The music mostly as fusion fans will remember it: bombastic and amazing, mechanical and fleet, leaden and eventually freshly swinging.
When Chick Corea's '70s fusion band, Return to Forever (RTF), got back together last year, plenty of product was sure to be pushed. First there was a RTF "greatest hits" collection that highlighted a large bulk of the quartet's classic recordings from 30 years ago. Then a "live" CD souvenir from several of the 2008 concerts. Now we have the band's set at the 2008 Montreux Jazz Festival on video, with visible fingers flying across synthesizers and Paul Reed Smith axes, thumbs popping bass strings and sticks crashing cymbals. Return to Forever was always about the details, and now they are here in living, hi-def form.
The music, written about in these (web) pages before, is mostly as fusion fans will remember it. It's bombastic and amazing, mechanical and fleet, leaden and eventually freshly swinging. There is a tremendous amount of technically accomplished dross to be listened through to get to the artistry, but the artistry is there. And the stuff that is "merely" technically jaw-dropping still, well, drops jaws all these years later. Corea's compositions are ingenious (mostly) and overwrought (occasionally), but it's still great to hear them.
The best music is the acoustic stuff, not because acoustic jazz is always better than the electric kind, but because there's more room for the rubbery rhythm of swing to peek through the technical excellence. And on video, frankly, the acoustic stuff just seems more dignified and natural for these middle-aged guys to pull off. Stanley Clarke remains a singularly great electric bassist, and Al DiMeola still grimaces nicely as he rips off a searing distorted run—but that kind of showboating now seems like what it is: old guys digging on recreating their past. All the Returners to Forever seem most unembarrassingly committed and satisfied when they are digging into their acoustic bags.
Corea's solo piano feature here is bold and exciting, seemingly a pure improvisation in which he uses a mallet to wham away at the inside of the grand while he plays a thrilling left-hand bass figure. Eventually this morphs into a piano trio version of "Alice in Wonderland", with the pony-tailed leader hinting at Bill Evans while sounding entirely like himself: spike-ily jagged and exciting. The Swiss fans seems to love this stuff as much as any of the wizard-and-sorcerer electric stuff, as they should.
DiMeola is, if anything, more committed and comfortable with his acoustic guitar, digging into his flamenco bag and seeming to get a more original guitar tone here than with his amp. (On the electric material, DiMeola flies, but he does so with sterile perfection. It is an object lesson in why technique is not everything in art. Where is Bo Diddley when you need him?) Clarke reminds us that his acoustic bass sound is striking and distinctive. On the group's best two songs, "No Mystery" and "The Romantic Warrior", Clarke's upright is ripe as a summer tomato—hearty and wide and flavorful.
Both of these tunes get subtly re-sculpted in various places—not wholesale rewrites but critical variations that emphasize that they are (and always really were) jazz tunes rather than some kind of instrumental rock. The changes emphasize the rhythmic syncopations that have always been part of the tunes, and they also tend to give the players chances to speak back and forth. For example, about halfway into "Warrior", there is a space where Clarke and Corea begin a call-and-response that is the farthest thing from bombast.
The Montreux setting certainly helps to remind us how these four guys have grown up. There is no big light show here, no flash-pots, a distinct lack of lasers—just a quartet on some oriental rugs, dressed appropriately and standing in front of the inevitable Big Amps. Drummer Lenny White is all economy of motion, bandana-clad, on a raised platform. Clarke looks slim and fit but subdued, while DiMeola—the kid of the band back in '76—finally looks like a real grown-up here and maybe like the guy who is most eager to no longer be associated with tunes like "The Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant". Corea—of whom we've certainly seen the most in these intervening years—looks like the hipster professor behind his Rhodes, his analog lead synth, a Yamaha acoustic, and a modern digital keyboard.
The "extra features" here are a selection of tunes filmed during the band's U.S. tour rather than at Montreux, mainly solo segments from each bandmate. DiMeola is impressive but perhaps not emotionally engaging in his. Clarke is a thrill as always, getting more excitement out the solo acoustic bass than seems fair to the other bass players who try it. But it is Corea's improvised "Friendship" that may be the highlight of the whole DVD. Thrilling by the second yet obviously invented in the moment, this piano solo is both restless and perfectly structured. Corea manages to be gloriously melodic even as he surprises you at every turn. As he completes the piece on a perfect rising unison run, he turns to the rest of the band, sheepishly, as if to say ... Not bad.
My guess is that the flow of RTF product is just about over. You can return, sure, to your glory days, but you can't stick around there. The images here suggest that Chick, Al, Stanley, and Lenny know that. Their relatively modest demeanors help to separate the good music from the material that might have better been left in the past. Return to Forever may actually be a better band than it used to be, but only when it handles the music that doesn't seem like it should be wearing bell-bottoms.