my back stand up-an instrumental entitled “Liberation”.

The seaside sounds of the ocean and birds begin the song-followed by flowing wind chimes and it’s main melody on a high pitched synthesizer. This all bleeds into thick percussion punctuated by Verdine’s equally high pitched bass line. The thick rhythm guitar and piano come in as rhythmic elements. That piano and Fender Rhodes come in along with the bass line and now phase filtered percussion-providing a musical magic carpet for Philip Bailey’s transcendent vocalese. The third chorus of the song expands out into a massive chorus with everything all the elements coming together in a massive harmonic revelry.  The percussion and rhythm guitar dovetails into Bailey’s Afrocentric chanting on the outro.

It’s difficult to count how many times people in the last decade and a half cynically claim music has no power whatever to change the world. For me,this song is a constant reminder that music not only does change but is crucial to the world. The Afrocentric percussion of this song reminds me of everything from sound of a walk to the motion of a road trip down the highway. It is right in line with EWF instrumental jams such as “Africano” from 30 years before it. Not only that but it succeeds as a totally melodically hummable instrumental where even veteran soul/funk artists were no longer making them. In many ways,it’s one of EWF’s finest songs ever.

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Filed under 2005, Afro Funk, Afro-Cuban rhythm, Afrocentrism, Earth Wind & Fire, Fender Rhodes, Funk Bass, instrumental, Maurice White, Philip Bailey, piano, Uncategorized, Verdine White

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Kalimba Tree” by Earth Wind & Fire

Earth Wind & Fire had one of the most telling experiences with the post disco radio freeze out of the early 1980’s. Their inaugural album of the decade entitled Faces an alternately Afrocentric and idiosyncratic double album that was not as popular with audience as it’s sale figures indicated. Philip Bailey often mentioned he felt that when record label pressures began being put upon EWF to began courting their own classic sound, it actually began the downfall of that sound. Their subsequent album Raise! is actually among my favorites of theirs and got them a huge hit in “Let’s Groove”. The band indicate they felt that song signified them chasing success. Still this was a creative fertile period for EWF.

From their very first days at Columbia,EWF had always reserved some of their more experimental musical elements to linking interludes between songs. They were generally under a minute long. And the more pop oriented their sound became,the more anachronistic these interludes seemed to become. Still it was an excellent chance to showcase that they were still musicians. On vinyl the second side of the Raise! album began with such an interlude entitled “Kalimba Tree”. On the album it was under 30 seconds long. As featured in the 1982 EWF concert filmed in Oakland California,it was a lot longer. The new Funkytowngrooves reissue of the album features this longer version.

A round,space funk synthesizer wash opens up the groove. The percussion rings away as Verdine White’s bass line provides the most potent rhythmic element. As the higher key choral element comes in,brother Maurice’s Kalimba comes as Verdine’s bass scales down more. All along with one of Philip Bailey’s classic ebonic chants-later repeated on a second vocal course by Maurice. Roland Bautista plays a glassy guitar solo along with Don Myrick’s  jazzy sax solo. On the final refrain,hand claps come deep into play with a more rocking solo from Bautista as the same space funk synth wash that opened the song closes it out.

Sometimes when I hear a song,the mind begins to wander in terms of what might’ve been. Earth Wind & Fire would only have two more albums out of their original Columbia run after 1981. Hearing what I only understood to be a brief interlude extended out in this fashion got me to think just how long numbers such as “Departure”,”Brazilian Rhyme” or even 1983’s “Mizar” might’ve actually been as originally recorded. In any case,this showcases that the mixture of Afro-Brazilian rhythm,funk and jazz that were at the core of EWF’s sound were still alive and well amid the technological changes during the 1980’s. And that the band were still thinking on that same level as well.

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Filed under 1980's, Afro Funk, Afro-Latin jazz, Afrocentrism, Don Myrick, Earth Wind & Fire, Kalimba, Maurice White, Philip Bailey, post disco, Roland Bautista, Uncategorized, Verdine White