The Elektric Band has been a five-headed mythological animal. Its interpreters have been the talk of the town for years, identified as an artistic, technical and even didactic reference: but those were profoundly different times from today, and I think we need to contextualize quickly before talking about them.
We are in the 80’s. “The beginning of barbarism” was the title of an essayist. But if you look at it with hindsight, the scenario in Western countries was not bad at all and the future looked bright. The Berlin Wall would fall in 1989 and computer technology was spreading company by company, house by house, driving the economy.
In music the imperative was electronics, a revolution that started in the previous decade, but that in those years saw the definitive takeover of power compared to the traditional rock-jazz instruments.
The fusion, and i mean the “funk jazz fusion”, lived its golden age, and an increasingly large audience began to turn to musicians previously relegated to the shelves of fans.
In this ferment of exponential growth was born a group that will mark that period and that genre in an indelible way, becoming its polar star. There was no need to explain it, the name was enough. It was Chick Corea‘s electric band.
He is an artist who certainly doesn’t need any introduction, but whose spontaneity and naturalness in proposing and making music out of the most complex materials are always impressive. It was with the same ease that he rode one of the most impervious passages of jazz and its surroundings, the one to an electronic push, to a total digitalization.
It was 1986 and Chick Corea was able to absorb and translate into music the gigantic shock wave of the changes taking place, which would have overwhelmed and made a passive interpreter of anyone who did not have his artistic range. A real risk that has burned many less far-sighted artists. He, on the other hand, succeeded in the enterprise, he kept the logical thread of his exciting world of sound and managed to bend all his equipment to it, and not vice versa.
And once again what struck us was his ability to evolve: from Return to Forever in the 70’s to the Chick Corea Elektric Band in the 80’s. Twenty years on the cutting edge, constantly renewing himself, remaining true to himself.
1986 The Chick Corea Elektric Band: a dazzling debut
“The Chick Corea Elektric Band” (GRP Records) was released in 1986, at the height of the hi tech storm. Entirely produced by Corea himself and strongly marked Yamaha, to reaffirm the dominance of land of the Rising Sun in the sector.
If we read between the credits we find him using and programming an authentic arsenal: his Fender Rhodes “midized” to a rack of Yamaha TX816 synthesizers, the classic Fairlight CMI to the third generation of synths (after having served Stevie Wonder, Duran Duran and Peter Gabriel just to name a few), the analog Minimoog and Synclavier along with a true best seller as the Yamaha DX7 always filtered by TX816 racks along with the Yamaha KX-88 midi keyboard, and finally a Linn 9000 drum sequencer. Analogy and digital in a very close union. Surely also a market-oriented decision, as the result of commercial strategies, nothing wrong.
Yet the quality of the composition and the interpretation of the chosen artists produced a result of high emotionality, adrenaline, enhanced by the presence of Carlos Rios, one of the most underrated guitarists, and of Scott Henderson, viscerally blues and innovative at the same time.
Especially in this first work Corea shows one of his strong points: the melodic/thematic material. Material that seems perfect for the complex funk matrix fusion developed by the prodigious and unprecedented rhythmic couple Weckl/Patitucci: an absolute novelty that became a trademark of great influence.
The almost bop exposure of a track like “Got a match?” with a Latin theme or the brilliance of “Elektric City” bear the recognizable signature of the hand of Armando Anthony Corea, aka Chick. The complexity of the plots is never an end in itself, falling within the canons of jazz dialogue son of the improvisational culture of the 70s and evolution of the widespread jazz funk movement then in vogue.
The role of GRP Records
It was a shock for the environment and not only. The genre began to change genetically and to cross boundaries of popularity and influence also thanks to the skills of GRP Records, a label born in the 70’s to follow the smooth jazz that in the 80’s lived a real boom thanks to a glamorous and luxurious fusion, hyper-produced that showed talents stolen from jazz in glossy clothes, with fluctuating results from the artistic point of view, but of sure grip on an increasingly large audience. In those years passed by GRP names like Gary Burton (snatched from ECM), Billy Cobham, Lee Ritenour, Kevin Eubanks, Diane Shure, contributing to build a brand still immediately referable to the period.
1987 Light Years: the electric masterpiece
Not even the time to assimilate the debut and the following year comes out what is unanimously recognized as his most successful work under the name Elektric Band: “Light Years” (GRP records 1987).
The merits seen in “The Chick Corea Elektric Band” are here brought to an even more effective level.
The thematic material is definitely more communicative and all compositions enjoy a less dispersive. The brilliance of some solutions is still noteworthy.
Corea’s intuition was fundamental in bringing a couple of decisive changes to the line-up that reached its final form. Two more new faces for the international limelight.
The guitar of the australian Frank Gambale and the sax of Eric Marienthal.
The saxophone, absent in the previous work, strengthened the communicative and emotional components, making everything more “cantabile” (singable) to use a term unsuitable for the context. They were years in which the influence of David Sanborn’s approach was still in the air: “Straight to the Heart” was released in 1984.
Melodic approach made even more homogeneous by the passage of Frank Gambale on guitar, a virtuoso with cleaner and more intelligible lines, the bearer of a technical innovation, sweep picking, which helped to reduce the distance between Corea’s jazz phrasing and saxophone legato. Even the rhythmic parts are more compact and persuasive.
An approach addressed to a wider audience that at the beginning made the most conservative journalists turn up their noses, but that soon made a breach in the heart of public and critics who fully understood the operation.
