Return to Forever: Back, Bold and Badass
All good things come to an end, the saying goes. As the individual band members got into their own projects, there may have been some distractions. But most of the band wanted to continue. Theories exist about Corea not wanting to go on, and other issues clouding the scene, but the foursome is not pointing fingers at this juncture.
"We had problems like any band," admits Clarke. "When you're with a band, it's very similar to a marriage. You have some good days and some bad days, and you hope that you have more good days than bad days. For a band to stay together, you have to have more good days than bad days. The band had a nice run. We did four albums. But even before that, me and Chick went all the way back to the early 70s. It was a good amount of time we spent together."
"It ended far too early, in my opinion. It wasn't until recently we got around to doing it again. But it's 32 years later," says DiMeola, happy nonetheless to be back.
White agrees the breakup was premature. "What happened was Chick felt as though he wanted to do something else. I pleaded with him not to break the band up. I said, 'Go ahead and do whatever you want to do, but always leave it open that we could come back to it.' But he didn't see it that way. I understand. He wanted to do different things. I never felt that we had reached our full potential. And I still don't. What we're doing now is getting back to revisit what we'd done before. We haven't started to do new things. I believe it still may happen."
Corea has an extremely calm demeanor, and conversations with the pianist are always levelheaded. His comments in June:
"The basic thing that was going on there, aside from any differences we may have had about why it was happeningthe basic thing that was going on there was growth. There was a very fast artistic growth that happened in those years. There was a lot of experience under our belts. It's not like we were playing two gigs a week. We were playing practically every night. We were continually thrown into new situations, making new records, writing new music, seeing how it would turn out.
"The creative juices were flowing so much that it was really the right thing for everyone to start forming their own bands and making their solo records, which is something I always encouraged anyway. I thought it was right for that to happen. Those guys were spending months and years of their lives playing tunes that I wrote and a direction that I set. It seemed right that everyone do their own thing more, and that's the way it went."
Clarke, who had been there since the very beginning, seemed unpuzzled by the turn of events. "I didn't let it affect me much. Once we broke up, it just gave me more time to do other things. I didn't realize we would get back together after such a long time. I never thought that. I thought we would just break up and that's it."
As always, the music prevailed, and the four folks who are back out on tour are aware of their place in history.
White places RTF among the seminal bands of its era. "If I could just put all of my thoughts in a capsule, to let everybody know what that was like. Creativity was at such a high level, because you had to be on top of your game in order to create that way," he says, noting there was a healthy competition among groups like Weather Report, Hancock's group and McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. "Each band was out to cut the other band every night. Come with it, or else we're going to sound better than you."
DiMeola agrees the band ranks right at the top of the fusion genre. "The impact that Return to Forever had was bridging the gap between jazz and rock, with classical influences. Also, the improvisational lines. It had those two components [rock and jazz] that were mixed in, I would say, in an equal percentage. Weather Report and Mahavishnu, as exciting as they were, were very different. They were far less compositional types of fusion group. Return to Forever won the award for composition."
Corea appreciates all the great music produced by his friends Shorter, Zawinul, McLaughlin and Hancock. He also knows the music of RTF stacks up favorably, regardless of one's preferences. "I've been revisiting some of those records... [In the '70s] I wasn't much into listening in detail to the records my friends were making. I was too busy doing my own thing. Then I got tired of it by the end of the 70s. It wasn't until more recently, the past five or ten years, that I started listening again to those records. I have come to see how fresh that music was.
"I'm not much of a sociologist. I've never been much into that. I know that my pleasure with that band, as it is with all my bands, is to bring the most creativity that I can out of my partners and create a musical atmosphere that's real strong. Also, I like to write for the people in the band. So I feel that's my contribution to the band. Maybe I gave it a sound," says Corea.
He adds with a fond chuckle, "What really gave it the sound was the guys playing the notes that I wrote. They weren't really playing the notes that I wrote. They were playing their own notes. When you write a composition for great musicians sometimes, it becomes like a game plan because you want improvisation to happen. That's what happens."
White knew the band was performing at a high level and enjoyed the challenges it brought each and every night. "Anytime you get put in situations like that where you have to rise to the occasion, you learn something about yourself. It wasn't very simple things to play. It was music that was that powerful and had that much mass... The records never reflected what we did live. When we started to play live, the people were like... you could see the expression on people's faces go, 'Whoa!'"
DiMeola, the youngest, just starting to forge his own strong career at that time, says the experience with Corea's music has served him in good stead ever since RTF.
"I was very influenced by his proficiency in composing, and I really tried to let it influence me," says the guitarist. "I think it had to influence my own composition moving forward after that. Also the way that he plays very articulatelyit was something I was going after myself. I liked his rhythmic sense and his articulation and the other aspects of the way that he played. Even though it's a different instrument, Chick would become an influence on my own guitar playing."