Return to Forever was a Latin jazz band in the early 1970s, a fusion act in the mid-’70s, and a big band in the late ’70s, but this is an anthology of only its most commercially successful middle period of 1973-1976. Bandleader Chick Corea, like most personnel from Miles Davis’ bands, learned to always follow his muse, but the serpentining keyboardist also took a more extremist view of that mantra than alumni peers Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett. The Anthology, it could be argued, is even a mix of two separate Return to Forever fusion phases, thanks to its two distinctively different guitarists.
Bill Connors essentially replaced multi-reedman Joe Farrell, and was Corea’s guitar choice before the more heralded Al Di Meola. Drummer Lenny White took over from Airto Moreira, and ever-present bassist Stanley Clarke focused more on electric than acoustic. Corea did likewise, and offset the commercial loss of vocalist Flora Purim by riding the then-cresting instrumental fusion wave on the 1973 release Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (presented here in sequence and in its entirety).
It would be Connors’ only album with the band, but it increased the name recognition of both Return to Forever and its young guitarist. Connors and Clarke burn on “After the Cosmic Rain,” with the bassist using distortion to match the guitarist’s intensity. On “Captain Senor Mouse,” Connors channels both Jeff Beck and John McLaughlin, and contributes to the eventual 6/8-timed chaos of “The Game Maker” after Corea lulls the listener into a false sense of security with his somber intro.
Di Meola left the Berklee College of Music at age 19 to replace Connors in 1974, and appears on the rest of this collection (composed of roughly half the material from both 1974’s Where Have I Known You Before and 1975’s No Mystery, plus the entire top-selling 1976 release Romantic Warrior). The teenage guitarist displays more bite in his tone and more Latin nuances than Connors, as evidenced on Where Have I Known You Before highlights like Clarke’s rock-influenced “Vulcan Worlds” and Corea’s Latin opus, “Song to the Pharaoh Kings.”
Disc two is uneven by comparison. The material on No Mystery was hit-and-miss, and of its four represented pieces, only the title track (featuring Clarke and Di Meola on acoustic instruments) finds firm footing. Romantic Warrior comes to the rescue thereafter, with White navigating the band through the rhythmic maze of “Medieval Overture”; Di Meola contributing the Mahavishnu-esque “Majestic Dance,” and Corea building the tension to a boil on his anthemic title track and the “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant” suite.
Realizing that this lineup had likely peaked creatively, commercially and critically, Corea disbanded it shortly thereafter. But the same quartet is currently in the midst of a three-month tour of North America and Europe, and returning the fire to much of this material for the first time in 30 years.