Tuesday, July 30, 2013


California Transit Authority released their second full length disc in the spring of 2013. Sacred Ground is an electrifying, jazz-rock set with tasty grooves, razor sharp horn arrangements and great melodies to the fore.

The tracks are propelled by the immaculate foundation work of legendary drummer, Danny Seraphine. He is at the top of his game, surrounded by a group of impeccable players that include Marc Bonilla on guitars/vocals, Ed Roth on keys, Mick Mahan on bass & Peter Fish on additional keys. Special guests are Larry Braggs on lead vocals, Bill Champlin, Will Champlin, Wes Quave and Eric Redd on lead & backing vocals, Monet Owens on backing vocals, Luis Conte on percussion, Travis Davis on bass & backing vocals, Andrew Ford on bass (Strike), Rick Keller on tenor sax & flute and horn orchestration, Jamie Hovorka on trumpet & flugelhorn, Chris Tedesco, Walt Fowler, Rob Schaer & Gary Halopoff on trumpets and Francisco Torres & Nick Lane on trombones.

It would be fair to say that long-time fans have likely been waiting for something like this since Chicago VII.

Leading off with the title cut, Will and Bill Champlin deliver pristine vocals that float over a tight group cooking hotter than a blast furnace. It makes for a compelling opener, brilliantly executed. "The Real World" continues the onslaught with a signature Seraphine percussive intro, brass parts that could walk a tightrope and Larry Braggs' tenor voice tying it all together. Bonus points for Bonilla as his guitar takes flight in tandem with the horn section. The prospective listener is swept away right out of the gate, with a prevailing mood of joyous abandon permeating the playing. There are detours into the mists of the past with Seraphine's own "Take Me Back to Chicago" and a blistering cover of "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" from the first Blood, Sweat and Tears LP. Braggs excels, pouring his soul into the microphone. These pieces mingle seamlessly with the new material.

Tipping their hat briefly to what came before, CTA then proceed to musically tear it up, creating their own rules of engagement with feet firmly planted in the present. Experimenting successfully, they pull off some mind-blowing playing on the instrumentals "Primetime" and Peter Fish's killer "In the Kitchen", featuring Luis Conte on percussion. "Staring at the Sun" is another highlight, with Bonilla and Will Champlin pairing their voices perfectly. One of my favorites is "Full Circle", which Bill Champlin delivers in a classy, heartfelt manner. Poignant as it is perfect, the subject matter refers to Seraphine's own return to playing music after a long hiatus from the business.

With a record of this calibre, his efforts are more than welcome. It is not by accident that he consistently lands on lists that feature top drawer players.

Marc Bonilla deserves special mention for his horn arrangements, in addition to stellar writing and playing. The entire CTA crew is in rare form here. The production is incredible, with a clarity of sound that manages to retain the vibe of takes done live off the floor.

Sacred Ground is a must have for those who want to hear world class musicians coalesce, wrapping their collective energies around solidly constructed songs. There is not a note wasted over 14 tracks and you will return to this set often. Highly recommended listening. Own it right here

Monday, July 22, 2013


Danny Seraphine is a world class musician, composer and a founding member of Chicago. He anchored the rhythm section of this iconic group for 23 years until his departure from the band in 1990. Rolling Stone Magazine recently ranked him as one of the top 100 drummers of all time. When he was coming up on the music scene, no less a light than jazz legend Buddy Rich called Seraphine his favorite young drummer. In addition to his prodigious gifts behind the kit, Seraphine co-wrote the Chicago Top 40 hits "Lowdown” and “No Tell Lover,” as well as core tunes like "Little One," "Take Me Back to Chicago," "Show Me the Way," "Birthday Boy," and the irresistibly funky "Street Player,” later sampled by rapper Pitbull for the hit "I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho).” Twice the recipient of Lifetime Achievement Awards from both the Cape Breton and Montreal Drum Festivals respectively, he continues to hone his craft.

Following a 15 year hiatus from the music business, Seraphine returned to form a stellar new outfit called California Transit Authority (CTA) and they recorded/issued a disc called Full Circle in 2007.

2013 has brought music fans another gift with the release of the second full length CTA album, Sacred Ground, which you can purchase here

Find out more about CTA at their website

Mr. Seraphine was kind enough to take time out to chat with me about the new CD. He proved to be as genuine and easy going as he is talented.

