The last few years have found Chick Corea and his Return to Forever buddies (Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White) mounting a campaign for fusion nostalgia — re-releasing their four seminal electric jazz LPs, staging a comeback tour, then releasing video and audio from the tour. It was all pretty much the same as in the 1970s…except it’s not. For this Came-of-Ager-in-the-1970s guy, there was some considerable joy in hearing the Forevers find fresh rhythmic pleasure in these complex old favorites.
Return to Forever, in short, was largely about returning to the past, but not entirely so. Putting aside the bombast of those old days, Corea and Co. are great musicians. And with great musicians like these, there’s always something new in the offing.
2011 brings the release of a curious new part of the Return to Forever renaissance. Forever consists of two discs: the first features the piano trio only, live and acoustic from a 2009 tour; the second features rehearsals and performances from a one-off gig at The Hollywood Bowl where the trio was joined by fusion violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, electric guitarist Bill Connors, and vocalist Chaka Khan. In 2011, essentially, there is no tiny corner of the Return to Forever universe that you can’t know about.
And, against all odds, the music continues to justify its release. The trio disc is, essentially, a fresh recording of Corea, Clarke and White playing modern jazz standards along with original tunes, only a couple of which being Return to Forever classics. The second disc is properly dubbed a “bonus disc”, consisting of rehearsals and some incomplete material. But darn if it doesn’t show, again, that the material from this era of Chick Corea’s career was rich and interesting, utterly capable of reinterpretation and continued enjoyment — and that these musicians bring a pliant maturity to the task that unearths lots of jazz feeling where there used to be mostly fusion precision.
The trio recordings are masterful in execution but maybe slightly “been there, done that” in repertoire. It’s semi-miraculous to hear Corea play on Bill Evans’ great “Waltz for Debby”, as the pianist has always taken a nice dollop from the Evans oeuvre. But weighting the tunes toward Monk (“Hackensack”) and Miles (“On Green Dolphin Street”) seems limiting. This group is invigorating on the Corea Original “Bud Powell”, and they sound most distinctive on Clarke’s “La Cancion de Sophie”, a ballad that takes advantage of Clarke’s singular bowing technique and sounds less like a mere blowing tune.
When the acoustic trio turns to Return to Forever repertoire, they seem to combine the best of straight-ahead jazz and “fusion”. “No Mystery” is precise and melodically memorable, but the mature trio plays it like they were not too intent on exactitude. Corea re-harmonizes here and there, plays some of the melody with casual timing, and lets the groove of the tune in the middle section really take over so that it sounds less like a well-loved classic than something to jam on. By the recording’s mid-point, it’s nicely hard to recognize — making it that much more wonderful when the melody returns. “Señor Mouse” is looser still, honestly sounding like it was written for this format. The carefully written middle section still works, but the long solo sections are the life-blood.
It is worth making special mention of Lenny White as a jazz drummer. His sound on these recording is lush and crisp, each cymbal accent as light and lovely as a heartbeat. He never overpowers the jazz material, calming any fears that he should be thought of only as a fusion drummer. He is, in fact, melodic in his approach. As the producer of the disc as well, he deserves a particular nod.
On the bonus disc, we get more of a mishmash. “Captain Marvel” is a workout for Corea’s Fender Rhodes playing, with Clarke still on acoustic bass. With the exception of a brief synth solo, this sounds more like the original RTF band (from 1971-73, featuring Flora Purim and Airto), imbued with a dancing samba groove that has been electrified only slightly. “Señor Mouse” adds the early RTF guitarist, Bill Connors, on a backbeat-heavy fusion workout that is simply terrific. The band is loose as can be in this rehearsal, tossing phrases back and forth, the whole enterprise seeming like the dialogue that jazz is always supposed to be.
Two other tracks feature that quartet and add the violinist Ponty to the front line. “After the Cosmic Rain” (Oy with these titles, I know) is a slow tune with a couple of neat interlocking melodic lines, none of which are obvious. Corea’s Rhodes bounces across the funky groove like a great tapper, and Clarke’s electric bass is remarkably smooth and melodic — the guy hasn’t lost a step over the years. Connors solos with a ton of steely power. But it’s the addition of Ponty that really sells this music, as the violinist slides in and an out of his tones with a silky pleasure. Despite the amplification, you can really hear the bow against the strings, and he makes the most of a short exchange with Corea. “Space Circus” is a goofier tune, a little funk dance with a melody that mainly consists of rhythmic gestures. But the soloists get plenty of space to stretch out. Would these guys still rock an arena? I think they would.
The other tracks on Disc Two are interesting reclamations of smaller Corea projects from the mid-‘70s to the 1980s. Ponty is given a tasty feature on “Renaissance”, the best tune from his own solo career, with the acoustic trio backing him to exciting results. Corea, Clarke, and White acting essentially as sidemen? Excellent. Ponty is also front and center on “Armando’s Rhumba”, a Corea tune from his My Spanish Heart recording that omits drums and gives all three players a wide space for playing on the pianist’s familiar Spanish mode.
Finally, we get two tracks from 1982’s Echoes of an Era project, featuring Chaka Khan as a jazz singer—the swinging Corea original “High Wire” and Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy”. Khan has been both hailed and criticized as a jazz singer, but she sounds terrific here when she stays under control. On “High Wire”, she moves up toward the top of her range with great attack, and it’s mostly wonderful, with perfect intonation and a sense of adventure. “Porgy” is given a soulful treatment with just enough gospel flourishes, but the truth is that Khan’s tone and control are both wonderful. And unlike so many contemporary jazz singers, Khan brings her personality and a distinctive sound to her work. When “Porgy” kicks into a mid-tempo swing, she is utterly relaxed, scatting with a combination of precision and chill. Ponty plays a bit here, too, and that works just as well. I want again to say “against all odds”, but the truth is that these folks are all masters who can play beyond the “fusion” or “soul” banner under which we have known them.
It is fun to speculate on how critics and listeners would take this music if it were being released here for the first time, not as a 40-years-on re-creation or reinterpretation but as fresh music from new musicians. Corea’s tunes are riveting and expansive, and the core trio here is creative with all the material. Though there is a notable lack of interest in moving into any free playing, every minute of music here has a playful, joyful quality. The inclusion of Khan and Ponty (and, to a lesser extent, Connors) might seem to break the focus of a promising new trio, but it’s hard not to imagine getting excited about a soulful new vocalist with jazz chops and an R&B attitude or a jazz violinist who is so comfortable in different settings.
I think we would like this music even without the nostalgia — and some of it would flat-out dazzle us. Reason enough to still be paying some attention to Return to Forever in 2011.