L.A. EXPRESS-L.A. EXPRESS AND SHADOW PLAY.

L.A. Express-L.A. Express and Shadow Play,

Jazz saxophonist Tom Scott’s career began in 1965, when he was just seventeen, and the leader of the jazz ensemble Neoteric Trio. After that he became one of Los Angeles’ top session players, and a familiar face on the West Coast music scene. This would stand in him in good stead in the future.

By 1973, Tom Scott was looking for a backing band within the West Coast music scene. The contacts that he had established over the last few years served him well, and he was able to secure the services of four talented, versatile and vastly experienced musicians who had worked as session musicians and bandleaders. This included drummer and percussionist John Guerin; bassist Max Bennett; guitarist Larry Carlton and keyboardist Joe Sample. They would become L.A. Express were formed in 1973, who would accompany Tom Scott for two years. 

After Tom Scott parted company with L.A. Express in 1975, they signed to Caribou Records later that year. Caribou Records’ newest signing release two albums during 1976, L.A. Express and Shadow Play, which were recently remastered and reissued by BGO Records. However, much had happened to L.A. Express since they joined forces with Tom Scott in 1973.

Not long after Tom Scott recruited the four members of The L.A. Express, they headed into the studio to record an album together. That album was Tom Scott and L.A. Express, which was an accessible album of fusion which was released August 1973. By then, fusion was at a crossroads. The West and East Coast sounds were quite different, and jazz-funk was growing in popularity. All this affected sales of Tom Scott and L.A. Express, which is a vastly underrated album from the all-star band. This was a disappointing start to the partnership between Tom Scott and L.A. Express.

The second album that Tom Scott and L.A. Express worked on together, was Joni Mitchell’s sixth album Court and Spark.  Tom Scott and John Guerin featured on all eleven tracks, while Max Bennett and Larry Carlton featured on eight songs. Joe Sample only featured on Raised on Robbery, but in doing so, played his part in what was Joni Mitchell’s most successful album. 

When Court and Spark was released in January 1974, it reached number one in Canada, where Joni Mitchell was born. Across the border, Court and Spark reached  number two in the US Billboard 200,  and was certified gold in America and Britain.  Later Court and Spark was nominated for four Grammy Awards in 1975, with Joni Mitchell and Tom Scott winning the  Grammy Award for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals. By then, things had changed for L.A. Express.

Two months after the release of Court and Spark, work began on what would become Joni Mitchell’s seventh album Miles of Aisles. Joni Mitchell decided that L.A. Express should accompany her on L.A. Express. Recording between the ‘2nd-4th’ March, and was completed between August 14th–17th 1974. Not long after this, two members of L.A. Express dropped a bombshell.

Larry Carlton and Joe Sample left L.A. Express, and decided to concentrate their efforts on their ‘other’ group The Crusaders. However, the original members of L.A. Express would later be reunited. Before that, Tom Scott and the remaining  members of L.A. Express started looking for replacements for Larry Carlton and Joe Sample.

This wasn’t easy, given that Larry Carlton and Joe Sample were talented, versatile and vastly experienced musicians. Eventually, though, L.A. Express settled on guitarist Robben Ford and keyboardist Larry Nash. They would make their debut on the Tom Scott and L.A. Express album Tom Cat, which was recorded in late 1974.

Early in 1975, Tom Scott and L.A. Express’ sophomore album Tom Cat was released. Just like their eponymous debut album, it was a carefully crafted and memorable album of fusion. With fusion no longer as popular as it had been in the late-sixties and early seventies, Tom Cat failed to find the audience it deserved. Since then, Tom Cat which is an underrated album, has become a popular album amongst fusion and jazz aficionados. However, in 1975 the commercial failure of Tom Cat resulted in Tom Scott parting company with  L.A. Express. 

For  L.A. Express this was a disappointment, but also an opportunity to strike out on their own.  This would mean a few changes though.

The first thing  L.A. Express needed to do, was recruit a new saxophonist. They set their sights on securing the services of David Luell, a talented and experienced saxophonist, who was equally comfortable playing baritone, soprano and tenor sax. David Luell agreed to join L.A. Express. There was still one more change to make, replace keyboardist Larry Nash. 

Replacing Larry Nash, was none other than Victor Feldman. He was born into a musical family in London, England, but was now resident in Los Angeles. Victor Feldman was perfect fit for L.A. Express, given he could play keyboards, synths, percussion and vibes. Now the final piece of the L.A. Express jigsaw was in place.

