Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Return to Forever: Where Have I Known You Before

Chick Corea
Stanley Clarke
Al Di Meola
Lenny White
Return to Forever
Chick Corea

Last February, on an unseasonably warm winter night in Los Angeles, something special took place in a large building at the fringe area between Hollywood and Los Feliz. On the second floor, in a studio big enough to house a 60-piece orchestra, four musicians were busily working their way through a rehearsal. Stopping and starting, redoing difficult passages, cracking jokes-it could have been any one of the many thousands of rehearsals taking place at that moment across the country.

But this one was different. The building was the Mad Hatter Studio, once owned by Chick Corea, sold by him in 2003 to the Church of Scientology. The players, positioned in a circle in the center of the large, equipment-cluttered space were Corea, happily seated behind his Fender Rhodes and Minimoog keyboards, occasionally turning to a nearby concert grand; Stanley Clarke, his fingers whipping across the strings of his upright bass; Al Di Meola, intently digging into the plangent sounds of his electric guitar; and Lenny White, constantly making eye contact with the others, generating a loose, loping, forward drive.

Individually, of course, they were stars in their own right. Together, they were Return to Forever, the band that defined mid-’70s jazz fusion. So what was this all about? Some sort of time warp?

Not exactly: The reunion that everyone—including Corea, Clarke, Di Meola and White—had said, over and over again, would never take place was beginning to happen, 25 years after the much-revered jazz fusion ensemble last broke musical bread together. The first runs through the old tunes were underway. The pleasures of the band’s vaunted intuitive musical interaction were being rediscovered. The jazz version of the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over tour—40-50 dates in the U.S. and Europe—was out of the refrigerator.

And it was serious business. Concord is releasing a two-CD, remixed and remastered set of pieces drawn from recordings by the original RTF quartet. A DVD of the new quartet’s performances is being considered.

Toward one side of the studio, large cardboard boxes were filled with t-shirts celebrating the reunion, spotlighting the group’s logo, and imprinted with a photograph of the four players dating back to RTF’s first incarnation in the ’70s. Asked about the more hirsute appearance of the quartet in the photos, Corea simply smiled and noted, “Ah, we were so much younger then.”

But no more enthusiastic or musically adventurous than they were in the rehearsal, part of a week’s scheduled get-togethers. When Di Meola had to leave the room to make some guitar adjustments, Corea, Clarke and White continued as a trio. The atmosphere had the deceptively laidback but musically intense feeling of a high-level jam session. Rather than focus on compositional details, Corea urged the others into ever more adventurous improvisational excursions, constantly challenging them to join him in spontaneous leaps into limitless musical space. Individually, they were each the stars they had become in the intervening years. Together, they were a dream rhythm section, generating the blend of propulsive swing and feral excitement that gave Return to Forever its irresistible, body-moving appeal.

But the schedule called for more than rehearsing that night at Mad Hatter, the studio’s offices and hallways buzzing with the support activities of staff and management. Earlier in the evening, veteran photographer Lynn Goldsmith—whose portfolio includes images of everyone from Bob Dylan and Sting to Barbra Streisand and Bill Clinton—had pushed, cajoled and physically positioned the quartet into an offbeat photo shoot. Setting the quartet members up around a cluster of instrument boxes and suitcases, she dressed them in heavy winter overcoats and positioned them in a classic band-on-the-run visual tableau.

The process triggered laughter and horseplay, from the musicians as well as several amused observers, including Corea’s wife, singer Gayle Moran, who was insistent that he remove his glasses for the picture. Corea demurred. But Goldsmith, long familiar with musicians’—especially jazz musicians’—discomfort around cameras, plowed ahead, moving from angle to angle, occasionally shouting words of encouragement, intermittently reverting to the barked orders of an insistent drill sergeant.

Watching all this activity, picking up on the dynamic energies coursing through the studio, it was obvious that I was present at a moment filled with great anticipation and excitement, a moment pregnant with enough possibilities to excite even these hardened road warriors. But, even so, questions kept coming to mind. A Return to Forever revival, after all these years, after all the insistence that it would never take place? Why now? Why at all? Why revive one of the postbop era’s most musically and financially successful franchises, especially at a time in which the presence of jazz and jazz fusion in the marketplace has diminished dramatically from what it was three decades ago? The answers came slowly, in many forms, over the course of a long, fascinating evening.

