Return to Forever: Back, Bold and Badass
RTF wasn't started with a mythic explosion that startled the fusion movement. Like Miles' change, it occurred over time.
Says Corea, "That was when I put my own band together. I was looking for musicians to play my own compositions. I had just had a two-year tenure with Miles. That led to a beautiful musical relationship with [bassist extraordinaire] Dave Holland. Dave and I went on to form Circle [with saxophonist Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul]. We played and recorded with Circle for a couple years. That's what led me to want to put a band of my own together with my own compositions."
Corea met Clarke around that time. "I went to New York, I bumped into Stanley on a week's gig that I did with Joe Henderson's band at a Philadelphia club. We hit it off big time."
"I met Chick in Philadelphia in the early 1970s," says Clarke, now 56, speaking from a tour bus en route from Portland to Jacksonville, Oregon. "I was playing with the saxophonist Joe Henderson. Our keyboard player couldn't make it. So he said he was bringing this guy down from New York. That guy was Chick. We developed a musical relationship from that point and here we are today.
"One of the things that me and Chick used to talk about early on was how music was going to be presented, and some of his ideas of what he thought about music, and what he thought about presenting music. It was very similar to a lot of the ideas I had about how to do music and how to present it," says the bassist. The two played together in some other groups as well, and the seeds of RTF were planted.
"I started putting trios together and trying out my new tunes," Corea says. "It ended up pretty quickly being a quintet with Flora [Purim] singing and Airto [Moreira] on drums and Joe Farrell on sax. That's how it started out. I was booking the band. Stanley and I were carrying the equipment around. We were a self contained unit."
He says he was composing with a conscious effort to find music that expressed basic humanity, "without all the stresses, doubts and insecurities," and came up with the phrase "return to forever," which became the name for the band.
That first group was largely acoustic, though Corea was continuing to play electric piano, the instrument he was first exposed to with Miles. There was also a strong Latin influence. Purim and Moreira are Brazilian, and Corea has always had a strong connection with Latin music. (The influence did not entirely leave later versions of RTF). Light As a Feather was the band's next recording, which featured tunes like "Spain" and "Captain Marvel."
"We definitely were acoustic when we started out," says Clarke. "We were acoustic, but Chick always played a Fender Rhodes piano. I played acoustic bass."
But in 1973, Purim and Moreira left the group, as did Farrell.
Corea says, "It was sort of like life factors entered in. Flora was having a baby. The schedules were stretched that way. Airto wanted to stay home with Flora... We decided to try a new direction at that time and opened it up for that."
Discussions continued between Corea and Clarke, says the pianist. "Stanley said, 'Hey, man, you've got to play with my friend Lenny White.' So we put a week's engagement together at the old Keystone Corner in San Francisco, with Lenny playing drums, Stanley playing upright bass and me playing Fender Rhodes. During that week, we auditioned several guitar players. Billy Connors showed up and had the kind of sound we were looking for. That was the way electric guitar made it into the group."
White had played with Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard and had joined a group called Azteca. He had commitments with Azteca, and Steve Gadd was brought in to play drums on Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. But Gadd didn't want to tour. Corea then got his original wish of wanting White, and the drummer re-recorded the album so that he is featured on the now-classic disc.
"I just remember hearing some things that Chick had given me to listen to, then I did them my way," says White.
Clarke says he hadn't really studied electric bass up to that time. As a youngster out of the Philadelphia Academy of Music, he had startling technique on the upright bass and arrived in New York City garnering work with the likes of Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Pharaoh Saunders, Gil Evans, Stan Getz, and Corea. His bass heroes included Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro.
"When I went to electric bass, it seemed more similar to me. It was more of an afterthought. The acoustic bass, I put a lot of time into that," he says. "When I first started playing, I think I spent so much time with acoustic bass, I benefited from the technique I had on acoustic bass, and it was relatively easy for me to switch over to electric bass. But I had a distinctly different sound on electric bass [in the 70s] than the acoustic bass. But now, it's kind of crossed over."
Corea recalls the era fondly. "It was a very exciting time musically. Mahavishnu was a big inspiration to us because John [McLaughlin] had that searing electric guitar going. Stanley and I heard it and wanted to work with a sound like that." The electric guitar was placed at the center with Corea's keyboards.
But White has his own take on the evolution of the music.
"Let me clarify something. It wasn't fusion. What we called it when we started playing it was jazz-rock. It was jazz because of the fact that we improvised over changes with phrases and things like that. But it had the rock sensibility. It had the massive sound. It had beats that were close to what rock beats would be. It was geared to a larger audience. And then it had other elements, like classical elements.
"It was weird, because when Yes and King Crimson started to put classical influences in their music, they called it progressive rock. So what we were doing was called jazz-rock at the time. Then when the other elements started to come in, funk and whatever, they started to call it fusion. The music that Return to Forever, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles and Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters were doing was called jazz-rock. Then it became fusion.
"When you think about it from the traditional standpoint, Stanley on the bass would play a 4/4 walking motif, and I would play straight-ahead ride on the cymbal. The emphasis on the 2 and 4 would be in the high-hat and not the backbeat. When we started to do this music, the emphasis is on 2 and 4 with the backbeat. Stanley started to play lines, structured lines, that were not 4/4. They were more syncopated than just playing 4/4 on the bass. Those elements were related to rock or to R&B. You take those elements and you put harmonies on top of it that would be considered jazz harmonies, and you have jazz-rock."
Even though jazz musicians cranking up the volume was being bashed in some circles, even among musicians, Corea was steadfast. He addressed the issue in a 2003 interview with All About Jazz saying, "I always saw the kind of music I love being involved in as having an atmosphere of freedom in it. Freedom to develop ideas. I never saw music as having a law about it, one way or the other. I'm just taking whatever path musicallywhatever sounds, musically, whatever instrumentsto take me on musical journeys that end up making this kind of music, different kind of music. The rallying point is my own interest and what choices I make about what I want to do.
"You can think about electric instruments and acoustic instruments as just tools of the trade. It's like whether you're writing a poem or a short story or a novel or a promo blurb or a report, different kinds of writings. Different kinds of techniques are needed. Different kinds of effects are produced by the use of these techniques. Same thing. Electric instruments and the sound of music is all surrounded in the subject of the style of music and the clothing that you put on a message. You can deliver a message of gentleness, for instance, with an acoustic piano solo. You can deliver a message of gentleness with a 100-piece symphony orchestra playing gently. Electric instruments have their use and they have an effect they create on the listener. That's how I use them."