Mention Chieli Minucci and Special EFX in jazz circles, and you’ll incite big round smiles from ear to ear on the faces of your audience. The poly-versed guitarist who formed the world fusion group Special EFX with the late drummer George Jinda in the early ‘80s has been keeping busy with composing scores for numerous side projects and touring with his band Special EFX which presently consists of drummer Lionel Cordew, bassist Jerry Brooks, keyboardist Jay Rowe, backup vocalist/percussionist Philip Hamilton, and saxophonist/flutist David Mann. Special EFX are currently on tour in the States for their latest album Sweet Surrender which was released in 2006 by Shanachie Entertainment.
"The whole CD had a concept which developed in the months prior to the recording," Chieli Minucci (pronounced Kee-eli Mee-noo-che) details. "I wanted to create a tapestry of songs which reflected the varied styles Special EFX has pursued over the last 25 years. World fusion music, progressive rock, duos/trios, light pop instrumental, smooth jazz - it's all there. It's nice to listen to CD’s which go in many stylistic directions. I grew up on the Beatles and that was always their concept. I believe it's the most interesting one, even in instrumental music."
Sweet Surrender is a melodic fusion of contemporary jazz with elements of rock, dance, trip-hop, blues, and bebop soul. Their song "New Bop" from the album displays the band’s musical versatility as Minucci explains about the track, "This song was written to showoff the band's talent in the 'new fusion' style that we often perform in concert. It's a fun song for our drummer, Lionel Cordew who's a master of polyrhythms and other percussive trickery. In a way, I wrote it with him in mind since he's always messing around with the rest of us at our live concerts, trying to undermine our sense of 'time.’"
When Minucci is composing songs, he takes into consideration many points of view including what will challenge his players and also please his audience. One of those audience members is Shanachie’s A&R representative, Danny Weiss who has been a friend and an advisor to the band and acted as Executive Producer during the recordings of Sweet Surrender. Minucci reports, "Danny would come over during the final phases of the writing and give a thumbs up or down to the 'commercial' pieces, with love, of course. He'd also have an occasional suggestion for the arrangements, usually based on radio-play concerns. Being the record company's A & R rep, his biggest concern is if I'm writing and producing music which will sell the CD for Shanachi. It makes sense, otherwise he's a true fan and a friend!"
Minucci describes how the most minuet decision like choosing whether to use nylon strings or steel strings on his guitar can change the sonic textures. "It always depends on the emotional sentiment of the composition," he discloses. "Nylon strings (used for) classical guitar can be equally fiery while steel strings on an electric instrument can be mellow and soft, or visa versa. It always depends on how you want to express what it is you're playing," he emphasizes. "I tend to try both ways until I am satisfied that one is more appropriate, or sometimes I'll deliberately use a raunchy sound, like in 'Cry Of My Soul' on the new CD."
The equipment which Special EFX used for the recordings had a balance of traditional analog sounds with digital programming through the use of the latest music technology. He outlines, "I use a combination of normal instrumentation - drums, bass, keyboards, etc...with 'midi' programming and samples, mostly. I have a studio in New York City which uses a computer-based recording system, Digital Performer is the name of the software, in tandem with good old fashioned microphones and acoustic instruments. The idea is to use these tools to your advantage, which can create a varied means of recording. In some cases a digital studio can make it possible to really get into some sound designing trickery. But for the Special EFX CD’s, I tend to use more organic sounds since we're a 'live' concert act."
On the live circuit, Minucci reveals that Special EFX has so many more places where they would like to play. "We've primarily toured the USA over the last 25 years, which is certainly a huge country! And even here, we haven't been satisfied! There are MANY cites and locations I've always wanted to play here still - Red Rock, Sedona, for instance. In Europe, we've played all over - Italy, France, Holland, Switzerland, Greece, etc., but never England, Russia, and Spain. In a general way we've never done a 'tour', except during our first years out there when we did the George Wein Festival circuit throughout Europe. We've also played some unusual places - Jakarta, Indonesia, as well as Santiago, Chile, Guatemala City, Panama City, Johannesburg, and South Africa. It's the repeat concerts in those cities that we always seek."