Return to Forever initially surfaced in 1972, the first of three different ensembles—all led by Corea—bearing the same name. The personnel in that band included Corea and Clarke (the only players in all three editions of RTF), singer Flora Purim, drummer/percussionist Airto Moreira and saxophonist/flutist Joe Farrell. Their two albums, Return to Forever and Light as a Feather, moved with surprising seamlessness from Latin rhythms to free-form fusion, introducing pieces such as “Sometime Ago,” “Spain” and “500 Miles High.”

What is now viewed as the classic Return to Forever instrumentation—keyboards, guitar, bass and drums—came together in 1973, after Farrell, Moreira and Purim moved on to other opportunities. Surprisingly, that quartet version, with its distinct fusion orientation, was originally inspired by one of the other breakthrough ensembles of the ’70s: John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra.

“After Airto and Flora couldn’t make the gigs,” recalled Corea, “Stanley and I wanted to continue on. One night we went to the Felt Forum and heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra play. I had never experienced anything like that before. I had met John when he first came to New York and I knew he was incredible, but this band was something different—with Billy Cobham and all the power and sound coming off the stage and John playing all that stuff. And I looked at Stanley and I said, ‘I want to write for a sound like that.'”

Corea was equally awed by aspects of the McLaughlin performance that reached beyond the power and the sound. “The thing that impressed me,” he continued, “was that the rhythms they were playing and the melodies and the way they were playing was wild. And yet the sound that was coming out of this electric guitar and the drums roaring and playing strong backbeats sometimes made the audience think it was rock ‘n’ roll. They got the emotion of it. I thought, Wow, that’s incredible. And I wanted to play to those people. I didn’t want to just play to people sitting seriously in a jazz club, with their head in their hands trying to figure out the chord changes.”

Corea and Clarke immediately started discussing how to add a guitar. Burned out with the saxophone quartet sound, they were convinced they’d found the timbre, the style and the dynamic qualities they had been seeking for the next installment of RTF. “One of the next things we did,” added Corea, “was go out to the Keystone Korner in San Francisco and do a week there. Then Lenny came down and we did a trio gig for another week while we auditioned guitar players. I was laying down Fender Rhodes, Stanley was playing upright bass and we played the entire repertoire from the original Return to Forever. We started every set with ‘Captain Marvel.’ And that’s where we found Billy Connors and the whole electric thing got started. Then after that we started doing new things.”

The initial lineup—present on the quartet’s first release, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy—included Corea, Clarke, drummer Lenny White and guitarist Bill Connors. In 1974, Al Di Meola, then only 19 years old, replaced Connors.

The story behind Di Meola’s addition to the group produced one of the more entertaining recollections of the evening. “I was 19 and I was at the Berklee [College] of Music,” he said. “Chick called me up. He said, ‘Al, a friend of yours dropped off a tape, and I’d love for you to join the band.’ As simple as that. It was really hard to believe it was Chick on the phone, although I’d heard his voice before at shows, because I’d seen the band live. So I packed my stuff and I got out of there. My first gig was at Carnegie Hall three days later. The funny thing was I went home from school and my parents said, ‘What are you doing home from school?’ I said, ‘I’m playing Carnegie Hall.’ They said, ‘You can’t play Carnegie Hall. You just went to the Berklee [College] of Music, [and] you’re playing Carnegie Hall already?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m playing with Chick Corea.’ And they said, ‘Who?’ They couldn’t believe it. And neither could I.”

The resulting quartet released three recordings, Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery and Romantic Warrior (the best-selling of all the RTF albums).

In 1977 Corea assembled yet another version of Return to Forever, again with Clarke, the returning Joe Farrell, drummer Gerry Brown, singer Gayle Moran and a four-piece brass section. The ensemble released two albums, Musicmagic and RFT Live.

And that—with the exception of a very brief reunion of the Corea/Clarke/White/Di Meola quartet in 1983—was the complete original history of RTF until now, with the classic quartet’s efforts bookended by the Purim/Moreira aggregation on one end and the large horn ensemble on the other.

