Chieli Minucci (1994)
By Ralph Burnett
There has been a lot of good music made since guitarist Chieli Minucci and Hungarian-born percussionist George Jinda formed a group called Special Delivery and recorded their first project for a small Dutch label back in 1982. "A go-go band in Washington D.C. had the name 'Special Delivery'," recalls Jinda, "and they had a very bad reputation of not paying people and the usual sleazy music business thing, and Larry Rosen told us, 'man, you guys have got to change your name' -- that's when we came up with Special EFX."
It has been more than a decade since George and Chieli first met. "I had been playing in a band with a mutual friend, Fernando Saunders," recalls Chieli, "who right now plays bass with Heart. George heard one of the tapes that we made and was attracted to my playing. When we got together I played some of my earlier instrumental tunes and George really dug them."
"I found he was a good writer and offered for him to become my partner," recalls George.
For Chieli, joining with George was not just another jam, but a way to build a musical future. "I look back at myself as was very ambitious as a kid," recalls Minucci. "I was always playing but I never really thought to much about how to plan out my departure from being unemployed to employed. When I met George, that was the first time I met somebody who had already been in the business for awhile so he had a clear path as to how to achieve that. It wasn't long after we got together to play music that George said let's make a demo tape and this is where we're going to send it. I still have the list in his hand-writing from when we first solicited record companies. He was the first person I knew who was incredibly motivated to achieve a record deal with the kind of music we did (which I consider to be totally non-commercial). The partnership was really important because I was very much geared towards being a musical director and writing charts and composing, composing, composing. And although George is a composer to, he really helped motivate me in the areas that were also non-musical, which were just as important in making the band survive."
George describes the process of making records analogous to practicing Obstetrics. "Sometimes it's like your delivering a baby, you know. You go into the studio and you have a basic idea but really you don't know until the project is finished, how it's going to come out." Special EFX has been through labor and delivery 11 times, and after nine successful progenies on GRP (and one of the first artists signed to that label), Catwalk marks their sophomore release for JVC and signals a musical remodeling complete with a fresh new sound.
"I was dying to have the change since I produced Mark Johnson's record," says Jinda. "When I was in the studio with Mark I said this is the s--- man, that's what I want to do. It was enough of this Brazilian, African, romantic, NAC-happy-jazz kind of a stuff -- personally, I was just sick of it. But this record is more jazzy than anything we have done under the name Special EFX and also more pop in the same time."
"At least they don't call us 'new age' now," says Minucci. "In 1987 we did a record that the first five songs didn't have drums, and for a minute there, we were called new age. The more funky stuff that Special EFX is doing now, I'll be honest with you, took me awhile to get used to listening to. As a player, I enjoyed it tremendously, but if it wasn't for the live shows, I wouldn't know where all of it was coming from."
We believe that our new album is breakthrough for us in terms of using drum loops and some of the modern tools of recording," states Minucci. "It's not so much using funky rhythms, it's just the way they sound on this record against George's percussion in particular. I don't think a lot of radio stations are up to date on that yet. It seems radio doesn't like anything that's too pounding. NAC want's to keep it kind of easy to listen to even if it's really funky and hip. And we have a couple of tunes on our record that are just that, but the rest of it I think is kind of 'in your face' and we like that."
Special EFX's move to "hip-hop-bop" (a term borrowed from one of the song titles), was not exactly dictated by their fans. "We actually had confrontation at shows for the first time in years," says Minucci. "We've been playing a lot of jazz festivals this spring and summer and at one of them up in Syracuse, there was somebody yelling at us to 'play jazz!' It was great [Chieli laughs], he through a soccer ball at us -- it was amazing, the cops carried him away, and we were just pounding. After that, the band sounded even better -- it was like we had been in a accident together and we like came together because of it. Right now, what we're doing live is simple but it's really hard, it's very rhythm oriented and everything's nastier sounding and it's really giving a edge to the music. I guess the straight ahead jazz people are finding it a little bit disconcerting to hear the wha-wha guitar and all that."
