Big Band Rock: In the beginning there was Blood, Sweat, and Tears. But right now the band to hear is Illustration, a unique and infectious group personality. 
By Bill Amatneek 
Rolling Stone Magazine, June 25, 1970 

“Blood, Sweat, and Tears is embarrassing to me. They try to be so hip, they’re not . . . I know what they try to do: they try to get Basie’s sound with knowledge.”  — Miles Davis 
In the beginning there was Blood, Sweat, and Tears. Everything else here follows from that commercial premise. 
What was interesting about BS&T was not their style alone, but that their style succeeded; that several million fans bought their record, although their music was casually acquainted with rock at best. Nine studio musicians from New York, with completely different instrumentation, repertoire, arrangements, and riffs from any other group which had come down the pike. 
What gave them appeal, I think, was eclecticism and integrity of their music. Every note they played had a distinct reason for being there; each was meaningfully placed and clearly executed. BS&T upheld the integrity and potency of the single note in the midst of an idiom not marked by economy of statement. They respected their own tunes more than most groups, devoting to each cut the full attention due an “A” side. Their style succeeded, enough at least to make somebody feel there was a potential market. Quickly setting the machine in motion, they have strung together, rushed into the studio, and dumped on our heads, a dozen new groups of this genre. The ones considered here were simply the closest at hand. 
For label freaks the music is Big Band Rock, the newest addition to the rock mutation family: raga, folk, acid, country, and probably just as short-lived. Short-lived because most of the groups here, it is safe to guess, did not form because they dug jamming together, because some arranger had raging ideas expressible only by a big band, or some composer thought it would be “far-out” to experiment with an enlarged rock-jazz format. Most likely, it was because they wanted bread. What can we expect from a style based on dubious musical motivation, filling a synthetic need? An unvital, undirected, unfocused sound. Which is pretty much what these records give us, with rare exception. 
These groups range from seven to thirteen members, and all have in their arsenals: bass, guitar, drums, keyboard, sax, trumpet, trombone, lead vocalist, and chorus, with occasional other miscellaneous instruments. In addition, most had dubbing equipment at their disposal during their recording session so that theoretically they could have as many as whatever instrument or voice they wanted on every track. This has the double effect of adding to the group’s size and power, while diminishing its ability to swing and stay loose. Playing to a pre-recorded track is like playing to a metronome. Rhythmically (and spiritually) that added player must stay beat for beat with the section being played back, with no possibility of mutual inspiration, communication, or time warp. 
Do this dubbing frequently or unskilfully enough and the final effort will either sound murky, layered or undriving which is a syndrome to be found on the albums of Ambergris and Lighthouse. It should be kept in mind that all this instrumentation does not make these simply large-sized rock groups, but the bastard offspring of the big band and the rock group frolicking in the recording studio. 
The bulk of the responsibility for keeping one of these leviathans going lies with the drummer, who can make or break the live group and the arrangements. Big band drumming, the ability to flow propulsively with or “swing” a large group of musicians, regardless of the idiom, has a long tradition with its own historic figures such as Buddy Rich, Louis Bellson, Sonny Payne, and Mel Lewis. Drummers experienced in small groups cannot sit behind a big band and expect to strap it right on; it’s a pursuit that takes extended practice and experience. For example, Larry Harlow, Ambergris’ drummer, does as good a job as any in providing the beat, but when it comes to fills indicating phrase or section transitions, be falls short. He flubs his cues, and, when given an opportunity to show some flash, he gives us the same old thing that he’s been using all along, with a minor variation here or there. 
Daniel Seraphine’s drumming is noteworthy simply because he plays specifically for his group, Chicago. The music on this, their second album, calls for complex rhythm transitions, which Seraphine handles well. He fulfills the delicate role defined for him by Chicago’s playing and arrangements. 
Ant then there’s Illustration’s drummer, Claude Roy, who is so fine . . . He plays for his group and with the music. He relates to the rhythm in a different way for parallel sections of a given tune, he swings, he’s got chops, he listens. 
