An Interview With Chieli Minucci About His New DVD.
The first ever DVD of Chieli Minucci live with Special EFX is scheduled for release May 2nd, 2006. Filmed at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre in Toronto, Canada, Shanachie record company refers to it as ‘a tour-de-force live performance from contemporary jazz guitarist-extraordinaire and Special EFX founder Chieli Minucci.' The DVD features Chieli Minucci and the full Special EFX band, with Chieli on electric and acoustic guitars; Jerry Brooks on bass, Lionel Cordew on drums, Jay Rowe on keyboards, Philip Hamilton on vocals and percussion, and David Mann on saxophones and flute.
I caught up with Chieli as he was laying down three guitar tracks for Roger Smith, recording artist, songwriter, producer and keyboard player for Tower of Power, an exciting project! We soon settled into the interview, focusing on the rewards of having at last recorded a live performance, start to finish, of the full Special EFX band.
Chieli talked about what motivated him to do this DVD. “We’ve been trying to do this for 22 years! Back then, when we almost had a chance at recording a live performance, the record company actually backed down at the last minute, because they felt the music wouldn’t be consistent with what people wanted to hear on radio.”
“ I wanted to do the DVD for the fans, of course, and also for promotional reasons. Right now we’re trying to get group work in Europe, where they’re more inclined to book you if your music is more straight ahead or jazz fusion; they’re not inclined toward ‘smooth jazz.’ Having the DVD is a way to show them what a band like Special EFX is all about, that we’re contemporary instrumental music and we can deliver what they’re looking for.”
Chieli and Special EFX, along with Pamela Williams and Kim Waters, were given an opportunity by Black Entertainment Television to record in this studio, located on Toronto Inner Harbor on Lake Ontario. The Harbourfront Centre Theatre has as its vision ‘a vibrant home for the culture of our time, inspiring people through the magic of the creative spirit.’ Its mission is ‘to nurture the growth of new cultural expressions, stimulate Canadian and international interchange and provide a dynamic, accessible environment for the public to experience the marvels of the creative imagination.'
Chieli said, “Basically, it’s a ‘no frills’ performance in that it doesn’t include things like interviews, but it’s nicely done, and beautifully filmed. It’s a basic performance and a good way to show what Special EFX is about.” Indeed, the studio has a striking ambiance; the lighting and camera work enhance the show immensely. The superimposed images and the effective movement between the players demonstrates the work of seasoned professionals.
Chieli explained how doing a DVD is different and more challenging than doing a CD. “It’s totally different, in that, on the DVD, it’s simply us performing live. You get something reflecting your performance that day. In CD production, you have more control, in that you can change and tweak things.”
I wondered how each song was played, whether it was all in the order shown on the DVD, and whether or not there was an audience. Chieli explained, “Well, there were about six people in the audience -- just the tech crew! We were followed by Pamela Williams, and we got a late start because our equipment wasn’t quite ready and so we played straight through, from ‘Courageous Cats’ to the last one, ‘Cruise Control.’ We’d play two songs and then take about a fifteen minute break, and then continue with two more songs. We intended to include ‘Kickin’ It Hard’ at the end, but simply ran out of time.”
Chieli started off with exquisite lead-in solo guitar work on both 'Courageous Cats' and then on 'Speak to Me,' each eventually finding its way to the familiar sounds of these two favorites of Special EFX fans. They continued with 'Daybreak,' a breathtaking song from earlier days of Special EFX which features Philip Hamilton’s awesome vocals and percussion, which began in dim light, then gradually brightened, for an engaging effect.
'Body Beat' contained simply amazing solos on the part of each player. It was captivating the way the band punctuated Lionel Cordew’s drum solo, which was impressive. Chieli says it was “decided on the spot that these solos would be done, just improvisation from one musician to the other.” Besides this highlight of the performance, Chieli’s work with Philip Hamilton on ‘Speak to Me,’ where Chieli’s guitar and Philips vocals speak back and forth was so enjoyable and entertaining to watch.
'Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers,' by now a Chieli signature song (composed by Stevie Wonder), was, as always, hauntingly beautiful, especially with the way Chieli can make the guitar cry. 'Still Waiting' showcased the raw musicianship of each performer with its complexity. The popular radio hit 'Cruise Control,' which by now has evolved into an extremely high energy number, was a terrific ending to the entire performance.
David Mann and Jay Rowe each added so much to the performance with exhiliarating solos, and the rest of the band, as usual, came through with steady and solid playing throughout the performance. Each song had an outstanding ending. Watching the way images of each player were superimposed on each other made each song so fascinating. One of my favorite shots was of Chieli's guitar playing superimposed on a shot of Jerry Brooks' talented bass-playing -- that was a stunning section of the DVD.
Watching Chieli’s face was, in itself, a highlight of the show. He communicates that intense effort, the sheer concentration, the feeling of confidence/triumph when he knows he’s playing just the way he wants to play. I wondered if it feels like a lot of pressure or is it just plain fun? “It’s what I do, it’s what we do as musicians. We’re just out there playing the songs, letting them take us where they take us. We have cues to each other that aren’t obvious to most people who would be in the audience, so we know where we’re at.”
I wondered how Chieli felt after the performance, and whether he realized the band had delivered a truly superb performance on everyone’s part? “I felt comfortable that we performed well,” he commented. Chieli didn’t see the show right away, having to be whisked off to another performance. “Later, I went through it with a fine-toothed comb to be sure it was ready for release, and although there were a few things to fix (i.e. an electronic noise that came from ‘somewhere,’ which had to be replaced with a more fitting instrumental sound), basically the DVD is intact as it was recorded.”
Chieli is pleased with the DVD and sees this live performance recording as be a steppingstone to a follow up Chieli Minucci with Special EFX CD which promises to feature the same level of improvisational style that’s on the recording. A goal of Chieli’s is to have the record company be able to focus on Chieli’s name in the context of the Special EFX name. This is a change from the time Special EFX was associated with George Jinda, percussionist extraordinaire and former partner in Special EFX, who passed away in 2002.
One of the most interesting things I learned about Chieli during our interview is that, contrary to what I thought, he does not have that ‘perfect plan’ for each song driving the performance, being so careful and making sure everything is ‘just right.’ Instead, he’s happy to have the initial plan and then go with that and see where it takes him and the members of the band, being admittedly vulnerable while reaching to the limits of their capabilities. “Some songs are played as they’re written,” he said, “but then there are embellishments that are added, and as they’re played, we keep making changes as we go along.” That leaves me with only one conclusion as to how a performance such as this can appear so perfectly orchestrated: Chieli and Special EFX are simply that good at what they do.
Projects that are coming up for Chieli include participating in fellow Special EFX band member Jay Rowe’s ‘Smooth Jazz for Scholars,’ to be held on April 29th in Milford, Connecticut. “It’s been a successful fundraiser and a lot of fun, and many other artists are also participating: Marion Meadows, Jeff Kashiwa, Nelson Rangell, Rohn Lawrence and others.”
Chieli will also have the pleasure of having his son Gianluca join him in playing bass on a number with the band on May 5th at the Intermedia Arts Center in Huntington, New York. In addition to other shows that are scheduled (please visit www.chielimusic.com to check them out!), the most exciting thing coming up is the ‘Chieli Minucci and Musicians for a Cause' November cruise, sailing out of Miami, to benefit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The cruise, hosted by Chieli himself, will feature artists Jay Beckenstein (leader of Spyro Gyra), Kim Waters, Gerald Veasley, Phil Perry, and Slow Train Soul.
And as if he’s not busy enough, fans can begin to anticipate that, as Chieli says, “during the summer, I’ll be writing and recording my next CD, Chieli Minucci with Special EFX." Doesn’t that sound like the Chieli we all know?
To learn more about Chieli Minucci and Special EFX, and to order the DVD for yourself, go to www.chielimusic.com.
To visit the location of the DVD recording studio, go to www.HarbourfrontCentre.com
Beverly J. Packard
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Photos Compliments of Chieli Minucci