A succession of perfectly balanced and dynamic tracks. “Time track”, the initial title track and “Starlight” reverberate a powerful and refined funk attitude and alternate with moments of greater relaxation such as “Second Sight” or “Prism”.
The solo albums of the co-stars and the obsession of virtuosity in the ’80s
The success of this record was the driving force behind a series of solo records by the co-stars, records that became cult objects among musicians and aspiring musicians. Among them, i would like to point out Gambale’s first work, “Brave New Guitar” (Legato 1986), but also John Patitucci’s “On the Corner” (GRP 1989), which had a considerable market response. The 80’s were the manna of guitar virtuosos, a trend whose success was short-lived, soon exhausted by an excessive production added – in my opinion – to the poor artistic consistency of the phenomenon.
1988 Eye of the Beholder: the sound restoration
Inexorably, GRP Records struck while the iron was hot and “Eye of the Beholder” was released promptly in 1988. Three years, three records.
No new line-up, but among the studio’s producers we see the direct intervention of the owners of the label, Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen: GRP stands for Grusin Rosen Productions. The first an accredited composer of soundtracks in Hollywood and the second a real manager and record producer.
The intervention was influential, because the sound of “Eye of the Beholder” shows itself devoid of all the electronic superstructures of the previous ones; it becomes more classic, cleaner.
This work lays bare the Elektric Band and its textures: the level remains very high and the material does not lose freshness and dynamism; the state of form is excellent giving a more traditional record without betraying the sound physiognomy of the formation. On the contrary, bringing out a trait hidden by Yamaha racks until that moment: the innate elegance.
“Eye of the Beholder” is a refined work. The title track and “Eternal Child”, in their quotable moments, reveal the restorative intent, almost a declaration: a return to the origins; not a return to Return to Forever, of course, but certainly the desire to resume the discourse with a more modern and less contaminated aesthetic. Intent that in the end unfolds along engaging tracks and aesthetically to be reported as “Beauty”, “Ezinda” or “Passage”.
Do not miss the tracks in which the refined funk jazz is redesigned with weaves of greater complexity (“Trance Dance”) or in the electro-acoustic mini-suite of “Cascade”, but the three minutes of solo piano of “Forgotten Past” represent a natural breath to be found in the midst of the hubbub.
The Chick Corea Akoustic Band: a phenomenon within a phenomenon
A need for cleanliness that led Corea, the following year, to form an acoustic version of the Elektric Band, the Chick Corea Akoustic Band with Weckl on drums and Patitucci on double bass. Traditional jazz formation that won a Grammy in the category and ranked first on the Billboard Jazz chart.
A surprising mutation between the electric and acoustic versions, a result of sublime quality.
1990 “Inside Out”: a new balance
“Inside Out” can represent a synthesis of the two previous works. The rhythm, while remaining in its characteristic weaves, is more sober and is combined with a Gambale harmonically less present, but with a more decisive nerve, to leave room for the pianism of the leader (“Make a Wish”) that plays, this time, to dose the synthetic sounds.
You can feel the space around and the band ventures into excursions often defined as post bop, which were already well present in the previous “Eye of the Beholder”, but here they are load-bearing and readable thanks to less instrumental saturation. Certainly the experience of the Akoustic Band left its mark, so “The Stretch”, “Child’s Play” and the dynamic final suite of “Tale of Daring” seem successful electric extensions.
1991 Beneath the Mask: the inevitable decline in inspiration
The penultimate work is the result of a certain tiredness of inspiration, I think it’s perfectly normal, and at the same time excessively tense to meet the tastes of a wider audience to be able to maintain the artistic importance expressed until then.
The performers are such that we can not speak of a misstep, but certainly a work under tone. Held by a rhythm section more present and explicit, Corea seems in search of an extreme, winking, synthesis. Attitude that, let’s be clear, Billboard rewarded more than the other works scoring a 2nd place in the genre charts.
In short, the time to turn the tables had arrived, after the long electric ride from the mid-80s to early 90s.
Even the most successful moments seem to be under the sign of an excessively soft fusion to be proposed by a giant like Chick Corea: “One of us is over 40” and its ethno nuances or “Jammin’ E.Cricket” are not able to scratch this impression.
1993 “Elektric Band II: Paint the World”: the swan song
“Beneath the mask” then revealed the tiredness of the line-up and between personal vicissitudes and parallel projects, Corea changed three-fifths of the line-up, remaining with only Marienthal on sax. Patitucci/Weckl and Gambale’s guitar had become essential elements, and their replacement caused an inevitable loss of identity.
The excellence of the names involved (Mike Miller, Gary Novak and Jimmy Earl) produced a work of great cleanliness and ideas, pleasant to listen to, but too distant from the original personality and almost comparable to other names in vogue in the fusion scene (“Ished”).
A more introverted Corea reveals moments surely able to delight the sound pupils (“Silhouette”, “Space”) and the refinement of the artists gives intriguing situations such as “Paint the World” or “Tone Poem”, but in the moments where the tension rises the combo is correct, but not so engaging (“Final Frontier” and “Spanish Sketch”).
The recognizability of the line-up of the works from ’87 to ’91 remained etched in the imagination, and in a field where there is no lack of excellent musicians, it is the personality that makes the difference.
The original band will reunite in 2004 on the occasion of a soundtrack, but the story of this mythological animal can be said to end on the occasion of “Live from Elario’s (The First Gig)” in 1996, closing a golden era whose patina will no longer be scratched.
To Chick Corea, for the wonderful worlds he has opened up