The fusion or “jazz-rock” of the 1970s rose at the same time as “progressive rock”, and the two genres shared several sins. Both elevated technique over feeling, giving rise to a pretentious ethic of showing off. Both courted conceptual indulgence as well — long-form compositions, suites about druids, that kind of thing. And both took gifted musicians and tempted them to be key-tar wielding arena stars. Not pretty. When the era passed, it seemed unlikely that fusion and prog-rock would be remembered fondly.
But in 2009, playing “Tom Sawyer” on your Rock Band drum kit is all the rage, and — yep –fusion is showing up too. Not that it’s a terrible thing.
Chick Corea’s Return to Forever was a terrific fusion quartet in many ways. The rhythm section of bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White could play with flexibility as well as precision, and in Corea the band had a first-class improviser and composer whose feeling for distinctive melody would serve everyone well. The guitar chair was passed around some, but the longest-serving picker was Al DiMeola, a young Berklee wizard who, over time, developed feeling and daring. The group made four albums (recently anthologized) and then blazed out, synthesizers buzzing in the night.
In 2008, Return to Forever reconvened for their second reunion tour, of which Return is the souvenir. Recorded in Florida, Boston, and at the Montreux Jazz Festival, these tracks capture a band half in nostalgic reverie and half in genuine reassessment. At times, this music is hard to take, merely a Xerox copy of past indulgences. But at other times it captures four mature jazz musicians working their magic on some old familiar tunes. Who knew that was going to happen?
The highlights of Return are plainly the places where Corea, DiMeola, Clarke, and White find ways to bend this old and often over-cumbersome music to their fresh will. This drive to refresh the RTF canon is most plainly audible on the acoustic tracks, where the bombast and silliness of Corea’s wizard-y synthesizers and DiMeola’s antiseptically overdriven guitar do not scream over the action. Both “No Mystery” and “Romantic Warrior” are performed without electric instruments and with generous room for improvising. While the precision of execution — the manner in which the quartet can exercise a tricky unison run, for example — remains breathtaking with this band, these tracks also have a pliancy and surprise that seems new.
Listening to the old RTF recordings, there are some beautiful moments amidst the mechanized amazement, but there is little that seems spontaneous or unexpected. The young Returners to Forever may have seemed like brilliant engineers constructing a skyscraper, but even the jazz great Corea did not sound like he was working away from the blueprint.
In 2009, however, Corea’s solos on these tunes do more than ripple with clarity; they now swing. This is not a question of acoustic jazz being inherently preferable to jazz made with electric instruments. Rather, I suspect it is just a question of these tunes leaving more acoustic “space” in which the players can feel the lovely rhythmic push-pull in which jazz breathes most freely. When DiMeola takes his acoustic solo at the start of “Romantic Warrior”, his syncopated runs have a sly dash about them. Not only do they move in interesting harmonic patterns, but they dart about the rubbery time of the other players, particularly when White starts bouncing a Latin groove on his ride cymbal and Corea starts to talk back and forth with the guitar.
“Sorceress” is not an all-acoustic tune, but Corea takes his solo on piano with a subdued bed of groove beneath him. It is soulful, but Corea’s musical imagination always seems like it could go anywhere because there is nothing predictable about the polyrhythmic energy generated through the acoustic piano’s percussive but variable attack. Even on the written melodies of the acoustic tunes, there is a sense that a genuine “jazz” approach is afoot. “No Mystery” has always been a puckish delight, but 90 seconds into this version on the tune’s written bridge, the tune sounds like a legitimate jazz standard that could be covered beyond RTF, so swinging and solid is the group feeling.
In addition to the music for which Return to Forever is well-known, Return includes some fresh material. A new composition, “Opening Prayer”, is a calm but electric invocation. And each player is given a solo section in which to strut his non-RTF stuff. White and Clarke take extended solos in the middle of “Romantic Warrior”, each of which stresses subtlety and genuine jazz feeling. Clarke has never been pigeonholed by his innovative electric bass playing, and this work on the acoustic bass greatly raises the level of communication with the group. On DiMeola’s solo section, he plays duet on one of Corea’s “Children’s Songs” and then on the iconic “Spain”, as well as getting in some of his enjoyable flamenco playing. Corea plays a highly engaging solo piece that sounds entirely improvised, and then he rips off a dashingly swinging version of “Solar” with White and Clarke walking beneath him as surely as if it was the 1960s all over again.
Returns is not a wholesale jazzifying of the Return to Forever canon, but even listening to some of the tiresome tracks — the lengthy “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant”, for example — is refreshing. Corea’s solo on Fender Rhodes electric piano (preceding his frantic, arena-ready synth solo and so much other grandiose compositional madness) is flat-out satisfying. It dances and dodges and ripples with invention. It redeems the bombast that surrounds it.
You wonder, of course, which element of the tune the cheering fans are responding to, but I choose to be an optimist. A mechanical, overwrought recreation of the Return to Forever albums of yore would have pleased the fans just fine, I imagine. The group didn’t need to throw “Solar” and surprise into the framework, but this is a quartet of players with, it seems, more subtlety and swing than befits a tired reunion act.
Return to Forever, whatever its future as a band, has managed to do more than merely rewind its tape. It is very nearly enough to make this music limber and deft in a way that it may not have been the first time around. For old fans of the band, Returns makes its case as a fresh recording. For those new to Corea/DiMeola/Clarke/White, there may not be a more vivacious example of their collaborative work.
Forever is a bold claim, but here the band at least makes a bid for trans-generational relevance.