For most jazz fans, despite the group’s various instrumentations, it is the memory of that quartet and its recordings that has triggered the frequent pleas and requests, over more than two decades, for the revival of RTF.

The players were neither immune nor unresponsive to those appeals. Seated in one of the Mad Hatter’s parlors during a rehearsal break, spread out, relaxed and gregarious on a couple of couches and easy chairs, they recalled the entreaties they’d all received at one time or another. In the process, thoughts and phrases were tossed about casually, often picked up and developed by another member with the same sort of improvisatory playfulness that characterized the group’s musical interaction. Participating with them in the exchanges was a bit like being part of a verbal version of RTF in action.

The first theme I tossed out for group variations was the question of what had motivated the reunion. And there was complete ensemble agreement that the consistent interest of RTF fans, which never completely abated, was a factor. “Whenever I’d go on my web site,” said Clarke, “there were always people wanting to know about the band. Even at shows I did, they’d come up and ask. Sometimes they’d stop me on the street.”

White agreed, but with a followup proviso: “It’s true. Every once in a while people would come up and ask about RTF. And my patented answer always was, ‘The Beatles will get back together before Return to Forever does, and one of the Beatles is dead.'”

That generated a round of laughter, followed by a sudden shift of emotion when White added, “And now two of them are gone.”

“We had gone through so many questions,” he continued, “with people asking why we weren’t getting back together, and then it would get to a certain point and it wouldn’t go any further. Finally I just said, ‘Man, you know what? I just think it isn’t going to happen.’ I thought of it as a point in time that was great. I had a great time playing the music, and the music had a great effect on people. But that was it.

“Then the music changed, and people started listening to different kinds of music. And the climate of the music changed so much that I really became convinced that it wasn’t going to happen. But then we started talking about it again.”

And that “talking” was a direct manifestation of the fact that both the interest and the urgency behind the RTF reunion came from inside the band as well as from their many dedicated fans. “One of the things that seemed to happen,” recalled Corea, “was that Al would come to me every now and then with a real passionate thing about Return to Forever. And I got it. I understood his feelings. I remember what it was like back in the day. And Lenny would talk to me about it, and he’d be real passionate about it, too.”

Which fit my own recollection of Di Meola’s asking me, on several occasions over the years, to speak with Corea about getting Return to Forever back together.

Di Meola concurred, pointing out that the talks among band members had reached back nearly a decade. “We met in September 2001, early that month,” he said. “We got together for dinner to talk about it. And then 9/11 happened. Then there was a period right after that when there was a major benefit that occurred on television, with a lot of bands playing. Right away I thought of us getting back together, and I posed that to Chick and the guys.”

That particular plan never came to fruition, but it was one more step forward in the lengthy process of actually making the decision to have a reunion. Part of the problem lay in the simple fact that each of the players had an established solo career.

“Even when we got to the point of wanting to get back together it was hard, because everybody was so busy,” continued Corea. “Because the scheduling was everything.”

Always one of the busiest men in the jazz world, Corea spent the years after the ’70s RTF activities dueting with Gary Burton and Herbie Hancock, forming his Elektric Band, Akoustik Band and Origin. He composed and performed his first classical piano concerto, continued to play around with fusion concepts, and celebrated his 60th birthday with a 10-disc DVD box chronicling a stunning array of performances. And, along the way, he was nominated for 45 Grammy Awards and won 14.

Clarke had moved into television and film composing so deeply that he joked about the fact that there was a time when he was so busy that he “didn’t even remember I once played with Return to Forever.”

That brought a quick round of laughter and jibes from the other players. But Clarke’s credits spoke for themselves—especially during those periods in which he was scoring two or three movies in a row, and doing the music for the occasional television show as well. He was quick to add, however—to more laughter—that he’d “never actually considered giving up the bass.”

White was busy in the studio, producing and laying down his steady world-class beat on numerous funk and fusion projects. “I’d consider myself a soldier,” he said. “I was out there playing with a bunch of different bands: Buster Williams, Wallace Roney, Larry Coryell.”

