The Eighties were not especially kind to funky big bands. Rhythm machines replaced drummers, synthesizers subbed for horns, and rappers found that the easiest way to take it to the bridge was to sample James Brown. That could be one reason why Maurice White titled the first Earth, Wind and Fire album of the Nineties Heritage. As the new decade opens, large human bands — with expensive horn sections and gangs of percussionists — are already an endangered species.
Heritage, like Quincy Jones's Back on the Block, is the work of black veterans looking for a niche in a fragmented marketplace. But where Jones stretched the canvas from be-bop to hip-hop, White takes a more manageable path from Sly Stone, who contributes a wheezy wail on "Good Time," to rapper M.C. Hammer, who raps on two tracks.
White has always been a conceptualist — Earth, Wind and Fire was the feel-good funk band of the Seventies — but what makes Heritage superior to the bulk of the group's Eighties work is its comfortable focus on the band's enduring assets: zesty horns and close-cropped vocal harmonies. There may be a synthetic snap to the rhythms, but there's plenty of soul in the grooves.
The two tunes with Hammer add brief raps to arrangements thick with voices, with "Wanna Be the Man" sweetened by a buoyant vocal-group hook and "For the Love of You" spun on a skeletal rhythm suggestive of Cameo. The prideful title tune even throws in the kind of admonition — "This is a party, y'all," courtesy of the Boys — favored by Earth, Wind and Fire's more radical old rivals in Parliament-Funkadelic.
No Earth, Wind and Fire party would be complete without the romantic falsetto of Philip Bailey, and if "I'm in Love" is no "Reasons," it's at least a reasonable enough facsimile. That's pretty much the case with all of Heritage, an album that finds these soulful survivors proving that their old-fashioned strengths can still sound fresh in the most modern sense of the word.