Previously, I'd written that I'd seen my first concert with jazz pianist Chick Corea some thirty years ago, with his now legendary group, Return to Forever. Considered one of the greatest fusion bands of all time, that incarnation featured the famed bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Lenny White and guitarist Bill Connors. If my mind hadn't already been blown, it surely was after seeing the next RTF line-up following Connor's departure and the debut of a young guitarist named Al DiMeola. For three amazing nights in a row and only a few blocks from my childhood home, I sat in awe of this groundbreaking new music that would ultimately become known as "jazz-fusion". Now, some 25 years later, Return to Forever has reunited and performed for two extraordinary and captivating nights at the Grand on Van Ness and Sutter.
Miles Davis’ electric bands in the late ‘60s, featured on such classic albums as "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew", served as an "incubator" for several pioneering jazz fusion bands, including Tony Williams’ Lifetime, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report and Chick Corea’s legendary Return to Forever, whose lifespan stretched from 1972 to 1977 with three different versions of the band.
After a touring absence of more than 25 years, the potent jazz-rock flagship quartet edition of Return to Forever returned for a world tour in 2008. This highly anticipated reunion sees the group’s classic lineup—Corea on keyboards, Al Di Meola on guitar, Stanley Clarke on bass and Lenny White on drums—embark on an expansive summer tour with dates in Europe and the United States.
After Corea left Miles’ employ, he helped found the avant-garde acoustic quartet Circle with saxophonist Anthony Braxton, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Barry Altschul. The band worked from 1970-’71, but Corea sought a new, less-esoteric direction where he could express his music to larger audiences—in a band committed to communicating the purity of sound, the challenge of improvising on complex compositions and the exploration of melding the jazz tradition with rock music. The time was ripe for what followed.
Return to Forever launched in 1972 with its self-titled debut featuring a quintet that Corea assembled, comprising Joe Farrell on flute and saxophone, Airto Moreira on drums and percussion, Flora Purim on vocals, and Stanley Clarke on bass—the only RTF member who served in all three editions of the band. With a Brazilian tinge imbued in the fusion, the first album featured such noteworthy tracks as “Sometime Ago,” “Crystal Silence” and “La Fiesta.” Later that year, the same RTF lineup delivered its follow-up, Light As a Feather, renowned as one of the band’s best recordings. Tunes included such Corea classics as “Spain,” “500 Miles High” and “Captain Marvel.”
In 1973, when Airto and Flora left RTF to start their own band and Farrell also took his leave, Corea enlisted a new lineup to explore a harder-edged rock-jazz fusion. The electric guitar was added, and placed front and center along with Corea on electric keyboards. The guitarist for the first of the four quartet albums, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (1973), was Bill Connors, who soon left the band to pursue his solo career. He was replaced in 1974 by 19-year-old, fresh-from-college, hard-rocking Al Di Meola, who cut his eyeteeth in the band. He was featured on the remaining three quartet albums and proved to be an integral member of the band.
While drummer Steve Gadd was originally pegged to be in RTF, he opted out because he was unwilling to tour, and was replaced by funk-fueled Lenny White, who Corea knew from the Bitches Brew sessions. Clarke remained the bassist, developing during this time his singular electric bass style. This lineup is considered to be the golden RTF group, which recorded three popular crossover albums: 1974’s Where Have I Known You Before (Di Meola’s debut), 1975’s Grammy-winning No Mystery and 1976’s studio finale, Romantic Warrior, which became the best selling of all RTF recordings.
For the third and final version of RTF, Clarke remained, Farrell returned, and drummer Gerry Brown and vocalist Gayle Moran were enlisted. In addition, Corea brought aboard a four-piece brass section. That group recorded the 1977 Music Magic album and toured throughout the year, documented by the album R.T.F. Live. It was the end for RTF in 1977, but the group was resurrected for a quartet concert in 1983 with saxophonist Joe Henderson, known as the "Griffith Park Concert".
Tuesday night's show opened slowly and chronologically with the classic "Hymn Of The 7th Galaxy", then moved to "Vulcan Worlds" from the seminal "Where have I Known You Before?" album. Corea's solo piece, "Senor Mouse" was followed by the "Sorceress" from the "Romantic Warrior" and sequed to my favorite RTF tune of all time, "Song To The Pharoah Kings". Other classic tunes followed; "Dayride", "Shadow of Lo" and "Beyond the Seventh Galaxy".
Stanley Clarke was just as you might imagine; the usual monster on his Alembic and acoustic basses, quoting his signature stuff on the stand-up, and his stereo bass rig was just incredible, virtually taking up the middle of the stage. Perhaps my favorite solo was DiMeola playing on his Ovation acoustic guitar with a Roland MIDI pick-up. Gorgeous. Lenny White's drumming was remarkably crisp, even better than when I saw him with Freddie Hubbard a month ago. Chick Corea was well, Chick Corea; a master second to none.
I will say this; I've seen more "reunion shows" than I care to count; too many of them cashing in on forgotten fame and nostalgia. However, as far as Return to Forever is concerned, I have never seen any band, after a 25 year hiatus, get back together and tear it up like they did. They were simply spectacular. I wasn't sure that I wanted Return to Forever to come back again; like an undefeated champion who comes back for one more fight, however they defied the odds, blew my mind, and left with their legacy, and their legend, intact.