Like the others, Di Meola’s solo career kicked into overdrive with an array of projects: the three-guitar group with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia; albums devoted to Brazilian music and the Argentinean sounds of Astor Piazzolla; numerous solo appearances.

“But the pressure kept building up,” said Corea, “the pressure of wanting to do it that came from inside, from the members of the quartet, as well as outside, from others. And ultimately, we had to find out if we could actually do it, if we could put a date together.”

A meeting between Corea and Di Meola triggered the spark that actually ignited the process. “Chick was playing the Blue Note,” said Di Meola, “and I was making a recording, and I thought it’d be nice to invite Chick and see if he’d be interested in coming over to my studio in New Jersey and play on a track or two.”

Corea, nodding agreement, interjected: “That was the right thing. That was the right thing to do, man.”

“We had a wonderful duet that we did together,” continued Di Meola. “And the feeling was great. It was like old times, only better. And then we did an electric track where Chick overdubbed a solo and it was incredible—reminded me of that period all over again. After it happened, I called the guys and said, ‘Hey, Chick just came over and we had the most wonderful time.’ And they were actually surprised, like, ‘Wow!’ ‘Really?'”

Which immediately triggered wry responses from Clarke and White: “Great! Oh, yeah! How was it for you?”

Corea interrupted the hilarity: “No, man, listen. That’s exactly my point. That’s why I was right.”

“Chick, you’re always right,” laughed Clarke.

“Yeah, yeah!” added White.

“No, man, the point is this,” Corea continued. “The musical experience was the thing. The rehabilitation of the actual positive-ness. The one thing I really knew was that the musical connection and the affinity among this group was so big that all you had to do was kind of put us into proximity with one another and then it all comes back.”

But what about the expectations, I wondered, both theirs and their listeners? What about the simple fact that whatever they do on this tour will inevitably be measured against what they did in the ’70s?

“It’s like when you go to see the Eagles or a lot of the older bands from the ’60s and ’70s, and there’s a lot of reminiscing going on,” said Clarke. “I don’t have any expectations, and when I say that, I don’t mean to belittle what’s going to happen when we get out there. But I think I’m smart enough to know that when we play together, when I play with Lenny, when I play with Al, it’s going to be [he claps his hands] like that. I mean, I had no thought in mind that it wasn’t going to sound good, or that Al was going to forget how to play a C chord or whatever, you know. For me, the [questions] about the audience expectations [are] how big is it going to be? How loud are people going to cheer? Are people going to explode out there? You know, some bodies might just blow up or something out there. I mean, who knows?”

“That would be an interesting effect,” said Corea with a smile.

“Yeah! Absolutely,” added White. Then, more seriously: “To me, it’s all about the opportunity to replay some of the music. When you get the opportunity to do that, and know that somebody out there wants to hear it again with the same anticipation that I have for playing it again, that’s what’s in it for me. That’s my expectation. I try not to be too up or down about it. I just do it.”

Corea took a practical position. “It depends on who’s doing the measuring,” he said. “It’s always hard to predict what the expectations will be in the people who are going to be viewing you. And you wonder how many people will come out, in the first place, before you worry about their expectations. Yes, it’s a factor of how popular the band is, or was. But, hey, get down to the business reality. It’s how well the tour’s promoted, too. If no one knows we’re in town, I don’t care how popular we are.”

Repertoire was another question. When the Eagles or one of the “older bands” Clarke mentioned go on tour, they tend to focus on material from their salad years. What kind of selections can audiences for the Return to Forever 2008 tour expect to hear?

Corea referred to the very brief 1983 reunion tour, when the decision was made to create a collection of new music. “We’d go out onstage,” he recalled, “and fans hadn’t seen us for a little while, so they’d give us a big welcome. We’d launch into ‘Overture,’ the opening new piece, which was kind of long, 15 minutes or so. It was through-composed, kind of complex, and nothing familiar to their ears. And I noticed that after it was over, the response was, like, nice, but it was definitely not like the welcome. So this time we’re going to bring back and play the melodies that people know.”

