Earth, Wind and still on Fire

March 02, 2006|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

The result could have been a disaster: a legendary soul band with a mile-long list of classics collaborating with hip hop-raised performers and producers, folks who were in diapers during the group's heyday. But luckily for Earth, Wind & Fire, its newest album, Illumination, peppered with eight guest appearances from rap and "neo-soul" artists, is far from an embarrassment. The set retains elements of the band's signature sound: the serpentine horns, the jazz-influenced harmonies, the sun-kissed songs of romantic love, the mystical lyrics of spiritual love. But the overall production is given a heavier bottom and a sleeker sheen. Live instrumentation warms tough, programmed beats.

"It's important to refresh the way of thinking and doing things musically," says longtime E,W&F vocalist Philip Bailey. "You can get so stuck in what you've done in the past that you can't move on into the future."

The band, which plays Rams Head Live on Tuesday and Wednesday, sounds invigorated throughout the 13-cut CD, which includes collaborations with the ubiquitous will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas, Destiny's Child's Kelly Rowland, Floetry, Brian McKnight and Raphael Saadiq. Though Illumination, released by Sanctuary Records, didn't receive the promotional support it deserved, the industry still took notice of the sterling set. Last month, it received a Grammy nod for best R&B album. The 35-year-old group, which owns eight golden gramophones, lost to John Legend's smart debut, Get Lifted.

In putting Illumination together, the founding members - Maurice White and his brother Verdine, Ralph Johnson and Bailey - wanted to work with younger artists whose approach complemented the E,W&F sound. Bailey says he and his band mates weren't trying to re-invent themselves and compete with the Ushers and R. Kellys of today's R&B.

They were inspired by the multi-artist album formula that revamped Santana's career six years ago. But unlike the guitar god's past three efforts on which he worked with younger artists from various genres, the guys of E,W&F don't sound like guests on their own album. They kept the overall production in a modern soul bag. No pandering to hip-hop heads. No obvious bids for pop radio. So despite the various cameos (soft rock sax man Kenny G even shows up), the music is fluid.

"We're very privileged to collaborate with people to keep ourselves fresh," says Bailey, who's calling from a tour stop in Phoenix, Ariz., "and it gives us a shot in the arm to do things a different way. We identified individuals who had elements that were similar to ours in certain respects. All of their music is steeped in a traditional R&B context lyrically or philosophically."

Hands down, the finest collaboration on Illumination is the mid-tempo, eight-minute jam "Show Me the Way," a duet featuring Maurice White and Saadiq. The two have similar vocal textures that sound great together. And Saadiq's smooth, horns-and-strings-accented arrangement brilliantly updates E,W&F golden mid-'70s period. That was when the group was spearheaded by unsung Chicago producer-arranger Charles Stephney, who died in 1976. Before his death, Stephney oversaw classic, platinum-selling E,W&F albums such as 1974's Open Our Eyes, 1975's That's the Way of the World and 1976's Spirit.

"In my estimation, we haven't made a great record since [guitarist] Al McKay and Charles Stephney left," says Bailey, whose trumpet-like falsetto soared through such E,W&F classics as "Reasons," "Fantasy," and "Serpentine Fire." "It was like having a great Super Bowl team then. Back in the day was a magical time. But this time with Illumination, there was that synergy and magic in the studio, working with the other artists. I can't lie: We have made some dogs over the years. Every album we did wasn't great, you know. But [Illumination] brought some of that magic back."

Although the album is a nice return to form, so to speak, Illumination still isn't in the class with the aforementioned Stephney-produced albums from the mid-'70s. Sometimes the raps, especially from will.i.am, seem pointless. (The bonus track with Kenny G, a smooth jazz cover of OutKast's "The Way You Move," is indeed pointless.) Musically, the new CD isn't as adventurous as E,W&F's classic material. But it's unfair to expect the guys to be as daring as they were 30 years ago. They're well into their 50s now. (Leader Maurice White, who no longer tours with the band, is in his 60s.) To stay relevant in the music game, you have to be open to change. However, the key, Bailey says, is to never compromise who you are.

"It's been by the grace of God that we're still here," says the proud father of five grown children, a 2-year-old son and another child due in May. Bailey, 53, is based in Los Angeles. "For me, it's always been about doing different things. ... If you're still jazzed about the possibilities, the chances of you coming up with stuff that has flavor is more conceivable. It keeps you going. Like working with the younger artists. It reminded us of who we are. Sometimes you need that."

Check out Earth, Wind & Fire at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Shows start at 8:30 and tickets are $55 in advance and $60 at the door. For more information, call 410-244-1131 or visit ramsheadlive.com. The band also plays Constitution Hall, 18th and C streets N.W. in Washington, on Saturday. The show starts at 8. Tickets are $70 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visit ticketmaster.com.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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