This year marks an incredible 25 years since New York based guitarist Chieli Minucci joined forces with the late percussionist George Jinda to form the popular world beat driven jazz duo Special EFX. In the ten years since Jinda suffered a stroke that ended his career (he ultimately passed away in 2001), Minucci has divided his catalog between Special EFX recordings and solo outings, each of which reflected different parts of his own musical personality with a rotating batch of N.Y. musicians. For the first time since signing with Shanachie in 1999, the guitarist sheds the dual identity and brings the best of his multitude of styles together under the name Chieli Minucci & Special EFX. Sweet Surrender is a unique mixed bag that touches on the classic old Special EFX sound that’s gone missing for years; his cool, melodic smooth jazz side; and more of the wild and expansive guitar fusion adventures he has included a few times before on earlier solo efforts.
Sweet Surrender starts off with the in your face, retro funk “Guitarzz,” which features a playful, hypnotic guitar melody (then a guitar-sax duet with David Mann) over a thick and booming bass bottom by Jerry Brooks. Minucci wrote this specifically for gigs he did as part of a touring unit with fellow guitar superstars Chuck Loeb and Paul Jackson, Jr.
“Mystical,” inspired by a mid-80s tune Minucci wrote for SFX, is pure grooving magic, with a little of the exotic spirit he and Jinda used to create. Considering that record labels generally like to put all the radio friendly cuts up front to ensure that programmers will find something easy to promote, it’s incredible that a rocking fusion blast like “Astralcats” is so high in the tracking. Minucci’s smooth jazz fans might resist its thumping, blistering power, but this trippy, fast paced jam shows off Minucci’s edgy rock side perfectly. If that’s too much, he follows with the collection’s most beautiful track, the easy swaying title cut that’s safe and simple, yet eloquent and irresistible. As its title suggests, “Ascension” is a six-minute plus romp geared towards taking the band higher; Minucci mixes a silky sax-guitar melody with colorful, quick guitar improvisation lines over Lionel Cordew’s aggressive drums. It chills in the middle for some cool old school soul jazz runs on the Rhodes by keyboard whiz Jay Rowe.
Then Minucci, confident that his fans will follow his creative journey wherever it goes, take us out East for an experimental meditation with an ambient “Chant” led by vocalist Philip Hamilton. It’s sensual and spiritual for a while, but runs a bit long at close to eight minutes. The happy schizophrenia continues on “Cry Of My Soul” as Minucci serves up a crisp, anthemic power ballad with a mix of “weepy” and slow burning electric guitar sounds. “Play With Me” is seductive urban pop, while the two “Rush Hour” pieces contemplate the gentle spirit of “Dawn” and the more raucous energy of “Rush” (rendered with a fascinating swirl of multiple guitar textures). The ethnic, African tinged clap and singalong track “Children’s Day”—which honors the annual “Children’s Day” street festival in Minucci’s hometown of Forest Hills, New York—is pure and playful, vintage SFX, complete with the guitarist’s wordless vocals and Mann’s whimsical flute. “New Bop” is another feisty, hard grooving fusion guitar-driven jam, less melodic than intense; these kinds of tracks could gain Minucci an audience beyond his usual smooth realm. The guitarist wraps “Sweet Surrender” with the easy loping “Au Naturale,” which displays his remarkable fingerstyling ability that will remind listeners of Tuck Andress. While a lot of smooth jazz veterans keep things safe and in the pocket, Minucci is to be commended for stretching and daring his fans to surrender to the entire range of his vast artistry. There’s a little something for everyone, and that seems to be his intention.
- Jonathan Widran