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Day One in Montreal: Return To Forever IV!

Radio programmer and host Russ Davis reports on performance by latest configuration of legendary band, in concert at the Montreal International Jazz Festival

Return to Forever IV
Stanley Clarke performing with Return to Forever IV

When I made my way to LaGuardia Airport to fly to Montreal for my 8th visit in a row to the Montreal Jazz Festival the cab driver wanted to make conversation about where I was going and why. I explained how I was traveling to cover the festival again and that I worked in jazz radio. He asked if I was going to review the shows and tell people what was good and bad about the performances and his question struck me. I don’t choose to get into what was “bad” about a performance since I am not a musician at the level of the great jazzers I witness so how could I say whether or not they were achieving what they were going for or that there were “mistakes” in the performance? One man’s failure is another man’s great success, right? So I choose to search for the beautiful and share that with you.

Well, as for the very first performance I took in at the 32nd edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, the sold out show by Return To Forever IV in the festival’s largest venue, the 3,000 seat Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, I couldn’t have found a flaw if you had held a gun to my head. If there were mistakes I couldn’t hear them as I was under the spell of the majesty of this music and power of the incredible musicianship of Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale. From the first notes of “Medieval Overture” to the last note of the encore “School Days”…yes…SCHOOL DAYS…I continued to say to myself, “Now THIS is what I’m talking about…THIS is ELECTRIC JAZZ at its very highest level!” There may be others who have made MOJA like this but none better, ever!

After having seen the 2008 “Return To Forever Returns” tour with Chick, Stanley, Lenny and Al Di Meola I remembered how excited the crowd was at the two shows I attended and how satisfying the experience was, but this was something more and as I reflect now on what made it so I come back to the same point, the added attraction of Jean-Luc Ponty and his incredible contribution on violin! Everyone I’ve spoken to has concurred, that Jean-Luc was the added spice to make this the perfect gumbo! We also agreed that the versatile guitarist from Australia, Frank Gambale, was brilliant and could have used more of the spotlight. Considering the talent on the stage you can understand why there just wasn’t enough to go around and honestly I think the “band” was the star on this evening though there were certainly moments of individual brilliance too numerous to mention. Even RTF classics like “Senor Mouse” and “Shadow Of Lo” were taken to new places as, quite often, pieces would morph out of their original form into passages of funk, to classical, to straight ahead, to rock-jazz and back again, and the guys were obviously having great fun. There was a childlike attitude pouring from the stage as the players congratulated one another after each song like kids high-fiving on the basketball court. (BTW…after the show backstage, Stanley, RFT manager Bill Rooney and I challenged all comers to a 3-on-3 basketball game but could get no takers!)

Back to the show…Chick is on his game as much as he has EVER been with a youthful energy I haven’t seen in him in years. He is obviously having a blast and he and Jean-Luc had a special, very spiritual exchange as they occupied stage right while Frank and Lenny seemed especially in sync on stage left. In the middle, like the mountain that he is, stood Stanley Clarke on electric bass for the first set and both electric and acoustic for set two. Stanley had been awarded “The Miles Davis Award” on stage just before the show began. The award given by the festival each year since 1994 when John McLaughlin became the first recipient, to celebrate the entire career of an international jazz artist and their special contribution to the advancement of jazz. As they say where I come from, “Yeah, you know you right!” Lenny stopped the show for a minute to remark that he and Jean-Luc had never played together before, that he was really thrilled to be doing that now with RTF4 and that he just wanted to let Jean-Luc know that in front of everyone. They shared a “man-hug” on the spot to the delight of the crowd.

Later in the show Jean-Luc took the mic to say much the same and since he was in Quebec he could say it in French as well as English. The performance of his contribution to the CD Forever titled “Renaissance” was a true show-stopper, bringing the crowd to its feet in mid-show, and one of the peaks of the entire night. Back to my original point…Jean-Luc is the wild card in this band and though each member is brilliant and essential, his contribution is what makes this group magic beyond a doubt! When Frank Gambale and Stanley moved to center stage together to begin the encore they had a purposeful resolve in their faces and that purpose was to ROCK! They kicked off the classic “School Days” and RTF4 joined in as the machine they have become to finish off the night with a roar! I’ve seen many shows in my years on this planet but none I enjoyed more than this. See this show…get the album Forever…you will do yourself a favor as you give yourself the gift of history!

OK, now I’ve done it, seen a fantastic show like this and it’s only my first day at the Montreal Jazz Fest. How in the world am I going to top it? Oh well, I’ll just do my best I guess. I’ve got Geri Allen & her great band Timeline at the Gesu at 6 PM, then it’s off to hear guitarist Marc Ribot doing his “Caged Funk” thing at the Theatre Jean-Duceppe (one of his three shows at the festival this year), followed by Esperanza Spalding (Ms. Grammy-winner for “Best New Artist of 2010” thank you very much!) in a gala show at the beautiful Theatre Maisonneuve, then the big, free show of the night at Galactic rocks the MTL on the huge Scene TD stage. Hey…I think I’ll be OK after all!

Russ Davis is host of MOJA radio.

Originally Published