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Chicago Transit Authority / Chicago II / Chicago III

Marc Davis By

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Enter the album name here Chicago, the rock band, is not what you remember. Well, it is, but it's also more than that.

The Chicago you remember is the hit machine of the '70s: "25 or 6 to 4," "Beginnings," "Make Me Smile," "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?" and many others. Of course, Chicago is also the wimp rock machine of the '80s: "Hard to Say I'm Sorry," "Hard Habit to Break," "You're the Inspiration" and "Will You Still Love Me?" Rough stuff.

But wait—there's a third Chicago, the band you don't remember, and maybe never heard. It is the jazz-tinged Chicago of the first three albums: Chicago Transit Authority and the imaginatively titled Chicago II and Chicago III. This is music that's not just jazzy, but sometimes actually jazz.

Mostly you can hear it on the non-hit album cuts. Chicago had, of course (and still has), its signature three-man horn section: Lee Loughnane on trumpet, James Pankow on trombone and Walter Parazaider on flute and woodwinds. This was the muscle behind the jazz sound in many early hits.

Enter the album name hereThe brass section was also—along with keyboardist Robert Lamm and guitarist extraordinaire Terry Kath—the driving force behind actual jazz numbers. Listen to the first three albums, back in the day when Chicago was a true jazz-rock band. There are extended solos, psychedelic trips, brass duels, wailing guitars and even free-form jazz.

Chicago Transit Authority, the debut album of 1969, is powered by Kath's nasty guitar. In the seven-minute "Free Form Guitar," Kath crafts a noisy, Hendrix-esque, unaccompanied solo, followed by the angry blues of "South California Purples." Hit songs and album cuts are filled with jazz touches. The album culminates in a 14-minute jazz-rock jam called "Liberation." Even Peter Cetera, who later turned Chicago into mush, turns in powerful bass tracks.

Chicago II has many of the early hits you remember, but also instrumental touches that make it a jazz fan's pleasure. The wonderful seven tunes that make up the "Ballet for a Girl in Buchannan" suite include the familiar "Make Me Smile" and "Color My World," but also three instrumental tracks. The four-song, 10-minute suite "It Better End Soon" starts with a hippy anti-war anthem and continues with funky flutes (undoubtedly influencing Ian Anderson), hardy trumpets and wailing trombones and guitars.

Chicago III features the funky hit single "Free," but also one entire LP side of instrumental rock-jazz, a suite called "Elegy," in which horns mingle with traffic noise, flushed toilets (a not-too- subtle take on the state of humanity in 1971), a groovy Hammond B3 and rockin' guitar riffs. The album also includes a five-minute, free jazz piano-flute duet called, appropriately, "Free Country."

For many jazz fans of a certain age, Chicago—at least in its earliest incarnation—was the gateway drug that led to Miles and Diz and Chick and Trane. It's still great music for fans of psychedelic rock and jazzy experimentation.


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