Sunday, August 03, 2008

Return to Forever: Fusion Lives!

I had the chance to catch Return to Forever at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Thursday night, and I have to admit: Chick Corea and Co. sound better than they did the first time around.

Of course, I didn't catch the "middle" lineup of RTF - keyboardist Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al DiMeola, drummer Lenny White - in concert in the mid-'70, or on their brief '83 reunion tour. But I did spend many formative hours listening to Romantic Warrior and No Mystery.

Truth of the matter is that RTF's players are simply better musicians today than they were way back when.

RTF, along with Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, sprung from the same-jazz rock impulses that fed Miles' bands and recordings of the late '60s, including Bitches Brew and In a silent Way.

But in some respects, RTF was sort of the jazz equivalent of Prog Rock (Yes, Genesis, ELP, etc.), and there are certainly parallels between Frank Zappa's instrumental music and RTF's approach.

At any rate, I'm doing a full review of the show for

Nate Chinen's informative feature on RTF appears in today's New York Times.

My feature on RTF ran last week in the St. Petersburg Times.

Here's the "raw feed" (pre-edit version) of that feature:

Return to Forever
By Philip Booth

When rock and roll’s attitude, electric instruments and sheer volume met the virtuoso instrumentals, extended improvisations and sophisticated chord structures of jazz in the ‘70s, fusion was born.

Fomenting fusion’s success as a genre were several bands, including Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, all to one degree or another influenced by Miles Davis’s jazz-rock mutations in the late ‘60s, including his work on the albums Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way.

Return to Forever, the band organized by keyboardist Chick Corea, evolved into a fusion supergroup, with Corea, on electric piano and synthesizers, joined by bass monster Stanley Clarke, speedy six-stringer Al Di Meola and versatile, funky drummer Lenny White.

The quartet, whose albums including No Mystery and Romantic Warrior are heard on the newly released retrospective The Anthology, generated commercial success and a devoted following with blazingly fast melodies, tight unison passages, dazzling solos and solid grooves.

Then, in 1976, the RTF phenomenon abruptly ended. The quartet’s break-up at the time was reported as owing to philosophical differences that Scientology devotees Corea and Clarke had with their bandmates. Corea and Clarke briefly continued without the others, and a one-off reunion tour was held in 1983.

Now, seemingly out of nowhere and a quarter-century after the band last played together, RTF’s most popular incarnation is back for a concert trek that plays Ruth Eckerd Hall on Thursday night. Corea, a Clearwater-area resident since 1997, talked about the band last month during a telephone interview from San Francisco.

How did you decide to relaunch Return to Forever?

It was really a group action. The idea has been in the air for years and years. We'd meet each other and talk about that. Stanley, Lenny and Al and I have all been busy through the years with lots and lots of projects. The schedule never got carved out. The past couple of years, the talk got a little more intense. It all built up to a point where we said we better do it.

What did you want to achieve musically?

I think the idea was to try to pick up that group feeling that we had that was so exciting in the ‘70s and the musical relationship that we had formed that was pretty strong. Stanley and I were partners all through the three versions of Return to Forever. We shared a lot of the same musical realities together. I met Stanley in (saxophonist) Joe Henderson's band and Lenny played with Stan a lot. Stanley opened for Miles. Musically it feels like it fits real comfortably. We've started with some of the tunes that we were doing in the '70s.

What made that era so creatively exciting for you?

I can remember the feeling that was happening in the early ‘70s and late ‘60s was one of experimentation and change and trying things out. Our mentors and the people we looked up to like Miles and Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins – these guys were all experimenting their heads off. All the guys were doing that. Tony Williams was doing that, John McLaughlin, Herbie (Hancock). There was an expansiveness of putting music together that would attract people's attention. I was all caught up in the moment of ‘Wow, this is some wild stuff that's happening.’ In the ‘60s I was listening to what ‘Trane (John Coltrane) was doing, and Ornette (Coleman), Cecil Taylor, Edgar Varese and Bartok. I was interested in all the wild stuff – the stuff that I was involved in didn't seem that wild.

What accounted for the tremendous popularity of this version of the band?

The first Return to Forever had a softer sound, a samba-based groove with melodic tunes. When we decided to add electric guitar and pump it up, it more matched the tastes of the young people who were going to concerts. More than that was the fact that everybody in this quartet likes to communicate and entertain the audience, which was not a quality that some musicians have. We like to get out there and cause an effect on an audience – all these guys do that.

The fusion movement was later attacked by many critics. Did that bother you?

I ignored it, basically. Everyone has the right to their own opinion and taste.

What’s the legacy of fusion?

That's another question that I leave up to musicians and writers. There used to be a (satellite) station called Planet Jazz. They had a format at one point where they were playing all the fusion music of the 70s - Tony Williams, Mahavishnu, Jaco. In the ‘70s when I was in it myself, I wasn’t listening to it that much. But listening to it now, that music still sounds really fresh.

Are you playing any new music on this tour?

In ’83, I had written a long suite of five different pieces that went together that we played. The audience reaction was like they were waiting for the old music. So this time we decided to stay with the '70s music.

Fusion developed a reputation as jazz played at rock volume. Does that still hold true?

We're gonna be blasting in there. I don't know how rock and roll it will be but it will be loud.

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