‘I think it’s really deep’: Danny Seraphine on CTA, getting over Chicago, and carrying the jazz-rock torch

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In adding muscular horns to California Transit Authority, Danny Seraphine has fulfilled the promise of one of the best songs on CTA’s hard-grooving new release Sacred Ground: He’s come full circle.

As a co-founder of Chicago, Seraphine helped create the group’s signature sound — and, in so doing, set a template for turn-of-the-1970s jazz rock. By 1990, however, the drummer had been ousted from the group, and it took him years to rebuild his career.

The original project from California Transit Authority — named, in a clever update, after Chicago’s debut — arrived in 2007, but with keyboards and guitars in place of his old group’s sharp blasts of brass. Seraphine then wrote an emotional autobiography, recounting his journey, before refocusing on a retooled CTA. Guitarist Marc Bonilla wrote the bulk of the new horn charts, even as vocalists Larry Braggs and Wes Quave were joined by Seraphine’s ex-Chicago bandmate Bill Champlin and his son Will.

In an exclusive SER Sitdown, Seraphine talks about how these new elements impacted Sacred Ground, his journey away from the wreckage of Chicago, and whether he thinks that relationship can ever be repaired …

NICK DERISO: When we last spoke, you had only just recently published your autobiography, and it seemed like that had dredged up a lot of hard memories about Chicago. Has collaborating on this new project helped put things in perspective?
DANNY SERAPHINE: There are times when it still bothers me, but to be honest, more and more I’m at peace with it. Sometimes, I get bothered by the obstacles that come with starting a new band, things that have slowed us down. I think we’re going to overcome a lot of that with this record, maybe all of it. I’d like to believe that, because if you don’t — then why do it, you know?

NICK DERISO: There’s certainly a brand name that goes with Chicago. But at the same time, you might have a better opportunity with CTA to get this music back in front of people — as weird as it sounds — since your old band so seldom records anymore. All they do, it seems, is tour the old songs.
DANNY SERAPHINE: I agree. I don’t believe I would be happy doing that. Now, a reunion with the band, done the right way, would be a lot of fun — and I would embrace it. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen, you know?

NICK DERISO: This isn’t your first CTA album but, more so than Full Circle, it feels like the homecoming longtime fans have been waiting for since your abrupt departure from Chicago in 1990.
DANNY SERAPHINE: We’re all very proud of it. You can really hear and feel all of the work, and thought, that’s gone into it. I think it’s really deep. It’s got that feel of the original CTA, and early Chicago, but it’s got a new attitude — you can hear the youth in it. The first album had a lot of energy too, but because we were doing remakes of older material, it didn’t have the modern pitch of this one. There’s a great feeling of anticipation.

NICK DERISO: Marc Bonilla has done a remarkable job in recreating the force and feel of the classic Chicago horn charts. That must be an emotional experience for you, having been there from the first. You can tell he has become a student of the work James Pankow did on those first four albums.
DANNY SERAPHINE: It was really, really wonderful.

[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: With this album, CTA quickly becomes one the new standard bearers of jazz rock — a genre that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle of classic rock revivalism.
DANNY SERAPHINE: There isn’t anybody doing this. The stuff that they call jazz rock these days to me is smooth jazz. It’s good, and it’s certainly got some jazz in it — but I don’t hear a whole lot of rock. I certainly don’t mean that disrespectfully. But back when we did Full Circle, we decided we were going to do our best to keep this genre of music alive. We wanted to recreate the magic and the energy of the original Chicago, and those type of bands. Sacred Ground may not be the fulfillment, but it’s one step closer to fulfilling that promise.

NICK DERISO: The song with fellow Chicago alum Bill Champlin is the closest thing to new music from Chicago that anyone has gotten in years. Were you able to simply pick up where you left off?
DANNY SERAPHINE: There was a coming back together, of sorts, because Bill and I hadn’t talked for basically 20 years. It was part of a healing process that was good for me, and I think good for him, too. I wouldn’t say we’re becoming a band again, but Bill and I are doing some performances together again. It feels good. He did “Full Circle” at the release party, and it sounded amazing. He did a great job on it. I could tell he was having fun, because he loves this band. it’s a very powerful band. What’s not to love?

NICK DERISO: Larry and Wes are back for Sacred Ground, but you also collaborate extensively with Will Champlin, Bill’s son. His very modern style connects the record to today, even though it has a musical template from long ago.
DANNY SERAPHINE: He brings a youthful innocence to the music. It really is nice. That’s what we set out to do.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Guitarist Marc Bonilla, who handled the bulk of the brass charts, previews this new California Transit Authority release: ‘There’s not a weak spot on it.’]

NICK DERISO: Then there’s “Take Me Back to Chicago,” your terrific tribute to Fred Pappalardo, born anew on this album. What was it like to return to such an emotional tribute?
DANNY SERAPHINE: Peter Fish arranged that, and he did a beautiful job on it — and Larry Braggs just sings the crap out of it. He sings it with so much soul. I loved it. It was always a song I was very proud of. I co-wrote it with “Hawk” Wolinski, and he was an important part of that. It’s a great feeling when you can step back and listen. This record was really an oddity. We did the CD release event at NAMM, and we were hoping to do that at the last NAMM, in 2012. Here we are a year later, and we finally did it. But it was a real struggle. There were times when we were thinking: “Are we ever going to get this done?”

NICK DERISO: Over the years with CTA, you’ve also redone “Make Me Smile,” “I’m A Man,” and “Colour My World.” Are there other songs from your time in Chicago that you’d like to reexamine?
DANNY SERAPHINE: You know, I haven’t really thought about that. But it would be stuff that I’ve co-written. That’s probably the best route to go, because that way the band can’t play games with the licenses and things like that. Not that I think they would, but I don’t know. I just don’t know. I don’t know how they’re going to feel about this record. It’s pretty close to home. (Chuckles.)

NICK DERISO: It’s in the backyard. It might be in the kitchen. (Laughs.)
DANNY SERAPHINE: I’m sure they’ve heard it by now. But it’s not to meant to be anything other than great music. It’s music that I feel like I have a right to be a part of. Even though I no longer own part of the name, I feel like I was an instrumental as anyone — along with Peter Cetera and Terry Kath — in pioneering that music, and in being one of the main architects of Chicago.

NICK DERISO: But, again, they haven’t been recording. It’s not like your former bandmates have their own version of this kind of music out there.
DANNY SERAPHINE: So, why not? It’s not like saying: “Screw you, look what we can do.” It’s just that we love this music.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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