Although most of the material George and Chieli bring in to record stems from outside colaborations, each record traditionally has one or two songs that are conceived in the studio and tend to sound more improvisational or they simply perform all the parts themselves. "On this release it's 'Concrete Jungle'," says Chieli, "which is the classic Special EFX formula of George going in and layering some rhythms, and as he did, I got inspired. I had headphones on with a keyboard and I was coming up with little things and he liked what I did. He put down like three parts and I said 'let me do this now.' We would just take turns layering the thing together and busting each others balls as to what sounds best. When we play live, one of the pieces is always an improvisation between the two of us as a duet which now, with the present kind of funky stuff we're doing, is really a shocker and very ethnic in nature. t's like [George] pounding on the talking drum with me just like going wild on the acoustic guitar -- it's something we wound up recording as a result of doing it live like that for awhile."
Along with a fresh crop of originals is a slick cover of Marvyn Gaye's "Mercy, Mercy Me." "I like the message, what the song is all about," explains George. "I am really into fighting for our environment, and I'm not doing it because it's fashionable but I'm doing it because I'm believing in it. And I really like what the words are all about and also I love Marvyn Gaye, I always did, and I love the song period. I gave it to Mark Johnson and he came up with the arrangement and I just loved it -- it was almost like a new tune. Chieli brought James Robinson into the picture and he nailed it in the studio. He's like a virtuoso -- incredible range and very good pitch. That guy is seriously happening."
Continuing a well established tradition, George spent time writing material for the album with Hungarian-born keyboardist and long-time friend, Szakcsi. "It's actually very easy for us to write narratives like "The Nitty Gritty" because we grew up on presenting and playing this type of music but with a real rhythm section, not with loops, and that tune took us like maybe an hour or maybe an hour and a half. That was the very first song we wrote when we started to try this so called funky type of compositions."
One of the more playfully suspicious titles on the album is "George Can't Dance." "Ask Chieli about it," says Jinda, "he named it, it's his tune. All I know is I'm just dancing on stage when he is announcing it. Right away I'm doing a twist -- my favorite moves -- thinking about Chubby Checker and my years as a teenager."
In spite of being products of totally different backgrounds, musically and otherwise, Chieli and George have sparked a chemistry that continues to burn brightly. "I grew up on the Stones but I got into fusion when I was a teenager," explains Chieli, "all guitar oriented stuff. Lately I like listening to bands like Tool, that are really nasty and angry and extremely loud sounding (even at low volume). And I don't know what it is, man . . . they hit me right in the E chord, you know, every guitar player knows those chords. I love John McGlaughlin, Jeff Beck and some of the guys that bridged the two styles, not so much jazz, but making rock instrumental more interesting harmonically -- that's the stuff that I really dig."
"I have like a thousand CD's," explains George. "I enjoy listening to like old Miles Davis -- rather those than the current contemporary stuff, which I listen to once or stop half-way through. I might wait a week before listening to the other half or I never do. Sometimes after two tunes, I just think life is too short to listen to garbage, you know. And some of those records are selling huge amounts of numbers."
"We're constantly agitated with each other, with music," states Chieli, "but, I mean, it's accepted by both of us. We've been together a long time but we have major differences that we try to make work to our advantage. It's give and take -- partnership. Making this record was really easy to actually do but conceiving it didn't come together very easily because we both wanted to try something different but we didn't know what it was. I give George the credit for actually coming up with the solution on a few songs, in terms of the new sound of the rhythm section, and that was achieved by using drum-loops, which doesn't sound so different but is a modern way to record."
"I heard Pat Metheny is using loops with his new recordings," says Jinda. "I'm not doing it because it's fashionable or because I'm trying to make money, I'm doing it because I like it. And Chieli's playing -- Chieli's showing he's not just some other good rock 'n' roll guitar player playing so-called contemporary jazz music. Check him out on "Mercy Mercy Me" and "Concrete Jungle" . . . it's like Benson, and I mean playing his ass off -- lots of chops. The guy is growing and growing and growing. People have to take him seriously. He deserves much more recognition than he's getting as a guitar player."
"All is new again," concludes George. "I mean, I am old enough to remember . . . you know."