Although the rhythm sections seem to come to these groups through rock experience and gigs, the brass and reed men generally sound like they have jazz backgrounds, and their arrangements have been written in the style of jazz wind sections. The presence of brass and reed players provides most of the jazz feeling in this music, and their mode of playing is highly specialized, with its repertoire of riffs and articulations. When the chart calls for trumpet rips or sax smears that are carefully done, the effect is just beautiful, and some of these groups (certainly Illustration and Chicago) have mastered the playing of tight wind sections. Lighthouse’s section is made particularly through the lead trumpet of Bruce Cassidy. His rips soar off into space, bringing the whole brass section along. 
Any big band rock record needs a series of tunes or compositions which are strong vehicles for the group’s playing. Good compositions are a string of right decisions, bad compositions are a string of wrong decisions. Wrong, like stamped, uninteresting, unmemorable, dull. With this in mind, it’s clear that some of these groups fall through the use of too few good compositions. Ambergris is especially burdened by weak tunes which would take nothing less than a Joe Cocker arrangement to make them sound. Their best numbers, “Forget It, I Got It” and “Walking On the Water” are memorable mostly because they are snappy, up-tempo tunes, not because they are good compositions. Lighthouse, too, relies upon tunes which are not so much poor as outstandingly mediocre. 
Another important factor in good compositions is the writer’s composing for the group that will be playing the tunes. Duke Ellington used to write tunes displaying the specific musical personalities of his band members. Similarly, Chicago’s main writer and pianist, Robert Lamm, composes not so much for specific instrumentalists, as for the general capabilities of his group. “Wake Up Sunshine”, “Fancy Colours”, and “25 Or 6 to 4” are the strongest tunes on the album and are all by Lamm. He has developed a sensitive ear for Chicago’s abilities, and his tunes show them at their most wailing. 
James Pankow, their trombonist, penned their most complex piece, a musical excursion through a range of moods and musics, including exuberant pieces (“Now More Than Ever”) and peaceful, serene sections (“Colour My World”). They flow together smoothly enough, but “Ballet For a Girl In Buchannon” suffers from too much complexity and change of mood within each movement and within the opus. One of the ways Chicago uses four sides of recording time so well is through long, tension-building introductions and solo sections that help suck the listener into whatever is happening. Had Pankow used this technique to establish one mood before moving on to another, “Ballet . . .” would have been more successful. 
Illustration’s tunes are generally right on. Bill Ledster, their vocalist, wrote a couple (“The Road,” funkily sloppy and “Box Of Glass”) which are outstanding, and organist John Ranger wrote one called “Life Tasters, Time Wasters” which I like. Mostly, they are engaging compositions, not just space fillers, which musically give this band the right vehicle for expressing themselves. And along with better compositions, Illustration gives us relief from the banality from the usual rock lyrics. Ambergris’ “Chocolate Pudding,” on the other hand, is an example of the bullshit you need a shovel to get through on some of these sides. [excerpt omitted
Arrangements: what will be played when and by whom. The average rock band can take a tune and, without writing down a note, slowly mould its final form through processes of musical alteration and addition. Most of the arrangements on these records, however, were probably written out, each player receiving a lead sheet on which the part for his horn was musically notated. These parts are often altered during rehearsals, but the basic premise of a big band arrangement is usually a written score (or chart) with written parts to be played as written. 
High responsibility for the group’s final sound then lies with the big band arranger. He’s got to know each composition thoroughly, the melody, harmony, and what the mood of tune and lyrics are trying to convey. He must know music theory cold, have a good ear for voicings, and be able to write for the specific instruments best suited for the piece; generally, possess the formidable skill of creating a unique, exact sound for ten musicians—his ten musicians. The individual strengths, weaknesses, and working ranges of each instrumentalist and vocalist, the musical personality of each man must be considered in his scores. Any weakness in any of this and it all comes out as shitty music. The tradition the arranger joins has been passed on by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson. Obviously, being a musical genius helps. 
