By Jonathan Widran
In 2004, when the popular indie new age/jazz/world label Higher Octave Music was absorbed into Narada — which later was gobbled up by Blue Note — a great trend in instrumental pop music seemed to hit its end. In the 90s and early 2000s, Higher Octave was a major outlet for famed arena rockers getting their mellow middle year grooves on, with everyone from Craig Chaquico (Jefferson Starship) to Journey-men Jonathan Cain and Neal Schon and Yes’ Jon Anderson releasing compelling albums to a fan base that was aging as gracefully as they were.
While scattered on various independent labels that have popped up in recent years, all of them are happily still recording when they’re not doing more lucrative tours with their classic bands. But it’s their classic, ultra-soulful and melodic HOM output from a decade ago that comes to mind while enjoying the colorful mix of rock, pop, soul and jazz influenced instrumentals and vocals on Jim Peterik’s Lifeforce, the debut contemporary urban jazz offering by the still-going-strong rocker.
Unlike the above mentioned artists who are known primarily for their associations with one major band, Peterik has a unique, two fisted resume whose catchy hits define two eras in pop music. As a founder and lead singer of the 70s group The Ides Of March, he launched his career with the horn-drenched rocker “Vehicle”; Ides could be considered a one hit wonder, but since reuniting in the late 90s, they’re still touring constantly like they’re in their early 20s. Slightly younger pop fans know Peterik as the voice of Survivor, that early to mid 80s hit making machine responsible for love-‘em-or-loathe-‘em still popular karaoke hits “Eye of the Tiger,” “The Search Is Over,” “Burning Heart” and “I Can’t Hold Back.” He also penned hits for other artists, including “Hold On Loosely” and “Caught Up In You” for .38 Special.
Still in the rock and roll jungle most of the time, Peterik has divided his time these last few years between Ides and his latest band, Pride of Lions. But all that rockin’ takes its toll on a 58-year-old soul, and the Chicago area based musician is happy to chill out on occasion and listen to his longtime musical love, smooth jazz. In many ways, Lifeforce — is his coming out party after being a closet fan of the instrumental genre for so long.
“Yeah, that’s me, the secret smoothie!” Peterik laughs. “Maybe this will shock my fans, but when I get off the road and am hanging out at home, I don’t put on Kansas or Journey, I listen to classic tracks by Acoustic Alchemy, Keiko Matsui, Dave Grusin and David Benoit. And it’s not really a recent phenomenon. My wife Karen and I have been living and breathing that music even before there was an official radio format for it. When I’m away from it for too long, I need my fix and when I get back to it, I’m like the kid in the candy store. It just felt like the right time to take a shot and make music that reflects this true passion.”
While his longtime friend and fellow Chicagoan Nick Colionne is helping him build connections in the genre — and contributed a colorful guitar solo to the anthemic mystical rock jam title track — Peterik is mostly working with longtime musical cohorts, some of whom are also in Pride Of Lions. Because of his successful ongoing history as a bandleader, when the idea of doing a half vocal/half instrumental project struck after doing background music for his wife’s website, there was no question he would pursue a group concept rather than a solo effort. This extra firepower — which includes co-lead and backing vocalist Lisa McClowry, saxman Steve Eisen, guitarist Mike Aquino and drummer Ed Breckenfeld — also allowed him to dig a little deeper sonically than many of his favorite artists do on their radio singles.
And just to make the transition easier for fans of Ides and Survivor, he stocks the 10-track collection with cool revamps of “Eye of the Tiger” (taking a crisp, mid-tempo, R&B/blues electric-guitar/horn approach that Colionne no doubt digs), “The Search Is Over” (an expansive, slow-building atmospheric duet with McClowry) and “Vehicle,” all muscular punch and sizzle but which includes a surprising, swinging, West Coast trad jazz breakdown in the midst. The Matsui-like opener “Joy” and well-rendered inspiration-minded vocals like “Unconditional Surrender” and “Ghost Orchid” are likeable, but Lifeforce’s heart and soul — and the listener’s attention — is clearly on the reworked hits.
“From the get go, I was keying in on the melodies,” he says, “starting with lyrics but then stripping them away to create strong instrumentals the listener can hum, as opposed to chordally based pieces. I love lush sonic landscapes just like anybody but as I started writing, the edgier melodic vibe is what naturally emerged. Working with players who are much more well-versed in jazz than I am was a great challenge. I worked closely with (keyboardist) Scott May on ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and just told him to ‘twist the chords, do those demolished fourths and demented thirds like the jazz guys do, keep twisting.’ Then Ed my drummer would help me find the groove. For ‘The Search Is Over,’ I told them I wanted to start with an a capella, Annie Lennox flavor. And that swing thing on ‘Vehicle’ just happened spur of the moment — it wasn’t charted out or anything.
“With Lifeforce,” he adds, “I see myself as the writer with the nugget of a great idea but it was a collaborative effort and one that had a truly loose and playful jazz spirit. It’s very liberating after sticking to strict pop/rock structures over the years. Rock is so primal but jazz is a way to explore a more sensual side of my artistry. The good news is that I’m committed to making Lifeforce an ongoing thing and I’m excited about getting out and touring with this group. And yes, I’m sure I’ll be doing new treatments of other songs. The .38 Special tunes would adapt especially well — so ‘Hold on Loosely’!”
For five nights just before the 2008 election, renowned pianist and jazz educator Eli Yamin turned the reliably blue New York into a bona fide swing state, playing with his longtime quartet at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz At Lincoln Center in celebration of his latest dynamic independent release You Can’t Buy Swing. Driven a bluesy yet romantic playing style that draws from the Thelonious Monk-Duke Ellington brand of energetic bebop, the 11-track collection opens with a lively autobiographical nod to his long fulfilled ambition (“I Want To Be A Teacher”) and includes pieces that hit a wide range of moods, from reflective (“Getting Somewhere”) to cleverly optimistic (“Bop To Normal”). Yamin sticks close to home on the charming and lyrical “Waltz on the Hudson” but shows global reach on the brooding and slightly exotic “Rwandan Child.” Yamin dedicates the album to his mentor, legendary jazz drummer Walter Perkins, who once told him that “you can have the biggest names and it’s not necessarily going to swing!” For the pianist, then, swing is “about believing in your team, listening, trusting, working together and committing to the outrageous opportunity of this moment.” A great jazz and swing ambassador who has performed at concert halls and festivals throughout the U.S., Europe, Japan, India, Mali and China, Yamin’s home base is as the Artistic Director of The Jazz Drama Program and Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Middle School Jazz Academy; the latter appointment was made by Wynton Marsalis. Among his accolades are six widely performed jazz musicals for children and Suns of Cosmic Consciousness, a recording he did as part of the jazz/world music collective Solar in 2005. For more information: www.eliyamin.com
1) Walter Beasley, Free Your Mind (Heads Up) – The veteran saxman gets America’s new era off to a soulful, easy funk start with the African-spiced “Barack’s Groove,” which is just part of his overall goal to engage our grooving spirits while inspiring us to chill and reduce the stress in our lives.
2) Hot Buttered Jazz: Celebrating The Genius of Isaac Hayes (Shanachie)
3) Jane Monheit, The Lovers, The Dreamers and Me (Concord Records)
4) Diane Landry, It’s A Lovely Day (JazzMaDi Productions)
5) Incognito, More Tales Remixed (Heads Up)