Michel Colombier

Wings

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With the Tijuana Brass mostly on hold at the time, Herb Alpert commissioned what was immediately touted as a landmark project from French musical polymath Michel Colombier -- a pop symphony with the positively Mahlerian ambition to encompass the entire world in about 37 minutes. Alpert produced it, the gnomelike Paul Williams contributed lyrics, and Colombier composed the music and recorded it mostly in Paris, with additional big-band tracks and voices added at A&M Studios in Los Angeles. In a nutshell, Wings is a journey from darkness to light, with the hellfire of opening song "Freedom and Fear" -- powered by the anguished voice of Bill Medley (of the Righteous Brothers) -- eventually giving way to the redemption of love (Colombier might disagree that there's any storyline, but the evolution seems quite clear). The ensemble is huge -- a French symphony orchestra and a smaller so-called "pop" orchestra, an American big band, and voices, as well as electric violinist Jean-Luc Ponty providing occasional slithering, edgy commentary. At first, you wonder where all of this rampant eclecticism is headed; the music thrashes about from combo jazz to soft rock to big-band wailings to film music to atonal classical music, without much coherence. Then, all of a sudden, about two-thirds of the way through, the piece comes together -- and from here on,Wings takes off, inspired to the finish. A grand flourish worthy of a Biblical film epic ushers in "We Could Be Flying," a beautiful song in the Sergio Mendes idiom of that time, sung delicately by Mendes' most celebrated vocalist, Lani Hall. A classical intermezzo, "Emmanuel," follows -- re-recorded, sweetened, and lengthened on the 1977 reissue of the album -- and the final paean to the power of love, "All in All," becomes a vehicle for Alpert's plaintive voice. Upon first release, Wings was lauded to the skies by the press -- especially those who weren't sold on rock -- and received three Grammy nominations and a Grand Prix du Disque but was relegated to cult status in sales, and the re-release in 1977 attracted hardly any attention at all. In hindsight, Wings is an artifact of its time, but one with passages of genuine beauty that ought not be relegated to oblivion.

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