‘Not a weak spot on it’: Danny Seraphine’s California Transit Authority returns, this time (yes!) with horns

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California Transit Authority, which boasts a throwback sound to leader Danny Seraphine’s co-founding stint in Chicago, didn’t feature horns at first. But all of that is about to change with its forthcoming new studio effort.

What’s interesting is that CTA guitarist Marc Bonilla, the principal beneficiary of this initial musical context since his instrument replicated those old brass blasts, is thrilled. In fact, the ever-adventurous Bonilla helped craft this back-to-the-future move for CTA, which in many ways sounds more like classic Chicago than Seraphine’s former band has in decades.

California Transit Authority, which released its debut — the cover-dominated Full Circle — in 2007, is set to return with a long-awaited, almost all-original follow-up in early 2013, to be titled Promise.

“It’s based,” Bonilla tells us in a new SER Sitdown, “on the fact that fans kept asking: ‘When are you going to do a new album? We want to hear some new material. You’ve got to promise us that you’re going to do something.’ Danny kept saying: ‘I promise we will, at some point.’ It took a while from the last album to get to this point, because of all of our respective duties with other things. But we’ve promised the fans we’d put it out, so that’s why we called it that.”

Bonilla has also worked with rock legends Keith Emerson (The Nice, Emerson Lake and Palmer), Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple, Black Sabbath) and Eddie Jobson (UK) over the years. He stopped by for a chat about these new creative developments in CTA’s sound, the thrilling experience performing with childhood musical heroes, and how he feels about taking over for Terry Kath when reinterpreting age-old Chicago sides …

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NICK DERISO: On CTA’s initial release, your guitar replaced the brass and sax lines in the classic Chicago sound. I understand now that as the band is building its own repertoire, that horns will be returning to the mix.
MARC BONILLA: The first album, we hadn’t been writing anything, so we decided: “If we’re going to do an album, let’s do some of the classic Chicago stuff, not the ballad stuff as much as the most adventurous stuff off the first five albums. But I said: “Let’s not do it like Chicago did, because there’s no reason to redo it. You guys did a sterling job. Let’s not put any horns, because everybody is going to be expecting horns. Let’s do something different. Let’s do guitar instead.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Danny Seraphine, who was there for the beginning with Chicago, talks about the bitter end — and how he finally reemerged with California Transit Authority.]

NICK DERISO: This wasn’t the first time you had tried something like that, though, right?
MARC BONILLA: I had done a piece called “Something Different,” which was a 45 that my dad brought home when I was kid by Cannonball Adderley. It was the only time, I think, that he had ever played with a big band on record. It was phenomenal. It was a Chuck Mangione tune, and I remember hearing it and going: “My God, this is amazing.” A few years prior to meeting Danny, I had decided I wanted to do that for a solo album. So, I broke out all of the parts from the jazz arrangement and assigned them to guitars, so that the guitar was the brass section. I played it for Danny, and he went nuts. He said: “We gotta do this. We gotta do an album, and this has to be the lead off track. But we don’t want to do it with horns. Keep it as guitars.” So we did the whole album that way, just to be different.

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NICK DERISO: It really encouraged listeners to hear some very familiar cuts in a brand-new way.
MARC BONILLA: With “Colour My World,” we reconstructed the melody lines to be different. But on this new album, well, I don’t like to do the same thing over and over again. I like to change it up, and challenge myself in some way on each album. With this one, everything is original on it except for one song. We’re doing Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know,” but we’re doing our own arrangement of it. I ended up doing probably about 90 percent of the brass arrangements, because I’d never done them before. I sat down and listened to the old Chicago stuff, and studied how (Chicago’s trombone player James) Pankow would score this stuff, and the chordal tendencies. Then we brought a full-album’s worth of new material in that vein, stuff that — as a fan — this is what I would have wanted to hear from a new Chicago album. I always approached it that way, as a fan, because I am.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Guitarist Marc Bonilla takes us into one of his other current collaborations, with progressive rock legend Keith Emerson on the classically informed ‘Three Fates Project.’]

NICK DERISO: As exciting as it was to hear that sound revived through new interpretations on CTA’s last effort, there’s a different level of excitement surrounding this complete rebirth through new material. This feels more like a true debut.
MARC BONILLA: There’s not a weak spot on it, in my opinion. It’s all in the vein of the first five Chicago albums, but this stuff is all brand-new material. I’m very proud of it. It’s something I’d never done before. Again, we had done the guitar thing before, so I didn’t want to do that again. In fact, Danny had to chase me down to do a solo. I kept saying, “No, man, let’s leave it brass.” I kind of begrudgingly did a couple of things that I would have loved to have heard as a trumpet solo, or whatever, out of respect for Danny.

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NICK DERISO: At least in the beginning, to step into Terry Kath’s shoes must have been daunting.
MARC BONILLA: It wasn’t anything conscious. When we first met, Danny and I jammed for a while, and then we played “25 or 6 to 4,” and I remember Danny just staring at me the whole time. I thought: “Man, he must be bummed that I’m not playing this correctly.” You know, I thought the worst. But he called me a couple of days later, and he said: “You know, when we were doing that thing the other night, I had a Terry Kath flashback. I’ve never had that before, with any guitar player I’ve ever played with.” He said: “I’ve never wanted to get a band back together, but after you and I played, would you be interested in putting something together?” I said: “Of course, I would.” So we went out and played, and it went from there. But it never got to the point where I thought I was replacing Terry Kath, or stepping into his shoes. It was just a natural progression for me as a player.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Danny Seraphine goes in-depth on a series of Chicago favorites, from their early jazz-rock triumphs to later pop successes with David Foster.]

NICK DERISO: Do you ever look around and say to yourself: “That’s Keith Emerson. That’s Glenn Hughes. That’s Eddie Jobson. That’s Danny Seraphine.” You’re living a kind of charmed musical life.
MARC BONILLA: One of the things that’s been rewarding for me all of these years, aside from my own stuff, is to be able to meet my heroes and actually be able to perform with them. Guys like Keith, and Eddie and Danny, Glenn Hughes, they were guys I grew up listening to. To be able to play alongside them gave me a tremendous feeling of accomplishment — and gratification. They were fulfilling dreams, old high school fantasies. Being able to do that on a one-to-one basis was very cool for me, but I never felt like I was taking anybody’s place. I felt like it was just another step on the journey, to be able to explore those tunes and to be able to do with the original guys. To garner some acknowledgement from that continues to be very rewarding for me.

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