On their Sanctuary Records Group CD Illumination. Earth, Wind & Fire collaborates with generations of appreciative artists that have gleaned profound inspiration from their work. The influence is crystal clear when Black Eyed Peas leader Wil I Am shouts, "Jump up, freak or hustle / Do what you want, just move every muscle," then mimics EWF's peppery horn and kalimba lines on his rousing "Lovely People." The reverence is sun-gold in crooner Brian McKnight's fusion of key elements from EWF's ballads "You," "Love's Holiday" and "After the Love is Gone" to create his own epic, "To You." And the quality is as strong as ever, proven by the album's first single "Show Me The Way," which earned a 2004 Grammy nomination.
"Throughout our career, we've strived to push the idea of illumination," states EWF founder Maurice White, "?of being on top of things and the vibration of positivity. This album is a continuation of that concept."
For Illumination's star-studded collaboration, EWF bounces to the ATL for the hip hop-laced party joint "This Is How I Feel," produced by Organized Noize, featuring rapper Big Boi of OutKast, singers Sleepy Brown and Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child in a duet with EWF lead singer Philip Bailey. This steamy invitation to boogie was also used this year in the Will Smith romantic comedy, Hitch.
Elsewhere, super producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, former members of the band The Time, tip their trademark hats in tribute to the horn-laced ensemble sound of The Fire with the gently uplifting "Pure Gold" plus the sexy flirtation "Love Dance" (playfully utilized in the animated film, Robots). Acclaimed female poetry/soul duo Floetry bring their conscience cleansing balm to the soothing motivator "Elevated". R&B futurist Vikter Duplaix laces the joyously tropical instrumental "Liberation," which features tantalizing bursts of EWF's wondrous wordless vocal melodies. As a bonus, the pied piper of soprano sax Kenny G guests on a cover of OutKast's infectious, instant club classic, "The Way You Move."
Finally, Raphael Saadiq, the producer/songwriter who is also the leader of Tony Toni Tone' and Lucy Pearl, produced four songs on Illumination, including the first single "Show Me the Way" - a duet he sings with EWF leader Maurice White. He also contributes the samba-rooted "Work it Out," a lovely showcase for Philip's falsetto titled "Pass You By," and the vibrant opening track "Love Together" (which will also be used in the upcoming skate film, Bounce, Roll).
The seeds of Illumination's origin sprang from an idea Philip Bailey had of collaborating with neo soul artists for his next solo album. However, reflecting on the success Santana had in collaborating with today's artists on his award-winning Supernatural album, it became clear that this was a golden opportunity to fortify Earth Wind & Fire's position in today's marketplace. "I was 22 when I joined Earth Wind & Fire in 1973," Philip shares. "I'm 53 now. It's the 22 year-olds' time now...Usher' time! What Santana did was a masterpiece, but it would not have gotten played the way it did without the guest artists that he had. Superstars are coupling with other artists because the playing field is so competitive now. Earth Wind & Fire collaborating with the neo soul movement made sense because the thrust of their music is still about playing instruments and utilizing vintage sounds, only in today's setting."
Singer/percussionist Ralph Johnson adds, "The most important thing for us to understand going into this was wrapping our heads around the concept of being produced by outside writer/producers. It was about getting people who really 'got' Earth, Wind & Fire, then leaving all egos at the door and allowing the record to happen with the artists we called on board. 'This is How I Feel' with Sleepy Brown and 'Lovely People' with the Black Eyed Peas?those are hit records. They got it!"
Though the outside contributors handled all of the songwriting, the core members of Earth, Wind & Fire were meticulously involved in the shaping and arranging of the music. Co-Manager Damien Smith shares, "Their presence in the proceedings laid the blueprint for the artists to dig into. For instance, 'Elevated' with Floetry originally had verses for Philip and Maurice to sing. Philip suggested they try something different. He said, 'Natalie, why don't you just rhyme the verses and Marsha and I will sing around you and Maurice will play the kalimba.' It made the song fresh."
Maurice White concurs. "This was an exciting opportunity for us to grow - to peek into the new ventures of different artists. It was quite an adventure."
The result is Earth Wind & Fire's most vibrant and contemporary album in years. The synergy surrounding the project is going to make for a bountiful series of concerts with the current incarnation of the band that includes Russian guitar virtuoso Vadim, energetic singer/percussionist David "Tigg" Whitworth (both Berklee School of Music alumni) and Musical Director Myron McKinley. This summer, Earth Wind & Fire will re-team with pop rock legends Chicago for a double bill that was a knockout sell-out at the US box office last year. The group will follow that up with a world tour of their own featuring special guests from the Illumination album and beyond. A TV special is also being planned.
Surveying today's musical landscape, Philip hypothesizes, "What R. Kelly was able to do with Ronald "Mr. Biggs" Isley recently is the same thing we were able to do with Ramsey Lewis in 1974 with 'Sun Goddess.' The bottom line is this: if you have the respect of younger artists and don't take advantage of it, you're missing out. We've taken some chances, but we have more legitimate buzz now than I can remember."
Reflecting on all the years of music-making, history-making and memory-making, Verdine concludes, "Along with Maurice, Philip, Ralph and I are like brothers now. It's one thing to be able to hang out and talk, but it's another level when you play music together. It's definitely an out of body experience?all about accessing the spirit. Being together this long, we've had a chance to do that and then some, let alone the contributions we've had the opportunity to make to the music scene in general. Now, there is this re-interest in Earth Wind & Fire. People are really checking for us again. That's kinda cool."