Now L.A. Express began to think about recording their debut album. However, there was a problem.  It was Tom Scott and L.A. Express who were signed to Ode Records. This partnership, where Tom Scott was perceived as the senior partner no longer existed. When L.A. Express got the chance to sign for Caribou Records, which was founded by James William Guercio, who produced Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears, Ode Records didn’t stand in their way. It was a new start for third line-up of L.A. Express.

L.A. Express.

Now that L.A. Express  were signed to James William Guercio’s Caribou Records, they began work on their eponymous debut album. Bassist Max Bennett penned a trio of tracks, Midnite Flite, Suavemente (Gently) and Cry Of The Eagle and cowrote It’s Happening Right Now with Victor Feldman. He contributed The Shrug and Western Horizon, while John Guerin write Down The Middle. Guitarist Robben Ford chipped in with two songs, Stairs and Transylvania Choo Choo. The nine songs that became L.A. Express had all been written by the band.

Recording of L.A. Express took place at A&M Studios, in Los Angeles during early 1975. By then, L.A. Express’ rhythm section featured drummer and percussionist John Guerin, bassist Max Bennett and guitarist Robben Ford. They were joined by saxophonist David Luell and Victor Feldman, who switched between keyboards, percussion, synths and vibes. Rather than employ a producer,  The L.A. Express decided to take charge of production. Once the album was recorded, it was ready for release in 1976. Before that the original members of L.A. Express were reunited their former band mates and some new names.

Joni Mitchell who was then engaged to L.A. Express drummer John Guerin,  was about to record her seventh album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. L.A. Express were invited to play on the album. This included the two former members of L.A. Express, Larry Carlton and Joe Sample. They would meet L.A. Express’ new guitarist Robben Ford. However,  neither David Luell nor Victor Feldman played on The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. It would be released to critical acclaim in November 1975,  and become one of Joni Mitchell’s most successful, classic albums. The following year, L.A. Express released their eponymous debut album. 

When L.A. Express was released early in 1976, it was to critical acclaim. Inevitably, comparisons were drawn with the two albums Tom Scott and L.A. Express released. While  L.A. Express was another fusion album, it was a much more accessible and pop-oriented take on fusion. Still, though, the emphasis was on quality for fusion’s latest supergroup.  

L.A. Express work their way through nine carefully crafted tracks on L.A. Express. The blistering Midnite Flite sets the bar high, as fusion meets jazz funk. There’s even some bluesy guitar licks thrown in for good measure on this cinematic opus. The Shrug is the perfect showcase for drummer John Guerin and saxophonist David Luell. Both play starring roles in the sound and success The Shrug. Soon, they change direction.

Dreamy, elegiac and elegant describes the meandering Suavemente (Gently), which shows a different side of L.A. Express. So does the spirited sounding Cry Of The Eagle which veers between disparate genres, including funk, jazz funk and jazz. In doing so, L.A. Express showcases their versatility and talent. It’s a similar case on Stairs, which is a complex and compelling track which sound as if it’s been inspired by Miles Davis’ late-sixties fusion albums. Down The Middle  is a rockier sounding track, that heads in the direction bar room boogie. This shows yet another side to L.A. Express. Then on It’s Happening Right Now, L.A. Express play in 7/8 time, on this dreamy, ethereal and pensive sounding track which is imbued with an elegance. That’s about to change.

There’s not holding L.A. Express back on Transylvania Choo-Choo, as they vamp, jam and improvise on this blistering slice of fusion. Closing L.A. Express is the ruminative Western Horizon, which is a quite a beautiful track. It brought to an album that was released in in early 1976.

When L.A. Express was released, the album failed to trouble even the lower reaches of the charts. By then, music was changing, and fusion was no longer as popular as it had been. Record buyers missed out on the critically acclaimed L.A. Express. Its commercial failure was a huge disappointment for fusion’s latest supergroup.

Not long after the release of L.A. Express,  guitarist Robben Ford left the band. This was a big loss, as he contributed two tracks to L.A. Express and wasn’t just a talented, versatile guitarist, but one who was expressive and inventive. His  guitar played an important part in L.A. Express’ sound on their eponymous debut album. Replacing Robben Ford wasn’t going to be easy.

