Return to Forever: Fusion Evolution

Shortly after his electrifying performance with Miles Davis at the Isle of Wight Festival in the U.K. on August 29, 1970, Chick Corea left the band to focus his creative energies on his avant-garde quartet Circle with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Barry Altschul and saxophonist Anthony Braxton. In the fall of 1972, Corea formed his first edition of Return to Forever with Brazilian drummer-percussionist Airto (Moreira) and his vocalist wife Flora Purim, saxophonist-flutist Joe Farrell and bassist Stanley Clarke. On Feb. 2 and 3, 1972, that crew recorded Return to Forever under Corea’s name for ECM Records, though that album, which introduced two Corea classics in “La Fiesta” and “Crystal Silence,” wasn’t released Stateside until 1975. Concurrent with these RTF activities, Corea and Clarke were also members of Stan Getz’s band with Tony Williams on drums. On March 3, 1972, that quartet recorded Getz’s Captain Marvel, which featured the Corea compositions “500 Miles High,” “Captain Marvel” and “La Fiesta.”

Corea and Clarke left Getz’s band during the late summer of ’72, then toured Japan with Return to Forever before traveling to London to record the Latin-flavored Light as a Feather (from Oct. 8 through Oct. 15, 1972) for Polydor Records. That landmark recording, which was released later in ’72, included what would become Corea’s most popular composition, “Spain,” along with such enduring originals as “500 Miles High,” “Captain Marvel” and “You’re Everything.” This edition of Return to Forever had a light, airy sound, underscored by Airto’s brisk drumming and featuring Purim’s alluring vocals and augmented by Farrell’s buoyant flute work and Corea’s Fender Rhodes.

Drummer Lenny White, who in 1972 was a member of the groundbreaking San Francisco-based Latin-fusion band Azteca, remembers filling in for Airto with this lighter, Latin-flavored edition of Return to Forever when they had a weeklong engagement at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. “We played all of that music from Light as a Feather, and on the last day Chick invited two guitar players up to sit in, Barry Finnerty and Bill Connors. And it was really killing!”

The kinetic energy of that electrified Sunday night at the Keystone Korner sparked something in Corea. As White recalls, “After that gig, Chick said, ‘Listen, man, I wanna have an electric Return to Forever. I’m going to get Bill Connors and I want to know if you will do it.’” But White, who was committed to a touring schedule with Azteca, passed on Corea’s offer, so Corea hired drummer Steve Gadd instead.

With Gadd on drums, Mingo Lewis on percussion, Clarke on electric bass, Connors on electric guitar and Corea on keyboards, this edition of RTF recorded Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy and followed with gigs at the Village Vanguard in New York, the Bijou in Philadelphia and the Jazz Workshop in Boston. But when Gadd ultimately opted for the more lucrative studio scene rather than touring with RTF, Corea approached White once again. With Azteca on the verge of disbanding, White, who had played alongside Corea on Miles Davis’ landmark Bitches Brew and also played with bassist Clarke on Joe Henderson’s 1971 album In Pursuit of Blackness, decided to join RTF. Supplying muscular backbeats and remarkable facility around the kit, White fueled this newly electrified edition of Return to Forever, which reached out to a young generation of fans with rock power while simultaneously opening the door to jazz.

Originally published in August 2008

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