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2016 seems intent on reminding us of how lucky we were to breathe the same air as the artists who nurtured and sustained us through our hardest times. Among so many other legends, this is the year we lost Maurice White, the founder and visionary behind Earth, Wind & Fire.
Earth, Wind & Fire was a carefully executed vision built around the spiritual possibilities of music.
In 2016, it would be easy to miss the gravity of Maurice White’s passing (perhaps the word “ascension” is a more appropriate word). As a group, EWF has been reduced to their greatest hits, and even though those hits represent some of the very best records ever made, they blind too many fans to the depth of the legacy that White left behind. Earth, Wind & Fire is no good-time funk band or coke-and-mirror-ball disco concoction. Earth, Wind & Fire was a carefully executed vision built around Maurice White’s belief in the spiritual possibilities of music. Their early albums were a provocative, challenging evolution of jazz and R&B that echoes loud and clear through Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. If you don’t hear Maurice White’s influence on those two landmark albums of 2015, it’s only because you haven’t listened to enough Earth, Wind & Fire to recognize it.
As EWF evolved and Maurice White’s consciousness continued to expand, he brought the glories of Africa back to its children in America, uplifting everyone in his aspirational worldview. He scoured the globe for rhythms that shook souls and put together a group of unfathomably talented musicians to sing his messages to the world. Messages to keep our heads to the sky. To open our eyes. To see the light. To remember it was all about love. Check the record: Reese never wrote a lyric that was sardonic, cheap, demeaning, or disrespectful.
Spirit is the best introduction to the true wonder of Earth, Wind & Fire
Anyone who dismissed Earth, Wind & Fire as funk-lite or disco fluff was either too cynical, too close-minded, or just too ignorant to understand what they were doing. Or maybe they innocently enjoyed the EWF hits that seemed inescapable for a decade and didn’t think to dig back in to the albums they came from. That’s OK. It’s forgivable. And it’s curable. The prescription is Spirit, the album they made in tribute to Charles Stepney, the genius producer who guided and inspired them through their breakthrough in the early ’70s. Forty years on, it remains the best introduction to the true wonder of Earth, Wind & Fire and the most fitting epitaph to their founder and leader.
Spirit brings together all that made Earth, Wind & Fire transcendent. Musically, it covers everything they had grown in to: Funk, jazz, sweet soul, Brazilian grooves, melodies you can’t forget and experimentation you can’t believe. Lyrically, the band reaches new heights, speaking to our earthly realities, our deepest love, and our highest spiritual yearnings. “On Your Face” is a sermon on human nature chanted over the group’s greatest groove, with instruments and voices locked in such intricate and incomprehensible perfection that you’d swear Auto-Tune was invented just to give musicians who weren’t in Earth, Wind & Fire a fair shot at sounding half as good.
“Imagination” is the kind of love song you’d only sing to the one you want to marry, nothing less (Earth, Wind & Fire wouldn’t stoop down to crass pick-up lines or bedroom come-ons) and as Philip Bailey tosses his voice higher and higher toward heaven, you realize that this song is probably about a much higher love. In the context of this album, it may be flat-out naive to think “Imagination” is dealing in merely romantic hopes. When it segues in the the song “Spirit,” (a song intended as a gift t0 Stepney that he died before hearing), the sermon soars even higher. Then combine “Spirit” with the song “Earth, Wind & Fire,” and the group’s mission statement is laid plain for all to hear. And we all need to hear it: “Looking through each other’s eyes, humanity will rise in love.” Amen.
But it’s Spirit’s closing song, “Burning Bush” that seems to continue living, growing in meaning and depth, with time. It’s a song that should be embraced alongside “Imagine,” “Lean On Me,” “Let It Be,” and “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” as one of the modern hymns we cling to when tragedy strikes and we look for hope in the songs that unite us. “What does it take to show an illustration/of the hurt and the pain of a nation?” Reese asks, before reminding us “that old bush just keeps on burning, nobody seems to show they’re learning.” It was written by one of White’s frequent collaborators, Jerry Peters, but it’s a beautiful encapsulation of Maurice’s own mission and the struggle he must have felt in his heart to turn darkness in to light. It’s the perfect ending to a perfect album. Spirit was Earth, Wind & Fire’s definitive statement and continues to shine its light on the world. Let it in yours.