Audio Caviar - Transoceanic (2007)

Audio Caviar
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Open Our Eyes was the last Earth, Wind & Fire album where the group made its jazz influences explicit. Up until then, Maurice White, who had played drums for Ramsey Lewis in the 1960s, ensured that EW&F albums drew from jazz, funk, rock and world music. Those early albums - especially Last Days and Time, Head to the Sky and Open Our Eyes - served as a platform for the group's fusion of spiritualism and Afrocentrism, and funk with world music, but jazz remained an important part of EW&F's repertoire.

Open Our Eyes was the last Earth, Wind & Fire album where the group made its jazz influences explicit. Up until then, Maurice White, who had played drums for Ramsey Lewis in the 1960s, ensured that EW&F albums drew from jazz, funk, rock and world music. Those early albums - especially Last Days and Time, Head to the Sky and Open Our Eyes - served as a platform for the group's fusion of spiritualism and Afrocentrism, and funk with world music, but jazz remained an important part of EW&F's repertoire.

In fact, Mark Ruffin, co-host of the NPR jazz show Listen Here, goes so far as to say that EW&F made some pretty interesting jazz-fusion in those early days. That all changed in 1975 when the album That's the Way of the World became an R&B and pop smash. The sound changed on subsequent albums as the group made the successful move to accommodate pop sensibilities. While jazz influences remained on songs like "Biyo" from Spirit, that album was dominated by radio friendly tunes like "Saturday Nite," "On Your Face" and "Getaway" that made Earth, Wind & Fire famous.

So in a way, the disc Transoceanic can be seen as taking the EW&F sound full circle. I say the EW&F sound because Audio Caviar, the outfit that made Transoceanic, includes several current and former elements of group also known as The Elements of the Universe. Audio Caviar was founded by EW&F original member drummer Ralph Johnson and Morris Pleasure. Johnson and Pleasure envisioned Audio Caviar as a trio that would play small combo acoustic jazz. The lineup expanded and eventually grew to include EW&F alums like Al McKay and Paulinho De Costa and current members like Phillip Bailey and Verdine White and the world famous EW&F horn section. The project then grew to include longtime collaborator George Duke and R&B and legends Jonathan Butler and Howard Hewett.

The diversity of talent ensured that the project's scope expanded to include R&B influenced ballads, smooth jazz, world music and jazz/funk fusion. It all falls together nicely. This CD doesn't have any of the sameness or lack of creative adventure that afflicts many so-called "smooth jazz" recordings, which often tend to find a one tempo and remain there.

Transoceanic isn't perfect. The disc both opens and closes with the song "Hookline," but the by-the-numbers instrumental version does nothing but provide ammunition to critics who say smooth jazz demands little and gives even less. That point becomes glaringly apparent after listening to the vocal version of "Hookline," which is a strong, radio friendly mid-tempo ballad. And the consecutive musical interludes that have long been staples on EW&F recordings, here simply interrupt the flow.

However, there's a lot to offer on Transoceanic. Audio Caviar doesn't allow a groove to become a rut. The group moves from mellow songs like "Now that I've Found You" and "Jodie" to up-tempo jazz/funk fusion pieces like "5th House." This song, with its tempo changes and interplay between the guitar and keyboards shows the band has the chops the challenge the average listener while still making music that is accessible.

This is probably not an album that will make it onto the list of must-haves of any jazz purist. Still, Transoceanic is a cut above most recordings that get labeled as smooth jazz. The musicians improvise and employ chord changes, but they clearly don't forget about the listener, resulting in an album that is both technically interested and very listenable.

By Howard Dukes

 
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