You have to credit hip-hop and its crate-digging DJs with the current trend towards remembrance and rediscovery of funk and soul bands from the past. Adults who grew up alongside hip-hop found jobs in the record industry and brought that digger’s knowledge of music to their work. The last five or so years have seen a bounty of funk, soul, and jazz reissues for this very reason. Some of the music being reissued is rare, and some of it goes far beyond rare, into the realms of the truly forgotten.
Somewhere far along that continuum, towards the ‘absolutely lost and probably forgotten’ side, lies the self-titled LP by Chicago group Pieces of Peace, recently reissued by Cali-Tex Records, DJ Shadow’s imprint of Quannum Projects. Described as “arguably the most important lost document of Chicago soul music” in Rob Sevier’s liner notes, the album is especially obscure because it was never released in the first place. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Pieces of Peace brought together a batch of hard-working Chicago musicians with genuine chops. They made the rounds of the Chicago soul scene, becoming a fixed presence. They backed up Gene Chandler, backed up Syl Johnson, and became close with the Pharaohs. In 1971 they recorded an album, scheduled for release through the Pharaohs’ label Scarab, but then unexpectedly disbanded during a tough tour of Asia, as Sevier relates in detail. The various band members went their own directions, within and without Chicago, and the LP never came out.
Over 35 years after it was recorded, here it finally is: the six LP tracks and two bonus instrumental takes. It stands strong – not just as an example of the Chicago scene of the time, but as a rock-solid, adventurous blend of soul, funk and jazz. Within the album’s six proper songs lies sweet soul balladry; post-What’s Going On ecologically aware social commentary; hard, steady funk rhythms; and unleashed, exploratory playing that would slip casually into any free jazz fan’s music collection. With that unique combination, in retrospect the group’s style seems particularly resonant of the ‘60s/’70s crossroad it comes from. Pieces of Peace’s music veers towards psychedelia but stays on the alert side of it. They sing of love and peace but play with a fierce awareness of the dark side of that. On jams like “Peace & Blessings” they work at their instruments like they’re angry, but always express a preference for healing at the end of the day.
That track, “Peace & Blessings”, has some wailing electric guitar that reeks of Funkadelic, while the horns blast away in a way that reminds of Chicago’s rich history with out-there jazz. “Yesterday’s Visions”, which rounds out the album, turns that same forceful musicianship upward, into bright, black hippie marching band playing, and also outward, exploring the visions of the title. But as dreamy and experimental as Pieces of Peace get, they’re never anything less than tight, never far from the sturdy confines of funk. Earlier in the album, they take that same in-the-pocket approach to playing straight-up soul music, on the light yet strident opener “Cease Fire”, the spunky “Flunky for Your Love”, and the slow-dance love song “I Still Care”, sung with sweet sadness by organist Ben Wright.
That title “Cease Fire”, along with “Peace & Blessings”, makes it clear that the band’s name was no joke, that they played their music with positive intent, driven by the notion that music can change the world. But it’s clear that those motivations never led them to sacrifice musicianship for message. On “Peace & Blessings” they work their way into an ecstatic frenzy that pushes in a spiritual direction, heavy with meaning. Yet the precise, directed way they approach wildness requires top-notch musical skills. Pieces of Peace is possessed with the spirit of hope and change, but it’s also a stunning display of musicianship. So much skill and love went into this music. Skill and love have brought it back as well, and thanks be for that.