When jazz-rock fusion first peeked its head over the wall and then galloped onto our turntables, it seemed like no creature we had seen before. Rock was relatively new, and it had incredible power and daring. But it was also a primarily social medium, something meant for dancing or politics or wooing. Jazz had once done those things, but by 1970 it was plainly art: a buoyant exercise for the mind and heart that existed beyond the social.
Fusion promised that jazz was somehow back. Here were the greatest musicians in the culture, and they were suddenly using the swaggering tools of rock: Marshall amps and thumping electric basses. Mind and muscle combined. It was easy enough to be convinced by such a combination.
Particularly if you were a 15-year-old boy at the time. Today, this kind of fusion sounds different — at least in my middle-aged ears.
Return to Forever started as Chick Corea’s sunny samba band in 1972. It was a turn to the lightly melodic by a keyboardist whose work had spanned Miles Davis acid-funk and rhapsodic freedom. But after two albums of airy Latin-tinged work featuring Corea’s sparkling Fender Rhodes, Flora Purim’s Brazilian vocals and Joe Farrell’s searching woodwinds, Corea decided to crank up the volume. He retained Stanley Clarke on bass, but now it was electric bass. Lenny White joined on hyperkinetic drums. And then Corea added electric guitar — first Bill Connors and ultimately a young Berklee hotshot named Al DiMeola.
From 1973 through 1976, this band recorded four albums and played a whole lot of very loud, very well-attended arena shows, demonstrating that jazz composition and bombastic progressive rock could be made a marketable hybrid. By any measure the music was amazing — fast, complex, devilishly hard to play, soaring, and ambitious. But now, collected in near-entirety, the body of work can be heard in the sober light of day.
This collection has been lovingly remastered, with tracks chosen by Corea and Clarke and with a detailed booklet of photos and essays. If you loved the electric Return to Forever, then this is your baby. The first album, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, and the last, The Romantic Warrior, are reproduced entirely, with four selections each from the middle discs (Where Have I Known You Before and No Mystery). If these guys got a dollar for every 32nd note played here, they’d be rich; this is lots ‘n’ lots of tricky music.
The first disc happens to feature guitarist Connors, but that is the least of the things that distinguish the progression of this music. On Hymn the difference is Corea’s primary reliance on his trusty Fender Rhodes. While he colors the tunes with organ or piano, the first collection is like a rock concerto for chiming electric piano. White plays with frantic precision, and the guitar serves as a soaring rock lead, but it’s mainly Rhodes Time. And this is good, as Corea is a master of the instrument. He gives it personality and a distinctive attack. Most of the improvising here is in that vein.
What we hear on Hymn that will hold steady through the four discs is a fascination with complex composition — often epic suites (“Space Circus, Parts I & II”, for example) that give the band a million chances to show off chops. It’s pretty cool at first. And on this first album, the excess is easy to excuse because it still seems fresh. “Captain Senor Mouse”, for example, is both winningly melodic and exuberantly Latin, with the bombast of all those drum fills overshadowed by brilliance.
By Where Have I Known You Before, just the band’s second album, the formula already seems weary. First, there is the question of all the space imagery. Corea, as we all know, is a Scientologist. It’s a philosophy steeped in some interstellar tale-telling. But this stuff is hardly religious: “Vulcan Worlds”, “Beyond the Seventh Galaxy” and so on. You can just ignore it. It is harder to ignore what was changing in the make-up of the band’s sound, however. DiMeola slowly gets more time than Connors, but his sound is pretty much the same. Corea, however, is now soloing much more often on the newly available technology: a synthesizer that produced a screamy-squiggly single-note sound that could be artfully bent with a wheel. It’s pretty cool — or so we felt in 1974 — but it’s colder than the Rhodes. On the 14-minute “Song of the Pharoah Kings”, Corea uses the synth like a trumpet or a recorder in some baroque suite that seems increasingly distant from whatever blues, jazz or Latin impulses once seemed so essential to his music. Plainly, Corea was starting to see Return to Forever as less a “jazz group” than a vehicle for his genre-bending, long-form writing. And so the band moved on.
1974’s No Mystery is a mountain range of high and low points. The two-part “Celebration Suite” is itself a series of crags. A silly opening of fanfares is followed by a nice Latin romp, which quickly descends into a dog-whistley synth solo. There are too many more subthemes to count. Listening to it is exhausting work that makes you feel like you’re at a combination Renaissance Festival/Wagner concert. But then there is the all-acoustic title track, which still sounds fresh, using Corea’s marimba and DiMeola’s mandolin-esque tremolo-picking to subtle orchestral effect.
The quartet’s last album was considered its masterpiece, and The Romantic Warrior is presented head-to-toe. By now, Corea has stepped up to polyphonic synthesizers, and the orchestral possibilities tempt him to interesting coloration but madly excessive cuteness. The “Overture” begins with a repeated/sequenced pattern of plasticity, and there are a dozen other artificial-sounding touches, from synthy “horn” parts to spacey bloops and bleeps. Here, the imagery has explicitly shifted from space opera to medieval epic, and so Corea’s writing consistently alludes to earlier music even as it exploits the sounds of synthesizers. On “The Magician” this is most plain, with weird calliope grooves on flutey synth alternating with alarm clock sounds and comically classical interludes.
Not that all of Romantic Warrior makes you cringe. The melodies can be fantastic, and Corea is still capable of taking a memorable Latin groove and wedding it to a brilliant theme. By now, DiMeola has found a handful of original sounds that give him a personality, and Clarke’s soulful grooves or slapped solos seem like the very earth below the band’s feet. Plus, the acoustic title track (mirroring “No Mystery”) is essential — exciting, grand but actually organic and logical. At over 10 minutes, it shows that Corea did not need all that electricity to scratch his epic itch.
Still, when you stack the bludgeony thrill of Hymn up against Romantic Warrior, it’s hard to say that Return to Forever got “better” over time. It got more complex, more varied, more classical, more capable — yes. But also more pretentious and over-clever. Fans, particularly young jazz fans like myself who didn’t mind seeing our heroes play loud and brilliantly and in arenas, mourned the dissolution of the group, but a sober assessment suggests that this line of musical investigation had been played out.
Looking back by listening to Return to Forever: The Anthology, you have to decide whether you want to feel bad about the goofy, pretentious young guy that electric jazz used to be or whether you’re willing to suspend some judgment and just take the thrill ride. For enough fans, nostalgia is enough. That’s why Return to Forever is amidst a huge tour, playing this music again 30 years hence. For such fans, this is an essential disc.
If you’re new to fusion, however, I’d suggest sampling these tracks judiciously at best. A very little of the astonishing Return to Forever goes a long way.