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RTF IV in Austin, Texas

MOJA’s Russ Davis catches up with the quintet on tour in Austin, Texas

Lenny White performing with Return to Forever IV
Jean-Luc Ponty performing with Return to Forever IV
Stanley Clarke performing with Return to Forever IV
Frank Gambale performing with Return to Forever IV
Russ Davis with Return to Forever IV

Before Tuesday, the 13th of September, 2011 I’d never set foot inside Austin in my life. I’d always heard what a progressive, music-loving and music-making town it was. The South By Southwest Festival and Austin City Limits program bring the focus of the musical world to the state capital of the nation’s largest state and the local scene is by all accounts red hot. Bill Rooney, Chick Corea’s manager and organizer for what has to be THE biggest tour of the year in jazz, contacted me to ask if I’d like to come to Austin to conduct interviews with the members of RTF IV to be included in an upcoming DVD which will chronicle this momentous tour around the world featuring Chick, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale. I took all of 2 seconds to say yes as I was eager to make the trip, not only to see Austin for myself but to see this incredible super-group of Modern Jazz for the third time.

The first thing I noticed was that there’s more than the music scene that’s blazing these days in Austin. As I gazed through the airplane window before landing I thought to myself that this part of the world looked a lot like what I figured Saudi Arabia might look…a completely parched desert! The locals told me the temperature was to reach 107 degrees on the mid-September day and though I would gladly spend most of the day in the air conditioned comfort of Austin interiors I did take a mid-day stroll down the famous 6th Street, home of clubs, bars and shops that make up one of the centers for the Austin music scene. There wasn’t much happening at noon especially on a 107 degree day and I imagined it hopping and filled with revelers and lots of music and frivolity as Austin’s beautiful people wet their collective whistle and take in some tunes. The nighttime is the right time around here especially this time of year. Back inside I was ready to do business with RTF IV.

Sitting in on sound check is always fun and it gave me more insight into why this band is so fresh each time you hear them, even though they are oftentimes playing songs that could have been committed, even cemented, to memory decades ago. They were still refining the smallest points of timing and playing. The operation of the tour is as professionally executed as you are ever likely to see and on this evening there was the extra element of incorporating the film crew into the mix. Cameras would be sliding in front of the stage in addition to the two cameramen who would be walking on stage sticking lenses into the players’ faces from time to time. These professionals never flinched. RTF IV is a machine at this point. Mr. Rooney had given me that coveted “All Access Pass” which I wore around my neck, giving me a chance to seek out anywhere and anyone I wished to talk to in preparation for the video interview to come just before the live performance.

Bill Rooney is a man behind the scenes with this major operation that is the RTF IV machine I’ve mentioned here, as he was for the celebrated “Return To Forever Returns” tour of 2008. He has the appearance of your kindly brother with a friendly and charming style. Occasionally he has to make quick decisions and he always seems to make these bold moves with speed and confidence. There are seemingly dozens of moving parts all around him and he’s in control of it all with a gentle grace. There’s lots going on inside that head and he’s working with one of his personal heroes in Chick Corea, which I know makes all this very demanding work a labor of love. I mention Bill Rooney to give some completely justified credit for his contributions to two highly successful RTF worldwide tours. As an example of his decision-making I offer the fact that he specifically chose Austin’s Moody Theatre, the home of the popular Austin City Limits TV series, to shoot footage because it’s a great performance space suited for just this kind of situation. Mr. Rooney also had a hand in bringing on Dweezil Zappa, the son of Frank Zappa, and his band Zappa Plays Zappa as the lead-on act for the tour. It is a stroke of genius as Dweezil is a fine guitarist with great stage presence and he has put together a fantastic band that is talented and entertaining to interpret the music of his legendary father. The music is a combination of rock, jazz, classical and comedy and ZPZ draws not only the younger fans of the jazzy jambands but also the original Zappa too. The room on the night of every concert, and I’ve seen three now, is dotted with almost as many Zappa shirts as RTF merchandise. A good call by the members of RTF and Bill Rooney, who by the way was disguised as Frank Zappa in his high school yearbook. I have not found a copy of that but I am not giving up on the search. More on ZPZ later.

I’ve had a great relationship with all the guys in RTF, as well as Jean-Luc Ponty, for decades now and after a couple of interview sessions and some fun hangs with Frank Gambale I feel like I’ve known this talented Aussie for years as well. During the hours of the soundcheck, the pre-concert meal, and other moments in the dressing room before and after the performance I found myself wishing I had the cameras rolling at all times to capture the rare, sometimes enlightening, sometimes hilarious moments of conversation. There was Lenny White telling the stories of how Miles Davis, during the recording of Bitches Brew, placed the musicians in a circle in the studio, started a groove and then motioned in his unique way like a conductor when he wanted someone to start or stop. Stanley Clarke, who donned a Philadelphia Eagles cap most of the day, talked about his beloved Philly teams like a kid on the street rather than a world-famous musician who’s made Los Angeles his home for decades. Chick Corea, who is always quick with a laugh and smile but doesn’t engage in small talk very much, shared some deep and personal thoughts with me, continuing a conversation that we basically started in the early 1980’s when we sat down for our first interview. He mentioned how much he misses living in New York as the last time he had a week to spend in the city he and his wonderful wife, Gayle Moran, hit the jazz clubs every night hearing lots of friends playing and I’m sure bringing back a ton of memories. Frank Gambale shared some thoughts about his incredible, custom-made guitar that sounds like a tiger in his hands, as well as the fact that Australia was originally settled by the Dutch before the English. You learn something every day if you just listen you know? Jean-Luc was mostly business on this day and not around for the group “hang.” He was probably wisely getting some rest as the grind of traveling every day and setting up shop in a new place to pour your heart out on stage for and hour and a half can be pretty taxing.

