It’s telling that, in the booklet that accompanies this two-CD/single-DVD souvenir from Return to Forever’s 2011 world tour, the final page of text is a tribute from Metallica’s bassist, Robert Trujillo. Return to Forever (this fourth iteration of the group was usually called RTF IV during the tour) meant as much, if not more, to rock aficionados during its prime as to jazz adventurists, and Trujillo’s brief but genuine nod-he ends by stating that “Return to Forever was, and still is ROCKING!”-serves as a reminder that this potent combination of players defined the word fusion when something was truly being fused.
The two audio discs are, no one should be surprised to learn, a display of the consummate virtuosity and unbridled power that impressed folks like Trujillo. When Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White get together-in whatever form-a certain je ne sais quoi takes over and superior music is made. A sixth sense guides these musicians and it doesn’t matter how long it’s been since they’ve played together, the output is stimulating and inspired. This current edition, with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale (replacing original RTF guitarists Al Di Meola and Bill Connors), allows for new textures and even more of the wattage that fired up the original aggregation.
Of course these are older musicians now, and they’re not expected to play with the fire (or unchecked volume) that they did in the ’70s all the time; their takes on RTF staples such as “Señor Mouse,” “The Romantic Warrior” and “After the Cosmic Rain” simultaneously reveal a new delicateness and a level of sophistication that was not available yet to the younger RTF.
As rewarding as the concert recordings are, the real selling point of The Mothership Returns is the DVD. For more than an hour, Corea, Clarke and White delve into the origins of songs, trade anecdotes and generally display the same affection for one another that is palpable in the accompanying performance footage. Those familiar with the inside story may not learn much new, but others will delight in hearing the tales behind tunes such as “Spain” (it was inspired by Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain), “The Romantic Warrior” (Corea wrote it with a Clarke arco part in mind, which is then demonstrated onstage at Montreux, where the footage all appears to be taken from) and White’s “The Shadow of Lo” (it was originally to be named after Io, a moon of Jupiter, but the record company misprinted it). When Corea explains that “Señor Mouse” “reminded me of a mouse at the helm of a spaceship,” Clarke mimes the smoking of a joint, causing the trio to crack up heartily.
Quips abound: Corea originally thought White “looked kinda like a pimp”; Clarke recalls Mick Jagger coming to see the band and having a serious case of bad breath when he introduced himself. They don’t all remember things the same way, but that’s part of the charm. Not all of it is compelling or comedic, but the interview segments put RTF’s music into perspective. The DVD also includes full-length video performances of “After the Cosmic Rain” and “The Romantic Warrior,” as well as a movie trailer.
Corea calls RTF, at one point, “the last band standing.” They may not be that, but seeing them standing together again at all, blazing away and having a blast doing it, is a real treat.