Eventually, the other members of L.A. Express settled on guitarist Peter Maunu as Robben Ford’s replacement. Now work could begin on L.A. Express’ sophomore album, Shadow Play.

Shadow Play.

With Peter Maunu onboard, L.A. Express headed out of Los Angeles to work on their sophomore album Shadow Play. Their destination was James William Guercio’s Caribou Ranch, in Colorado which sat high above the mountains. It was an atmospheric and inspiring place, and perfect for writing and recording an album.

Founder member of L.A. Express, John Guerin, wrote Velvet Lady and Mad Drums And Englishman (Mavro). New recruit Peter Maunu contributed Nordic Winds, Double Your Pleasure and Virtex. Victor Feldman penned Chariot Race, Dance The Night Away and Silhouette. Shadow Play was written by David .Luell and  R.Philipe. These songs were recorded by L.A. Expres at the Caribou Ranch, with a little help from their friends.

This time around, when recording Shadow Play began, L.A. Express’ rhythm section featured drummer and percussionist John Guerin, bassist Max Bennett and guitarist Peter Maunu. They were joined by saxophonist David Luell and Victor Feldman, who played piano, Fender Rhodes,  Arp Odyssey, Hammond organ and congas. Joining L.A. Express were two vocalists Paulette McWilliams and Joni Mitchell, who featured on three tracks. Again rather than employ a producer,  The L.A. Express decided to take produce the Shadow Play themselves. It was ready for release during the second half of 1976.

Before that, critics had their say on Shadow Play, which would be the second album L.A. Express had released. Shadow Play was well received by critics, who noticed that L.A. Express had moved from fusion towards a rockier sound on Shadow Play. The addition of the two guest vocalists was welcomed, which showed another side to L.A. Express’ music. They were a chameleon-like band.

Nordic Winds opens Shadow Play, and features Joni Mitchell, who contributes her unique, ethereal vocals before L.A. Express embark upon a fusion workout. Sometimes, though, it’s more for rock than fusion. This provides a showcase for new guitarist Peter Maunu, while Victor Feldman on Fender Rhodes and saxophonist David Luell play starring roles in this six minute epic.  Uber funky describes Double Your Pleases, which features a much tougher sound. This comes courtesy of a clavinet and blazing saxophone. Later, Paulette McWilliams makes a walk-on appearance, but by then victory is assured for L.A. Express. From there, there’s twists and turns aplenty.

The tempo is dropped on the ballad Shadow Play, which is played in 5/4 time. It’s  something of a slow burner, where L.A. Express  continue to move towards a rockier sound, but don’t forget their jazz roots. Chariot Races sees the tempo rise on what’s an extremely complex piece, where each member of L.A. Express are pushed to the limits. This includes guitarist Peter Maunu, who unleashes a blistering, fleet-fingered solo that plays its part in the sound and success of the track. Paulette McWilliams is enlisted to add vocal on Dance The Night Away, where L.A. Express head in the direction of disco. Very different is Velvet Lady, a much slower, smoother sounding track that flows along effortlessly. Then L.A. Express return to their roots.

There’s a return to fusion on Virtex, which ebbs and flows as L.A. Express explore a smouldering groove. Mad Drums And Englishman is showcase for L.A. Express’ virtuosity, as they switch between 4/4 and 7/8 and between fusion, jazz-funk, Latin and rock during five frantic and magical minutes.  Silhouette which is a slow, ruminative sounding track  proved a fitting way to close Shadow Play.

While critics were won over by Shadow Play, it failed to attract the attention of record buyers. Just like L.A. Express, Shadow Play didn’t trouble the charts. For L.A. Express it was the end of the road.

By then, the members of L.A. Express were involved in a number of different projects, which would prove more successful and lucrative. It wasn’t going to be as easy to find time for L.A. Express to record together any more. So a decision was made that Shadow Play would be L.A. Express’  swan-song. 

By the time L.A. Express called time on their career in 1976, they had been together for just three years, but had accomplished a lot. They had recorded two albums with Tom Scott; featured on three Joni Mitchell albums and released two albums for Caribou Records, L.A. Express and Shadow Play. Both albums have recently been remastered and reissued on one disc by BGO Records. L.A. Express and Shadow Play are a reminder of one fusion’s oft-overlooked, but multitalented and versatile  supergroups, L.A. Express, who released two underrated albums during 1976.

L.A. Express-L.A. Express and Shadow Play.

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