Return to Forever at Montreal Jazz Festival
I attended the last Return to Forever reunion, 25 years ago. The fusion supergroup, which had disbanded in 1976 at the peak of its popularity, shortly after the release of the gold-selling concept album Romantic Warrior, had decided to get back together for a brief tour in 1983. I caught their show at the old Palladium theater in Manhattan (a huge space on 14th Street later purchased by New York University and converted into a dormitory), but at that point not enough time had elapsed to truly make it a nostalgic event.
Now, so much time has gone by, a quarter of a century, in fact, that I was practically wallowing in nostalgia at this current RTF reunion. Hearing Chick Corea and the boys running through letter-perfect renditions of “Vulcan Worlds,” “Song to the Pharoah Kings” and “Sorceress” had me drifting back to my youthful days in Milwaukee during the mid-’70s, recalling drives along Lake Michigan in my first car with the sun roof rolled open, smoking my first joint and grooving heavily on this pulse-quickening brew of intense sci-fi rock-jazz that was some kind of fresh amalgam of Yes’ Fragile, Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus and Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew.
The equivalent of a Beatles reunion for fusion fans, this gala event was one of the most highly anticipated concerts at this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival (along with a series of concerts by hometown hero Leonard Cohen). And while there had over the past few years been some resistance by Corea to the idea of mounting a Return to Forever reunion, everything seemed completely harmonious, musically and personally, between the musicians onstage at the grand, 3,000-seat Wilfrid-Pelletier concert hall. There were plenty of smiles and laughs, lots of eye contact and casual conversation between keyboardist Corea, guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White, along with tons of impossible unison lines, rapid-fire streams of notes and other examples of daunting virtuosity by all four musicians.
Before they took the stage, the lights dimmed in the concert hall as calming strains of “In a Silent Way” piped through the PA system in a touching tribute to the late Joe Zawinul. The band’s entrance was met with a rousing standing ovation by these Canadian fans, some of whom had been in the audience back in the group’s heyday. (One diehard ran down to the front of the stage, as the members were taking bows before starting the concert, and handed Corea a ticket stub from a 1975 concert in Montreal, to his amazement.)
This was RTF’s 23rd stop on a 50-city tour that would bring them to Europe in July and conclude back in the States in early August. “We’re getting it together every day,” Corea told the crowd. “It’s starting to feel like it feels.” By this midway point in the tour, it was clear that whatever rust may have existed in the early stages of the tour had been completely worked out through gigging. This was a well-oiled fusion juggernaut in peak form, nailing all the intricate stop-time passages, navigating the complex web of contrapuntal lines with aplomb and wailing with abandon during their dazzling exchanges of eights.
Di Meola strapped on his old black Les Paul Custom for the band’s opener, Corea’s title track to 1973’s Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, an anthemic piece fueled by White’s John Bonham-esque bombast on the kit. The guitarist’s first flurry of speed licks up the fretboard of his ax drew raucous shouts of approval from this rock-hungry crowd. Switching to a multicolored Paul Reed Smith guitar for Clarke’s “Vulcan Worlds” from 1974’s Where Have I Known You Before, he wailed with rock-star authority while also engaging in playful call-and-response exchanges with Corea on a Yamaha Motif XS8 synthesizer. For a change of pace from the recording, they slowed down Clarke’s solo section on “Vulcan Worlds” to a shuffle-funk crawl, allowing him to really dig into his Alembic bass with his signature thumb-slapping technique while letting his fingers fly into the high register with unparalleled facility. Di Meola answered with a fleet-fingered solo of his own. Through all the fretboard fireworks, Corea set the soloists up with his comping like a savvy point guard dishing the ball to his main scorers. And on his own avant-gardish solo he experimented with a Ring Modulator, a device that allows him to twist and tweak individual notes from his Fender Rhodes electric piano into wildly impressionistic shapes.
“I’m as excited as you are that we got back together,” Clarke said to the audience between songs. “Twenty-five years is a long time, but it’s fun to be back with Al and Lenny and this great American composer, Chick Corea.”
