Sunday, March 22, 2009

Return to Forever Returns

Return to Forever Returns
Eagle Records 2-CD set

One of the big three jazz-rock fusion super-groups (along with Weather Report and Tony William’ Lifetime), Return to Forever was no stranger to the Billboard charts, not only ranking high in the jazz album category, but also cracking the pop album list (albeit somewhat lower, but still at quite a level for a jazz band in the 1970’s). Given their enduring popularity, there would be great demand for RTF’s reunion tour last year, which is now documented on the live two-CD set, Return to Forever Returns.

Although the group’s personnel changed several times, de facto leader pianist-keyboardist Chick Corea was a constant presence. In 2008, to mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of RTF’s founding, over twenty-five years after disbanding, Corea reunited with the band’s classic line-up of Al di Meola on guitar, Lenny White on drums, and Stanley Clarke on bass. Fortunately, they recorded several shows for posterity, with the bulk of the CD-set coming from a Clearwater, FL concert, and a DVD of their show at the Montreux Jazz Festival to be released shortly.

For the thirty-fifth anniversary tour, RTF largely gave fans the classic hits they wanted. The only new composition on RTFR is the abstract “Opening Prayer,” which really sounds like a prologue to “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy,” the title track of one of the most celebrated fusion records of all time. RTFR opens with hard-driving power, propelled by di Meola’s guitar, which slashes through the following “Vulcan Worlds.” However, he tones it down for an acoustic duet feature with Corea, segueing through a medley of their solo compositions and Astor Piazzolla’s “CafĂ© 1930,” concluding with “Spain,” probably the pianist’s most covered standard.

The first disk concludes with “No Mystery,” a RTF greatest hit if ever there was one, here arranged largely as an acoustic number, showcasing Corea’s still dazzling technique on piano. Following a solo feature from Corea that blends into a straight ahead jazz trio rendition of “Solar” by his one-time boss Miles Davis, the second disk is dominated by selections from Romantic Warrior, their first album for Columbia, which would peak at #35 on the pop album charts. It was a departure from previous RTF albums in that it took inspiration from medieval fantasy rather than cosmic imagery. Again, their live take of the 1976 album’s title track is largely acoustic, even featuring some arco bass work from Clarke.

“Warrior” recurs two more times on the second disk, including a spirited version recorded live during the BBC ceremony awarding the band a lifetime achievement award. (While Sir George Martin’s presentation at the start of the track is all very nice, it quickly gets old with repeated listening.) The longest track of the set is also drawn from the Warrior album. An extended suite, “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant” is jazz-rock suitable for stadium concerts, with di Meola blazing away and Corea going electric throughout (with synthesizers occasionally recalling that cheesy 1970’s keyboard sound).

Although RTF will always be considered to some extent Corea’s band, there is no question the strong musical personalities of di Meola, Clarke, and White helped push the band to the forefront of the fusion movement. Thirty-five years after the band first formed, they are still playing at a scarily high level, both acoustically and when plugged-in. RTFR should definitely please their fans and it would also serve as an excellent introduction to the band for new listeners.