Lighthouse is one group whose weak arrangements are particularly damaging because they obscure the considerable number of elements this group has going for them, even extra-musically. Lighthouse has this double jacket album which opens up to a beautiful photograph of them playing live, thirteen hard-working cats having a good time. Stashed inside is a one-page blurb by their manager, printed over a peace symbol which explains how Lighthouse “speaks out for the world wide peace movement.” Also quotes from news reviews of live performances attesting to their infectious good vibes. It gets heavy, but generally the blurb, the photograph, the cover photo, the whole visual-verbal package which precedes the record, predisposes you to enjoy their sounds. 
They also have a large group—thirteen musicians—and instrumentation which promises an exciting range of styles and effects. Lighthouse can be thought of as having three sections: a string quartet of two celli, violin, and viola; a wind quartet with two trumpets, sax, and trombones; and a rock-rhythm nucleus of keyboard, bass, drums, and guitar. These are lead, moreover, by good players. Cassidy, as I mentioned, is an exceptionally strong lead trumpet, pianist Paul Hoffert heads the rhythm section and violinist Paul Armin, who has country as well as classical chops, leads the strings. They all play spiritedly, and in spite of shitty over-dubbing and mixing their enthusiasm for playing cuts through. 
All this potential, however, is lost through their arrangements. Their large size is over-utilized resulting too often in a wash of sound that sets the whole spectrum vibrating. Some string and wind ensemble passages are scattered through the album and cleverly written, too, but mostly the stings get drowned in the flood of volume. The four vocalists are tight, but their harmonies are too saccharine and lilting against the considerably harder instrumental voicings that back and surround them. The continual use of this type of harmony overlooks the occasions on which it is uncalled for. “Country Song,” for instance, is a sensitively adapted country-western tune which starts with an authentic enough country fiddle break and features a duet lead on the verses. But then the chorus comes in with that style again, sweet, sliding, and totally foreign in the rest of the arrangement. It is this kind of unfocussed, undefined arranging which most hurts Lighthouse’s effort. 
Chicago is Columbia’s entry in the big band race, and it was from their first album that we learned those now old favourites like “Beginnings” and “Does Anybody Really Know”, and through that album’s jacket that we were unavoidably introduced to the verbiage of James William Guerico, Chicago’s producer and eighth phantom member. Their second album is another Guerico double-record extravaganza, dedicated (remember this is on Columbia, the monster of the recording industry) “to the people of the Revolution . . . and the Revolution in all its forms.” 
But then there’s the music. Chicago fans will dig this album because musically Chicago has simply extended its effort another four sides, with little change in approach. The playing is just as tight and polished, the arrangements are in the same groove, the lead vocals are as ever; only the tunes have changed, and they have improved. Chicago is for the fans who enjoyed CTA. Rip off a copy from your local record store, since after all, it is dedicated to the Revolution. 
“Ambergris is whale puke,” it says right here in their advertisement. Produced by Steve Cropper, guitarist for Booker T & the MGs and most of Stax/Volt, which impresses me, anyway. Their arrangements, most by Jerry Weiss, are uniformly heavy-handed and thick. Loud and brassy stamped harmonies and effects that get to be grating by the end. Fred Lewis’ two arrangements are more authoritatively brash and colourful. 
Illustration is definitely the most creative, together group in this collection. They have two lead vocalists: the guy, Billy Ledster, sounds like Tom Jones on his high notes and David Clayton Thomas on his lows, and the uncredited chick singer [Cherri Saint James] is heavily influenced by Janis Joplin and Diana Ross, but they both retain their own identity and sing unpretentiously. The ten musicians are also unusually strong players. They sound as though they have gigged together for a while, and they stay on top of each tune from the first note with snappy, tight playing. Claude Roy is at the root of that, and he’s got the magic for big band drumming, as well as a good assist from bassist Richard Terry. 
The arrangements are exceptionally together, too. Delicate use and balance of colours, find sounding wind ensembles and baritone, cutting in funky/raspy at the bottom. The arranger had the balls to scale down when needed and score for just organ trio or double pianos when delicacy was called for. It is through his arrangements that Illustration succeeds more than any other band here in projecting a unique and infectious group personality. Hopefully their record will get some of the attention it deserves and survive the initial wave of big band groups.