Following the release of Sweet Surrender, Shanachie also put together a DVD entitled A Night With Chieli Minucci & Special EFX which was taped at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre in Toronto, Canada. Minucci expresses, "The desire to make a live concert video goes all the way back to 1989, when we were still a GRP act. That opportunity came and went, unfortunately. Although," he intones, "there are MANY YouTube.com videos floating around of our earlier days. So when Shanachie asked if I'd like to fly the band up to Toronto to perform for a DVD shoot, I jumped! The venue was lovely, right on the water and although there was no audience, the shoot went very well! The videotaping went by in such a rush there was no time to get nervous or worry about the fact that we had cameras in our faces during the whole shoot. As a musician you just do what you do, close your eyes, or whatever, and try to play your ass off! If it's a camera on you or 3000 fans in the audience...same thing really!"
Chieli Minucci will be starting off 2008 with an exciting adventure as one of the artists performing on the All-Star Smooth Cruise which tees off from Port San Diego on January 21st and making stopovers in Cabo San Lucas and Ensenada before returning to San Diego on January 26th. He illustrates, "I was a 'surprise guest' on the 2007 All Star Cruise, which means I was added at the last minute, which was great, by the way! That led to a featured spot on this upcoming event! Music cruises are the BEST possible types of concerts, so I'd always agree to perform on one like this! It's like a floating city filled with music lovers, all around nice folks, plus, as a musician, I have the rare opportunity to hang out for days on end with the other performers, many of whom are my friends. Usually we are like passing ships in the night, meeting at shows and festivals for only a few hours, but on a cruise gig we are practically living together!"
He associates, "For the guests it's probably the ultimate music event. They not only get to hear some of the favorite artists on a daily basis, they get to intermingle with them socially. There are also unusual combinations of musical talent put together impromptu, and that unexpectedness makes for some special music making! For the musicians it's simply the best possible situation where we get the long overdue chance to hang out with our peers, meet new friends, and make some great music!"
Though the members of Special EFX will not be joining Minucci for the performances on the music cruise, he still plans are playing several tracks from Sweet Surrender with a resounding "Of Course! Right now Special EFX has regularly been performing 'Astralcats', 'Mystical' and 'Guitarzzz' as well as others from the new CD."
Re-producing the multiple layers of guitar tracks from the album is done through the use of music technology’s wizardry as he provides, "As to recreating the layered guitar parts from the recordings, it's always a challenge. I usually assign parts to the keyboardist or sax players. The live renditions are always a bit different and that is exciting! Sometimes the sheer volume fills in the spaces nicely."
Saxophonist Marion Meadows who has played with Minucci and Special EFX’s on their albums will also be performing on the music cruise. "I'll undoubtedly ask him to sit in for some songs," Minucci conveys. "So far I haven't been in touch with the other artists, but I'm sure there'll be some great jamming moments!"
His father Ulpio, a veritable musician and composer in his own right will not be on the music cruise as Minucci tells that he passed away earlier this year, but Chieli has his fingers crossed that his son Gianluca will make an appearance. "Gianluca will most likely not be on this cruise, but you never know. He's a senior in high school at the moment. My father passed away in March 2007, so sadly he'll be missed! I'm always learning new things from my son, whether it's just getting exposed to 'his' music which, by the way, is very similar to what I loved when I was a teen or just his sense of wonder. If you surround yourself with people who are as excited about life and music as you are, it's contagious! Learning from my own child is a gift!"
He remarks that learning about music from fellow musicians is an on-going process. "I'm constantly learning about music and different ways to express through it from other musicians, from books, from movies, from conversation, from art. Lately I've been enjoying the classic big band sound and I really appreciate those masters of arranging - Basie, Ellington, Dorsey, Miller, etc also, the Gillespies, Parkers, and other jazz beboppers amazing to learn from what came already. In some ways the best versions of jazz-related music has already happened long ago. We're just carrying on a tradition and sometimes have to paddle really hard to keep afloat."
Keeping fit as a musician has also transformed him into a commercially successful composer having made music scores for the CBS soap opera Guiding Light which won him the 2007 Emmy Award for Music Composition for a Daytime Drama. He is also hard at work as a composer for a number of stage productions including the British kids TV show Thomas & Friends Live, Thomas Saves The Day and Clear Channel/Nickelodeon’s kids TV show Dora The Explorer Live, Dora’s Pirate Adventure, and The City Of Lost Toys.
