LIVE: Special EFX All-Stars @ Swyer Theatre at The Egg 10/10/2019

The Special EFX All-Stars delivered a bright hour and three quarters set of contemporary jazz before a sparse but enthusiastic crowd at the Swyer Theatre last Thursday. The band was formed in the early eighties by guitarist Chieli Minucci and percussionist George Jinda.

I first saw them in 1989 at the storied New York club Fat Tuesday’s while I was working in the jazz department of J & R Music World. This was at a boom time for the contemporary or smooth jazz genre. Kenny G. was selling boatloads of records, CD 101.9 was a popular and influential station, and a record label owned by Dave Grusin, GRP, issued a steady flow of instrumental CDs perfect for your average yuppie to demonstrate their latest & ever more expensive stereo system.

Although signed to GRP, Special EFX always had a bit more to them than the standard “funk – lite” approach of many of their label mates. For one thing, they added a welcome world music flavor to their material, perhaps influenced by Minucci’s and Jinda’s ethnicity (Italian and Hungarian respectively). For another, they had in Minucci a supremely gifted and tasteful guitarist, adept in pretty much every style.

Fast forward 30 years and Minucci is the only constant. (Jinda passed away in 2002.) Indeed, as the billing infers, this is not strictly a Special EFX show anyway. Only bassist Jerry Brooks is a fellow alumnus. Only half of the set comprises of Special EFX tunes. No, on this tour Minucci is happy to share both the spotlight and the frontline with two veterans of the genre and one up and comer.

The “youngster” is keyboardist Lao Tizer, who contributes the fleet fingered “16th Heaven” from his recent solo album. The vets are violinist Karen Briggs and saxophonist Eric Marianthal. The line up is rounded out by session drummer Joel Rosenblatt.

Briggs is best known as the main soloist for Yanni during his mid 90’s glory days when the Greek new age superstar was a fixture on PBS, selling an incredible amount of his “Live at the Acropolis” set.

Fun fact: “Live at the Acropolis” is the second best selling full-length music video EVER, trailing only behind Michael Jackson’s “The Making of Thriller.” Briggs’ feature is a sultry groove through themes from Rimsky Korsakov’s “Scheherazade”. Surprisingly it works rather well. Marienthal was also on GRP, both as a solo artist and also, just to establish his chops, a member of Chick Corea’s Elektric Band.

His showcase is “Babycakes” renamed “Grand Babycakes” in honor of his granddaughter. It’s an enjoyable romp featuring a goofy call and response section where the audience scats back Marianthal’s increasingly complex lines. He then switches the focus to the rest of the band to try, none of whom will be auditioning for “The Voice” anytime soon.

The highlight of the show comes with the penultimate number and Minucci’s solo – “Cause we’ve ended as lovers.” Although a Stevie Wonder / Syreeta song, this ballad is probably best known through Jeff Beck’s instrumental version on his fusion embracing album “Blow by Blow.” Minucci’s rendering is exquisite, channeling not only Beck but also the emotive crying tone of Jan Akkerman. It brings the audience to their feet.

The band then power through Special EFX’s radio hit “Cruise Control” and they are done. The All-Stars play just 9 songs in 105 minutes, all of which conform to the traditional “statement of theme/solos/recapitulation” of jazz performances. The fact that the show was never less than engaging and vibrant throughout is a testament to the talent of all involved.

Courageous Cats, Daybreak, 16th Heaven, Scheherazade, Crazy Eights, (Grand) Babycakes, Dance on the Delta, Cause we’ve ended as lovers, Cruise Control

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