Chicago, “Free Form Guitar” from Chicago Transit Authority (1969): Deep Cuts

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We all know this, but sometimes we need to be reminded that Chicago is a mainstream rock band that was once a rock/jazz/blues/R&B/whack jazz band masquerading as a mainstream rock band. Wait a minute, you say, “whack jazz”???

Not just whack jazz, but the extreme kind of whack jazz. If you still have a worn-out vinyl copy of the band’s spectacular debut album Chicago Transit Authority, chances are that the black band between “Poem 58” and “South California Purples” is still shiny and clean. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the cut everyone skips over, though.

As a totally improvised solo guitar piece, “Free Form Guitar” is Terry Kath at his most unhinged. Kath plugged his guitar straight into a crackling studio amp turned up to eleven without the use of any pedals, generating more feedback in these seven minutes than an hour of Jimi Hendrix at Monterrey, and you can’t find a single shred of tonality.

It’s as hard to listen to today as it was back then, and I won’t try to pretend otherwise. Music? I prefer the term “primal expression.” But in the context of the times, that was pretty amazing, especially with it appearing on a hit rock album. By 1969, there were plenty of free jazz sax players, but among free jazz guitarists, maybe only Derek Bailey and Sonny Sharrock were active practitioners of the stuff in 1969. For one song, Kath had the balls to put himself in that rare company, and his band included that track in the batch songs they expected Columbia Records to release for their first album. And, the corporate heads went along with it (something they probably wouldn’t even remotely consider doing today). “Free Form Guitar” is also held up as one of the precursors to noise rock, which didn’t really emerge for another decade.

It’s been said that Hendrix himself once told Chicago sax player Walter Parazaider “your guitar player is better than me.” If that’s true, then some of the attributes Jimi must have appreciated the most are Kath’s adventurous spirit and a willingness to go beyond what’s been done before. Those are the sides of Kath that are on conspicuous display on “Free Form Guitar.”

Like Chicago? Then you’ll love ‘Saturdays in the Park,’ a multi-writer, song-by-song examination of the music of Chicago found right here on Something Else! Click here to check it out.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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