He expresses about the Clear Channel/Nickelodeon projects, "This gig came about in a wonderful way. My good friend, Steve Sandberg - Latin/jazz pianist turned out to be one of the primary composers for the cartoon. One day he phoned me asking if I'd be interested in being the musical director for the upcoming live stage production, Nickelodeon/Clear Channel collaboration. I didn't think I'd have the time or interest, but I went to his studio anyway, in the spirit of an open mind that's all. Anyway, I ended up writing a few cues to some video he gave me as well as writing a song to some lyrics for the show. Turns out the creators/producers thought I was quirky enough for the job, and voila! So I suddenly found myself writing a lot of original music to script, as well as recreating much of the preexisting music from the show, all rearranged according to the live script. Then I recorded it all at my studio. This eventually led to work on the second show, 2 years later as well as 2 other children’s productions! The cast and crew for these shows have been fantastic sources of inspiration for me, and I only wish I could spend more time with all of them. They're always traveling about the globe. Even as you read this, they are still out there."
Chieli has also partnered with musician/producer, Emanuel Kallins to successfully score and produce music for Gotham Music, a diverse music production company with compositions used in network television, cable, radio, feature films, etc. Minucci/Kallins’ original scores have been used for shows like Good Morning America, Access Hollywood, Primetime Live, the 700 Club and even Howard Stern‘s show.
He shares about these experiences, "I enjoy writing, playing/recording, no matter. As far as it being 'hard,' only when I'm sabotaging myself by showing up late, or by not being prepared...the usual nonsense! It's almost always a great pleasure to work with others on their own projects."
Being a musician is something Chieli may never be able to shake off and that‘s okay for him. As the son of a multi-talented musician/composer, Ulpio Minucci who wrote songs for recording artists such as Bing Crosby, Julius LaRosa, and Nat King Cole, Chieli was instilled with this means of creative expression from birth. Born in Huntington, Long Island, Chieli was raised in Forest Hills, Queens and would later attend Ithaca College in upstate New York. While in college, he joined various local groups including Amethyst - a folk/pop trio, The New Band - his first foray into fusion-jazz/rock, Fast Food - a new wave vocal/rock group, Colombo -a Brazilian trio, and finally, a long stint in Gumbo, an original instrumental/fusion rock quartet. College life exposed Chieli to a number of opportunities which allowed him to be a part of many diverse musical situations which was key to his future as a versatile composer/guitarist.
Minucci reflects, "I've always been a musician, so I don't know what else there'd be for me! To me it means camaraderie at rehearsing, recording, touring, as well as solitude - writing, practicing. It's a means of expressing myself, and it's fun as hell! The public may get a different feeling from my own, and as a music lover I know what those feelings might be. I imagine music is many things to all of us. It can be an intense, active experience or it can be something more subtle - nostalgia, mood, and ambiance. I experience music as everyone else, and how I affect the public is somewhat of a mystery to me unless people tell me exactly how they felt hearing my songs, or hearing my playing, which, they do from time to time. (It’s) another gift of life!"
Following college, he returned to New York City studying composition privately with Nicolas Flagello. From ages 23 to 25 years old, Minucci worked with many acts as well as continuing to write his own music. He performed in various groups including a two-year stint with Eartha Kitt, and eventually The B.B. & Q. Band, as well as a brief run with the Lou Reed Band. Chieli performed at the original Farm Aid concert with Lou Reed as well. It was during this period that he met Hungarian drummer/percussionist, George Jinda. Soon after meeting George, the two musicians formed Special Delivery, a band which Chieli keeps alive today as Special EFX.
He comments about Special EFX’s 25 year history, "Even though there is a great deal of work in the catalogue, there were different periods we'd gone through, so it never felt as if we'd said it all. Writing is not like that. It's like an endless stream, provided you keep at it. Retire? I don't even know the meaning of that word! It's the everyday adventures in life that continue to create inspiration in writing music, plain and simple."
After Chieli Minucci shared his story, I could not stop myself from wondering if Chieli Minucci is the jazz player that author Mitch Myers was referring to in the opening chapter of his book The Boy Who Cried Freebird about a jazz musician who plays Lynyrd Skynyrd’s song "Freebird" at the request of a fan in the audience.
When I posed this question to Chieli, his response was, "I probably would play it, only if I'd planned it or if another musician on stage called it out. Not for some random fan though. I almost never have done that. I feel that the audience needs to be respectful, even when they get all worked up. Calling out songs is fine, but expecting the artist to actually do it is more of the kind of thing that happens at a jam session. In that case, I would! ‘Freebird’ is a GREAT guitar song!"
Not that I am advocating that people in the audience should request Chieli Minucci and his band to play "Freebird," but his open-mindedness to call it a GREAT guitar song deeply demonstrates his love for all kinds of music and his versatility as a guitarist. It’s hard not to be moved by his live performances which will open you up to new musical experiences and assuredly put a wide smile on your face.