Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 4-6: June 26-28, 2011
Billed as RTF IV, this fourth incarnation of Return to Forever has a bit of a history. After a 2008 tour, which brought the third RTF lineup to Ottawakeyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Lenny White and guitarist Al Di Meolathe group decided it had enough with Di Meola, the guitarist going his own way and the remaining three embarking on an acoustic trio tour in 2009, recently documented on Forever (Concord, 2011).
A Hollywood Bowl date, in September of that year, brought RTF's original guitarist, Bill Connors, back into the fold, along with two other guestssinger Chaka Khan and, more significantly, French fusion violin master, Jean-Luc Ponty. The rehearsals for that date were included as a bonus disc to Forever, and if Khan was a less than necessary addition to the show, the chance to hear Connors playing material from RTF's first guitar-driven salvo, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973), with Ponty occasionally fleshing the group out to a quintet, was the start of an idea that ultimately led to RTF IV and the current world tour that would include more material from Hymn, along with equal focus on Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976) and a few nods to Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974) and No Mystery (Polydor, 1975).
Sadly, Connors was unable to commit to such an extensive (and, no doubt, exhausting) world tour, and so Corea recruited Frank Gambale, who'd worked with the keyboardist in his 1980s Elektric Band. Gambale may not have Di Meola's cachet, or Connors' legendary status, but he was, ultimately, the perfect choice for RTF IV. Having innovated the stunning sweep picking technique, that allows for the execution of lines at near-light speed, he clearly posseses Di Meola's capacity for high velocityand with none of the attitude that made his participation in the 2008 RTF tour such problembut coupled with Connors' broader vernacular.
In fact, when RTF IV hit the stage, it was less an event and more like a group of good friends who were there to playnothing fancy, stage-wise (other than an RTF IV projection on the roof of the stage), the band looking like they were dressed in their street clothes, and coming to the front of the stage, to wave to the crowd and take a few pictures of their own. Without fanfare, and with a few instrumental adjustments beforehand, the quintet lept into "Medieval Overture," one of the tougher arrangements on Romantic Warrior. Like the 2008 show, where RTF started with the equally challenging title track to Hymn, it was a powerful opener, but possibly not the best choice, at least not this early in the tour. This was the group's third show, and there were still some knots to unravel; still, there was an energy that's hard to maintain when a group reaches its comfort zone and, despite a few hiccups, by the time Clarke took his first solo of the night, mid-song, all was forgiven.
Testosterone levels were high, and chops were clearly on display, with White continuing his "we're the last [jazz-rock] band standing" intro, but there was something altogether more appealing about this show; nobody in the band was hiding their virtuosity, and there were certainly times where, unlike Mehldau and Redman an hour earlier, they absolutely were the end and not just a means. Still, it seemed somehow more relaxed and less "chops on display," making it more eminently approachable, and just plain fun. Even with White's nightly announcement, there was room for joking, as he began his intro spoteveryone in the band got one, barring Gambalewhere he said, "they've introduced you to the band, now let me introduce you to a fan," as he walked over to his drum kit to talk about his blade-less Dyson fan.
The set was a slight abbreviation of the two-set affairs the group is doing elsewhere on the tour, but there was still plenty of room in the two-hour set (including one encore) for some of Hymn's best material, including Corea's "Captain Señor Mouse" and, a set highlight, Clarke's anthemic "After the Cosmic Rain." From Romantic Warrior, in addition to the opener and title trackwhich provided Gambale one of his few long features of the night, on acoustic guitar and proving the sweeping technique doesn't need overdrive to worka combination of White's funky "Sorceress" and his "Shadow of Lo," from Where Have I Known You provided some of the set's greasiest, dirtiest, most downright funky grooves. A closing look at "Spain"originally performed by the first, Latin version of RTF but, as heard on the Return to the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1996) anthology, with Bill Connors in a transitional RTF lineup, a tune that could easily be played with a stronger fusion bentgave everyone a chance to blow, including White, who took his only solo of the night.
What marred the 2008 tour was a preponderance of lengthy individual solos, and while everyone did get their moment here, it was far more focused on being a group affair, with more detailed arrangements to boot and more succinct soloing. Corea was, as ever, a marvel: his synths tones a little more robust than back in the day; a Fender Rhodes patch that was not quite as gritty, but still dirty enough; and, of course, his distinctive, percussive approach, best felt on acoustic piano.
But if it was a given that Corea, Clarke and White were going to impressand that Gambale, with less of a name, was going to be a perfect addition to the bandfew could have predicted that the real star of the show would be Ponty. Relaxed, and finally getting a chance to speak a little en Français to bilingual Canadians, his reputation has never been built on being a particularly hot player, even in his mid-1970s fusion heyday, but here he was positively on fire, delivering solo after solo of surprising energy, passion and lyricism. It's no surprise that he was given more solo space than anyone else in the band, save, perhaps, for Corea. And as strong as his own solos were, when he entered into trade-offs, things became even more incendiary. His post-1970s career has always been successful but not particularly huge; it's easily possible (and hopeful) that this tour may reignite the violinist's career.
Corea conducted the oddest audience participation segment that Ottawa may have ever seen, getting the crowd of nearly seven thousand to sing along to brief melodic snippets during his solo to "Spain," and when the group came back, in response to an impossible to ignore demand for an encore, the crowd went even wilder, when Clarke started into the iconic, strummed-bass chords of the title track to his hit record, School Days (Epic, 1976). Relatively short, it gave everyone in the band one more chance to shine in an exchange that, like the entire set, surpassed RTF's 2008 show by bringing back all the muscular prerequisites for an evening of high volume, high octane fusion, but without the attitude that marred that tour. These guys came to play; nothing more, nothing less, and there was absolutely no doubt that RTF IV, warts and all, was a betterand happiertouring band.