Before taking the stage the guys sat in front of the cameras to submit themselves to some questioning that will become the extra features that is scheduled to accompany live footage on the forthcoming DVD. Bill Rooney had helped compiled a list of brilliant questions that covered not only the current incarnation of RTF but also some very juicy elements of Jazz Fusion history. He gave me leeway to craft the questions as I wanted. As we got underway, beginning with Chick, Stanley and Lenny in one grouping, I could see that, again, I was working with true professionals who know just what we were here for. They delivered as professionals do with spirited and complete answers. There was a playfulness that you’d expect from a group of 20-somethings. That’s the spirit of this trio that has been the heart and soul of projects under the name Return To Forever since the 1970’s. You’ll have to get the DVD to hear it all but some of the choice moments included learning how Stanley wrote his brilliant Jazz-Rock anthem “School Days” in mere minutes while watching TV as Chick received a Grammy Award. We found out that Lenny’s brilliant composition “The Shadow Of Lo” was misprinted on the album cover and couldn’t be recalled. The real title is “The Shadow Of Io” named for one of the moons of Jupiter. Look it up! We learned how Chick’s famous composition “Spain” was inspired by Chick’s love of Miles Davis’s “Sketches Of Spain.”

When Frank Gambale and Jean-Luc Ponty sat in front of the cameras we got lots of choice thoughts and stories from the two men who make this new incarnation of RTF so lively and unique. Jean-Luc was kind enough to give us some perspective on Fusion history as the only man who has been a member of two of the “Big Three” groups of the era. He never played in Weather Report but he was part of Mahavishnu Orchestra and now RTF, the “Beatles and The Stones” of jazz as he phrased it. Frank talked about the thrill of starting the tour in his home nation at the legendary Sydney Opera House and how a crowd in Eastern Europe stood in a cold and constant downpour for the entire show and gave them one of the biggest responses of the tour. After the interview was done the guys were off to prepare for the stage. Mr. Rooney told me that I was “off the clock” and with my All Access Pass around my neck I was off to hear the performances, beginning with Zappa Plays Zappa.

I claimed a spot on the second level of this beautiful, new three-level hall that is the Moody Theatre. ZPZ was into their second tune by the time I got settled and they were blazing through their set to the delight of the crowd. The highlights for me were the jazzy side of Zappa, great songs like “Big Swifty” and an instrumental version of “Fifty Fifty.” But the peak was when Chick was invited on stage to join the band for the great Zappa jazz-rock classic “King Kong.” Just as when Jean-Luc, who played with Zappa back in the day and mentioned on stage that Dweezil was only about 4 years old at the time, jammed with the band in New York, the audience went absolutely mad. The set ended with local guitar hero Eric Johnson joining in to jam on the last song and all in all ZPZ was a resounding success on this night in Austin, and the perfect warm up for RTF IV!

From the first notes of “Medieval Overture” to the last notes of the encore “School Days,” the audience was treated to a set of music of a style that one simply doesn’t hear anywhere else except when these incredible musicians are playing from this set-list, and what a collection of classic songs! Stanley’s “After The Cosmic Rain” was blazing with Frank Gambale in just one of his fine moments the night. In a town that obviously appreciates great guitarists they were hearing one on this night! Just as it has for each show I’ve seen, Jean-Luc Ponty’s beautiful “Renaissance” was a priceless acoustic moment of the show. Stanley had pushed to make this a part of the repertoire of the band and proudly introduced it as “Jean-Luc’s soulful song.” Lenny’s great masterpiece “Sorceress” was spectacular as it has morphed into a new piece with a funky passage or two to give the song dynamics it never had before and was a showcase for his writing, arranging and playing skills. Chick was simply Chick…possibly the greatest keyboardist-composer-bandleader combination that modern jazz has ever produced. No one can top his writing skills, his playing ability, his versatility and mastery of acoustic and electric keyboards and his spirit.

Each time I’ve seen this incarnation of RTF IV perform all members have had their own great impact, but on each night a different artist seemed to touch the audience most deeply. On this night in Texas it seemed to be Stanley Clarke and his virtuoso playing on both acoustic and electric bass. On some of his leads he seemed almost ready to leap into the audience for he was truly soaring all night long. It was absolutely appropriate that “School Days” ended the show and the crowd didn’t want to leave until everyone had a chance to shake hands with the band. I had my ears tuned to hear the comments of the folks as they filed out. There were lots of hoops and hollers, Texas-style, lots of folks simply shaking their heads and saying “WOW!” All night long in the second level balcony where I stood I noticed lovely young ladies who just had to get up to dance to the music, songs their parents could have first moved to. This is a good sign of course that speaks to the point that this music is timeless. I heard a man with his finest Texas drawl saying to his friends, “Jean-Luc shoulda been with ’em all along…he’s a Wildman too!” All through the night I caught sight of members of the audience giving the holy “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign to salute the band at the end of a song. If you know anything about Austin, the home of the University of Texas Longhorns, then you know that Austin sho’ ’nuff did like ’em some RTF IV on this night!

Originally Published