All of which delights Di Meola, who expresses strong feelings about his affection for the music on Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery and Romantic Warrior. “Why do I feel so strongly about that?” he asked. “Because in my own personal view, and a lot of people’s view, Chick wrote very strong compositions in that time, they remain strong in our minds, and we’ve always loved playing those pieces. To me, out of the maybe three similar bands of that era—that pioneering era—Return to Forever was the composition band. So, especially being the guitar player, man, I had great parts to play.”

Clarke and White were quick to add, however, that-although the written parts might be the same-the performances will be considerably transformed from the original versions.

“Will something be unrecognizable?” said Clarke. “No. It’ll be familiar. But it will never be played the same way. How could it be?”

“Right,” added White. “Basically we’re a jazz rhythm section. And Chick wrote these fantastic compositions. We play them, but they change all the time, because we’re improvising musicians. Like Al says, we were a composition band, but we also were a rhythm section deeply rooted in jazz.”

Corea, nodding his head vigorously, cut in: “Absolutely. I don’t know another rhythm section that could play those beats like Stanley and Lenny. I love what they do, because it’s loose and it sounds like Philly Joe Jones playing rock ‘n’ roll.”

“For me,” said White, “it’s instrumental music, played at a high level on a grandioso scale, because usually there’s a singer. I mean, usually you don’t get an instrumental band playing in big venues. There’s a singer doing it. And that’s what I’m interested in seeing happen—instrumental music being presented this way.”

Corea, unable to resist the opportunity, smiled at White and noted, “Lenny! Didn’t we tell you we were going to get a singer for the band, man? We were talking about it yesterday.”

For a fraction of a second there was a shadow of uncertainty in White’s eyes, before the others burst out in laughter, and Clarke added, “Aw, Chick, you killed the surprise.”

It was the perfect, off-the-cuff wrap-up for the conversational encounter with Return to Forever. Fifteen minutes later we were back in the studio for a continuation of the musical encounters of the evening. First on the agenda was a run-through of “500 Miles High,” a tune from the first, Flora Purim/Airto Moreira installment of Return to Forever. It was a work that preceded Di Meola and White’s tenure with the band, and the first performances revealed a few uncertainties.

I sat with Gayle Moran, watching the proceedings closely, as she whispered comments about how the song would come together. And she was right on all counts, with the rehearsal gradually incorporating Di Meola’s arching guitar lines into the vocal inflections of the original version.

As I listened and observed the subtlety of the visual signals and audio urges, the power of the almost symbiotic connections passing between the players, I recalled some comments Corea had made in an earlier conversation. “You know, Don,” he said, “this is a group. It isn’t a project or a product. This is a team here. We didn’t get prompted to put the group back together again. We’re not supported by some record company or some other faction. This is homegrown stuff. It’s a group that agrees on freedom of expression. And that’s my personal love of being a part of this team.”

“A lot of music gigs today,” Corea continues, “it’s like, ‘Oh, this summer I’ll get together with this guy, and then we’ll do that tour.’ There’s nothing wrong with that. Music and art is all those things. The biggest fun of music for me, and the kind of music I like best, is playing with musicians I love to play with. OK, so that’s one thing, playing with musicians who inspire me. But there’s some other level that is obtained when musicians really like each other enough to continue to do something together. That’s unusual, man. We did that for years, and developed that, and then we stopped doing it. But now, we sort of picked it all up again at the rehearsal without having—to make a pun—dropped the beat.”


Chick Corea

Yamaha MOTIF8 88-Key BH Weighted-Action Keyboard

Yamaha S90 Synthesizer; Yamaha Modular Synthesis Plug-in System

Yamaha 1U MOTIF Tone Generator

Rhodes Mark V MIDI Electric Piano, circa 1984, modified

Stanley Clarke

Alembic Signature 4-String

120-year-old German Flatback Acoustic Upright with Fishman BP-100 Bridge-Mounted Pickup and Thomas-Spirocore Welch Strings

Al Di Meola

Handmade, tiger-striped, lacquered prototype Model 513 Guitar by Paul Reed Smith

1959 Gibson Les Paul Standard

Ovation Al Di Meola Signature Model with MIDI Pickup for use with Roland Guitar Synthesizer

Koch Multitone 100-watt Combo Amp

Lenny White

Innovation Drums

Zildjian Cymbals Originally Published