On White’s mysterious and earthy “Sorceress” (from 1976’s Romantic Warrior), they once again cut the groove to half-time on the solo sections, which resulted in some atypically bluesy guitar heroics from Di Meola, underscored by funky clavinet comping from Corea. Corea’s acoustic piano solo here was harmonically provocative and full of dazzling right-hand runs while his Mini-Moog solo on the same song was flawless yet strictly in the moment.
“In an era of boy bands, this is a man band,” said White to the crowd before RTF launched into Corea’s “Song to the Pharoah Kings” (from 1974’s Where Have I Known You Before). Di Meola went toe-to-toe with Corea on this Latin-flavored gem, exchanging rampaging eights with remarkable speed and clarity. Clarke’s display of thumb-slapping bass elicited whoops and shouts from the audience while White, who was laughing so hard during Clarke’s solo that he almost fell off his drum stool, got a standing ovation for his own dynamic solo.
Following an intermission, RTF returned for an acoustic performance of “No Mystery” (the title track from their 1975 Grammy-winning album). Di Meola triggered eerie ghost notes via a guitar synth attachment on his Ovation acoustic guitar, and conducted a veritable clinic in the art of precision picking and string skipping. More deliberate and chamber-like on record, they opened the piece up to spontaneous jamming in concert, with White incorporating some loosely swinging brushwork behind Clarke’s upright bass solo. At one point in their organically playful exchanges throughout “No Mystery,” White dug in with his left-handed swing feel on the ride cymbal and Clarke instantly picked up on it by walking insistently on his bass, a la Ray Brown. White responded by getting even looser, suddenly dropping bombs on the bass drum and supplying hip accents on the snare and—voila!—they were playing bebop. Then just as smoothly and abruptly, on an exact down beat, they collectively reverted back to the familiar theme.
On a provocative solo interlude, Corea played inside the piano with mallets while muting the strings with one hand; shades of his outré excursions with Circle. This led right into a burning piano-trio rendition of the Corea classic “Matrix” (which first appeared on 1968’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs with Roy Haynes and Miroslav Vitous) that had White swinging his ass off and Clarke walking furiously on the upright.
Di Meola returned with acoustic guitar in hand for a rendition of “The Romantic Warrior,” which Corea imbued with an upbeat son montuno feel that the guitarist burned over with impunity. Clarke’s unaccompanied upright bass solo during this expansive suite was simply astounding, full of innovative chording techniques involving some outrageous stretches with his left-hand fingers, incorporating two-handed percussive tapping on the neck and strings, and marked by his typically blazing facility. He also incorporated some furious flamenco strumming, the kind that Charles Mingus only hinted at on “Ysabel’s Table Dance” from Tijuana Moods and finished his bravura solo performance with some Pete Townshend-styled windmilling on the upright that had the crowd screaming wildly.
Not to be overshadowed by Clarke’s theatrics and virtuosity, White crafted an unaccompanied drum solo that elicited an equally enthusiastic standing ovation. An incredibly powerful drummer who blends sheer bombast and precision fills with RTF, in the tradition of fusion drumming pioneers Billy Cobham and Tony Williams, White is also at heart a bebopper, which was apparent from his quoting the quintessential “mop-mop” theme and then gradually extrapolating from there. White’s melodic approach to the kit highlighted his sense of independence and his reverence to the jazz tradition, as he slyly incorporated a reference from Max Roach’s 1996 solo masterpiece “The Drum Also Waltzes” (from Drums Unlimited) into the fabric of his extended piece.
For their encore, the members of RTF tackled the imposing “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant” (from 1976’s Romantic Warrior). Di Meola once again strapped on his black Les Paul and rocked the house with ferocious speed, tempered by warm, sustained tones on his ax, sounding like Carlos Santana on performance-enhancing drugs. White kicked the intensity level into overdrive as Corea unleashed a wicked Mini-Moog solo and Clarke threw fuel onto the flames with his thunderous electric bass chops. The expansive suite mood-shifted from swing passage to funk passage to searing rock passage, culminating in a dramatic crescendo that brought this crowd to its feet for about the sixth or seventh time this evening.
Though my waistline has increased by several inches and my hairline has receded by several inches since the mid-’70s, RTF made me feel young again, at least on this one special night.