To start off, what is your earliest musical memory?

DS: My earliest musical memory...Probably watching my uncle play drums at some family events and weddings. He was a really good drummer.

Do you remember your first gig playing drums?

DS: I don't have a lot of clear memories of my earliest musical event...though I do have one from high school or grammar school where I was playing at a dance and I was playing "Wipe Out" (Sufaris hit from 1963) Everybody was going, "Go, Danny, go!". I had pretty good hands, even then. (laughs) Also, I started playing with the Gene Krupa recordings, so I developed a kind of swinging flair with the traditional grip and I was already applying it to rock and roll. It was kind of cool. That's what I do remember most.

What are the advantages of the traditional grip over the matched grip?

DS: The angle of your left hand lets your stick rest on the snare, where you can ghost note as much as you want, you know. The volume is also a bit softer, too. Also really gives you an edge when playing smooth double stroke "press" rolls. Your left hand technique is more of a circular "press" than a vertical hit.

Turning to the current project, Sacred Ground is really easy on the ears. It's a fantastic recording.

DS: Thank you.

What song most proud of on this record?

DS: Sheesh! (laughs) that's a loaded question. "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" is a really great drum part that I put a lot of thought into and I think that it's pretty inventive. Sacred Ground has a great groove. Hmmm... "The Real World" has a really cool drum pattern, you know. I also really like "Staring at the Sun", though, I tell you, for a really great straight rock tune, there's "Out of Reason".

"In the Kitchen" is a monster instrumental track.

DS: Yes! You know, I was just looking at itunes and that is one of the top most streamed...as far as individual songs, one of the top selling individual songs. You're right, that's pretty cool.

It reminds me of some of the stuff that Buddy Rich was doing in the 70s, material from the No Jive compilation. Huge compliment to you as a player. The groove is solid and the percussion (congas) really makes it.

DS: I had Luis Conte with me on that one. Thank you, I'm glad that you really like it

How much preproduction, rehearsal did you do for this recording?. Did you all get together and jam, feel each other out and was it the same unit that did the first CTA project?

DS: Pretty much so. Pretty much so. With, uh, a couple of other people plunked in at different spots, different songs. What we did which was pretty unique to this album, and I really...we really utilized technology and to work for us. We got together, Marc, myself, Nick McCann, Ed Ross, and we got together and we said, "Let's write a record. Let's write an album. Let's get together" Well, first we have to see how it goes. We knew we wanted to write a record and get it done... It took three years. (laughs) We would jam and we recorded it with the hard drive. Obviously the hard disk. We recorded and then listen back when we heard something cool, we looped it, we tried it, Marc then would cut and paste it into a song and so we kind of wrote and sometimes we started out with some changes with ideas for a song. Ed had some changes - some ideas and we'd just take it and run with it, you know. Um, so must of the album was done like that, "In the Kitchen" was written by Peter Fish. He wrote that on his own. With "Take Me Back to Chicago", he arranged that for me...did a whole new arrangement. It's kind of similar in parts in that there's enough of the original that you recognize the song, right? "Staring at the Sun" was put together on the fly, recording bits and pieces and then splicing it together. Then we'd go into the studio to cut it in total. That was just how we wrote the record. It was really cool. I mean, I think you can hear that...it's got a really spontaneous, live feel and yet it's structured.

In the studio, did you record live, off the floor? Because it does have that vibe.

DS: Yeah. Definitely. It was, you know, that was very inspired. Like, "The Real World" for example. If you listen, there's a really weird quirky off time kind of thing that's just a great groove. Marc and I came up with that and then, you know, we found a way to make it work. We had one Chicago cover ("Take Me Back to Chicago") and I said, 'Let's do a Blood, Sweat and Tears song' and then we said, 'Okay. Which songs do you want to do?' That song "I Can't Quit Her." And I said, "You know, 'I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know' is my favorite BST song of all time. And so we did it, we really turned it upside down. But there's enough in it, enough of their arrangment in it, so that you recognize it. We took it in a different direction with the guitar solo. The Jimi Hendrix style guitar solo in the end is just blazing. And Larry Bragg...Larry does the vocal arrangements. His vocal performance is just off the charts. He said, 'You want me to sing this? That's a real challenge.' Because Donny Hathaway's version...everybody considers that to be the Holy Grail. And so, I think we managed it. Larry did a phenomenal job. Al Cooper heard it and he really complimented it.

