Those who read my column know that many of my articles contain the same two words in the form of one composer/artist�s name: Chieli Minucci. I�ll admit there�s a reason for this. He simply happens to be the favorite of my favorite artists in contemporary jazz. Hearing "My Girl Sunday" from his Sweet On You CD a few years ago led me to not only his music and that of Special EFX, but also coincided with my own gradual discovery that the music I love best is actually in a jazz category.
By the time I discovered Minucci, I had already become familiar with many of the saxophone players on the scene, and I concluded that the saxophone was the instrument of choice to best underscore the jazz in jazz music. It took a little time for me to notice what the guitarists were doing. Once as I stood in line at a concert, I overheard a lively debate over which instrument � the guitar or the saxophone � best captured the essence of jazz. I wondered how there could be much of a debate about it, but as time went on it was guitarists like Minucci who made me have a new understanding of such a debate. Now I know why there is some controversy, and I remember smiling to myself at the debut of a group in recent years with the name Guitars and Saxes. A perfect solution, and a great way to make the point that not only do both instruments work well in this genre, but they complement each other very well. At this stage of my jazz listening, I enjoy when both instruments are present in a song or at a live show. I almost expect this to be the case, wondering with the release of each new CD, what guitarists are featured on the saxophonist�s CD, or which saxophone players are guests of the guitarist. However, there was one night when I found myself at a show with one guitar and no sax.
Like others who fall into the category of what I call a megafan with regard to an artist�s music, I try to get to any show within a reasonable distance that features my favorite artists. In September, a relatively short two-hour drive put me just south of Baltimore near Jessup, Maryland, at a venue called Rapture Live that was hosting two shows for Special EFX. The two shows were combined into one, and to make up for the change, we were promised a very special one-show performance.
The Rapture Live venue must be the best-kept secret in Maryland! The ticket price included a wonderful buffet, and the crowd turned out to be intimate groupings of four to eight people at a table, all with a great view of the band. It had a private party atmosphere and our hostess Chris (pictured here with Chieli) was terrific and quite personable, giving meticulous attention to the guests. This gal has been working hard to book some accomplished artists, so all you jazz aficionados should definitely keep an eye on the rapturelive.net website.
Getting back to the �no sax� in this show, earlier Special EFX shows I�ve attended always featured a saxophone player. And the saxophone players that I have heard play with Chieli have been the best � players like David Mann and Jeff Kashiwa � I�ve seen them with Special EFX and also at their own shows, and in both cases, these are shows I don�t want to miss! But this show was minus a saxophone, and I was eager to experience the difference.
In a word, I learned something about Chieli Minucci in Jessup that night. He is dynamite when he�s up there at center stage and stays there! I say that to point out how extremely, totally talented he is, and not to take away from the talent of sax players with whom he�s shared the spotlight. In fact, it was Jeff Kashiwa, playing with Special EFX at Berks Jazz Fest, who made the statement, �I am so lucky when I�m asked to play with a band like this � it�s like someone asking me to take a ride in his Jaguar.� And it�s true! Notwithstanding that Jeff Kashiwa is quite a passenger to have on board, Chieli and Special EFX certainly provide a most sought-after, top-of-the-line musical framework within which to showcase an artist�s talent.
And who were the members of Special EFX for this show? Jay Rowe, keyboardist; Jerry Brooks, bass player; percussionist Philip Hamilton; and drummer Brian Dunne � each of whom was an integral part of everything played and each one prominently featured. I have seen each of them play so well in past shows, but I must admit, I saw each of them rise to new heights at this show under Chieli�s masterful leading.
If you are an avid Chieli/Special EFX fan and you were not there in Jessup, I almost feel I should send you my condolences when I think of what you missed. Simply put, I never saw Chieli more ON and I never saw his band more super-charged in their playing and in their response to him. He�s really very comfortable in center stage, pulling the band together, reminding them of what�s coming next and giving the nod of affirmation (which they seek) when things go well or when they�re making a transition. Chieli is a perfectionist. He led perfectly and they followed perfectly, each one of them playing with more skill and together showing more synergy than I�ve ever seen before.
It was hard to believe what Chieli did with the guitar. I couldn�t even begin to explain the sheer amount of skill, heart and soul that accompanied this performance. And the more intricate his solos became, the more the band responded with moments of equally stellar performance. Jerry Brooks, who usually remains somewhere in the background of the placement on stage, had one of those synchronized sort of �duels� with Chieli, and he was so far into it during his playing that I was sure he was going to jump out in front and give us a solo show on the bass � he was more expressive and funky and into it than I�ve ever seen him, what fun to watch! And if you could have on film those expressions of the drummer as he orchestrated his sound and the effect he knew Chieli was after, well, it was like the most intense form of excruciating, exquisite effort and it met with great success. I could tell Chieli was well pleased with Brian Dunne.
Chieli began with �Courageous Cats� from Jewels, then followed with �Speak to Me� from Masterpiece, �Daybreak� from Global Village, �Dreams� from It�s Gonna Be Good, �Body Beat� from Body Language. Later he launched into a medley, starting with �Beginnings� (It�s Gonna Be Good), moving on to �Waiting� (Special EFX), which included a beautiful lead in to �My Girl Sunday� (Sweet On You) with Jay Rowe on the piano. �Cruise Control� (Butterfly) was a most awesome arrangement, you had to be there, but it went on and on and we could have kept cruising all night, no problem! Chieli varied some of the songs, changing the arrangements somewhat (after all, he�s a master composer) and I�d say the changes worked very well. Philip Hamilton was featured with his great work on percussion and his astounding ability to sing vocals. Wow, he�s got his own CDs, no surprise there; check him out at philiphamilton.com. It goes without saying that Jay Rowe always makes the show so much fun; his expressions are priceless as he responds to the crowd responding to him! And he�s another very talented artist with his own CDs and website, don�t miss jayrowemusic.com.
Chieli, relaxed and with a ready sense of humor throughout the evening, played his heart out, and yes, this has always been true of him, yet somehow during this night he seemed to crank it up to a different level and let it all happen. I�m so glad he did. I can still see the ease with which he carried himself and the band to new heights on this incredible night. What a memory it is!
Now in the studio working on his next solo CD to be released in March of this year, Chieli will feature a fantastic line-up of artists, including regular Special EFX players Lionel Cordew, Jerry Brooks, Jay Rowe and Philip Hamilton, along with David Mann, Jeff Kashiwa, Kim Waters, Steve Oliver, and Gerald Veasley. Aptly titled, Got It Goin� On, any serious listener will certainly agree that he and these artists will have it goin� on for many years to come! Visit his website at chielimusic.com to get a sneak peek at the song titles for the new CD, as well as learn more about him and his music.
As always, happy jazzin'
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Photo credits: Michael Packard