Love the horn charts on the album. Who wrote/arranged them?

DS: Marc Bonilla, who is a really great musician. He did a great job with those parts.

Were you the defacto band leader in the studio? Or was it a democratic process with Marc and the other musicians?

DS: It was Marc and I, you know, Marc and I predominantly, then everybody has their face time. We really tried to keep somewhat democratic in a way, but if you get too democratic...you compromise yourself into mediocrity. So, you can't do that either.

There always has to be a band whip. Like Buddy Rich, who led some pretty great bands in his time...

DS: Oh God, yes...

It's not uncommon for the drummer to be captain of the team.

DS: Marc Bonilla and I...we're both pretty much alpha dogs. That's just the truth. We have a great respect for one another and it shows through. If I go to them with something that they like but I really don't like it? Well, they'll usually honor me and vice versa. And if Marc comes to me with stuff that really bothers him? Well, there was something that I really liked on this record. It was a background part on 'Take me Back' that I invented in the studio and I really loved it, but it really bothered him. It was going to bother him until the day he died. I said, 'Okay. I'll give it up.' Same thing with Ed. I'm a band guy. I love bands. It takes work and they can be a pain. And in this day and age it's really tough. Touring is tougher than ever. Economically, it's just...it's almost, at times, impossible, but the byproduct? The end result is just so good, especially with this record. We're all so proud of it. You know, it's doing quite well for this market, and I hate to put the asterisk next to it, but CD's just don't sell like they used to. The reality after this one is that we probably sold the same amount of CDs as we have digital downloads.

On that note, what is your opinion of the current culture of itunes and contemporary delivery chains for music in general? Do you miss certain processes from the past?

DS: I miss selling a couple million CDs...(laughter) Well, it's really tough to say. The good thing is that we have complete control...complete creative control and all. I miss certain things, but the culture of 'free music' and 'why pay for it?' isn't a good thing. Free downloading has really hurt the industry. There's no way to turn the clock back and make it go away so I have to live with it. Nonetheless, I feel that we've made a great record that will stand the test of time. The same is true of the first album, I mean, that's still selling. That will sell for 50 years. And I believe this record will sell, even better than the first record, for sure. The first record has some great merits and it's got great energy, too.

I think I know the answer to this one but have to ask, do you prefer the analog or digital recording process?

DS: Really, you might be surprised here, but I do like more modern recording techniques. Sure, there are a lot of great things about analog, though, we have a really great engineer by the name of Mark Green. His studio's called The Green Room in LA, that's in the valley. He really knows how to get all the plug ins and stuff. He's an old school engineer to begin with, so he pretty much knows. The engineers...the really good engineers, the great engineers, are really good at emulating analog with digital. What I'd like to do...and maybe with the next record we'll do this...is, ah, find a really good Studer machine, one that's in really good condition and use it for the basics and then go over to digital.

Recording software like Pro Tools and Logic make certain parts of the process a lot easier.

DS: I have overdubbed drum parts, but I did it in analog, too. Used to be really good at it in analog, which is 10 times harder. I do have Logic at home, by the way. I love Logic. I'm not that great with it yet but I really like it.

You received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2010 Cape Breton Drum festival. Having grown up in that area, I am curious about your recollections of that event. When you went to receive your award, were you able to take in some of the local music scene?

DS: No, unfortunately I didn't. I loved the area. Bruce (Aitken) was a very, very close friend of mine. Bruce and his ex-wife. It was great, probably the best drum festival in the world.

On a final note, is there any new music that has caught your attention? Anything that you are listening to now?

DS: Not particularly. I find that a lot of it is too over-processed for my liking.

We are definitely on the same page on that. Too much button pushing, not enough soul. I want to sincerely thank you for taking the time to chat with me, sir. As I mentioned, Sacred Ground is a great record and something that you should be extremely proud of. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

DS: I appreciate that, my friend, thank you again.

All thanks go to Mr. Seraphine for his insight and generosity. Stay tuned for my review of Sacred Ground! Here's a little taste of CTA.