Return to Forever: The Mothership Returns
The Mothership Returns
Eagle Rock Entertainment
When keyboardist Chick Corea announcedfollowing a successful world tour of his reunited 1970s-era fusion juggernaut Return to Forever, which, featuring guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White, included a high octane 2008 performance that was one of the best-attended in the Ottawa International Jazz Festival's three-decade historythat he'd be reuniting the earlier incarnation of the group responsible for Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973), there was plenty of buzz.
He ultimately became the better-known of RTF's two guitaristsreleasing three albums with the group, from 1974's Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor) to one of the decade's stone cold fusion classics, Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976)yet there was still a significant contingent who favored Bill Connors' soulful, visceral approach over Di Meola's more technically proficient but often clinical gymnastics. Add to that Di Meola's well-publicized issues with the 2008 tour, along with a very decided avoidance of all but one track from Hymn and Corea's promise that this second reunion tour would right that wrong, and it seemed that 2011 was going to be a very exciting year for fusion fans.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. While Connors rehearsed with the rest of RTFsome of the results available on the bonus second disc to Forever (Concord, 2011), which documents an all-acoustic trio tour that Corea, Clarke and White embarked upon in 2009health issues ultimately scuttled his return to the road. We may never know how well a reunited Hymn-era RTF would have been but, based on The Mothership Returns, we may never miss it.
Faced with a spot to fill in the guitar department (Di Meola was completely off the table), Corea called up old friend Frank Gambale, who'd played with the keyboardist in his late 1980s Elektric Band, and that might have been enough, since the Australian guitarist was a big fan of Hymn-era RTF and more than capable of cutting it. However, back when Connors played at the special Hollywood Bowl RTF show in 2009, for which the Forever rehearsals were conducted, Corea had also invited a couple of other guests, including violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, another '70s-era fusion star.
The idea of expanding RTF to a quintet seemed like an inspired one, and it was; the subsequent 2011 tour, including another stop in Ottawa, found a much more relaxed Return to Forever IVeven its more casual dress reflected a show that was less an event and more about a group of friends getting together to revisit some music from the past, albeit often with new and/or expanded arrangements.
The Mothership Returns' two CDs document much of the music performed during that 2011 tour, and are a refreshing reminder why it was a more enjoyable tour than the 2008 Di Meola reunion. For a set list that, in addition to two iconic tracks from Hymn Clarke's anthemic "After the Cosmic Rain" and Corea's often-covered "Senor Mouse"also culls materials from Where Have I Known You Before and Romantic Warrior, Gambale may actually be a better choice than either Di Meola or Connors.
Possessing grit and grease that Di Meola lacks and technical chops that were, for Connors, deficiency at the time of Hymnthough his feel more than made up for itGambale's more substantial jazz credentials and ability to play changes (for which Di Meola usually substituted speed and cold precision) are in full display on an 18-minute version of Romantic Warrior's title track that smokes the two versions on Returns (Eagle Rock, 2009), the live album from the 2008 reunion tour.
It's also great to hear Hymn's tracks 40 years on; at the time of its recording, Clarke had yet to incorporate the thumb-popping and slapping technique that he began to use on Where Have I Known You Before; instead, his Gibson bass (a predecessor to the much cleaner and funkier Alembic that he'd begin using on subsequent RTF recordings) was a heavily overdriven, thunderous sound that left little room for subtlety. Not that Clarke's testosterone-filled playing on The Mothership Returns is understated; but there is a greater sense of dynamics on "After the Cosmic Rain," which runs the gamut from its original rock-edged (and, at times, Latin-tinged) power during Ponty's exhilarating solo, to a surprisingly swinging groove when the spotlight turns to Corea and his Fender Rhodes.
"Cosmic Rain" is also one of a number of tunes that have been given significant facelifts; while its 17 minutes are, of course, heavily disposed towards solo features for Ponty, Corea and, finally, Clarkewho contributes another of his head-scratching, light-speed solos that were a wonder back in the day but are even more so now, considering most 61 year-old hands are slowing downthere are plenty of new connecting passages and altered melodic content. True, this version of RTF has yet to work anything absolutely new into its set lists, but nobody was resting on any compositional laurels when it came to putting its current repertoire together. Even the familiar themes of "Senor Mouse" have been altered, without ever losing site of what made them so memorable in the first place.
From the first moments of Romantic Warrior's "Mediaeval Overture"its synth-driven, episodic structure more redolent of progressive rock than jazzWhite's massive tone and propulsive rhythms are the thread that tie much of this complex, largely through-composed set-opener together. And if White was a less prolific composer than Corea and Clarke at the time, Where Have I Known You Before's "Shadow of Lo" and Romantic Warrior's "Sorceress" prove he was just as compelling. Opening with a largely acoustic version of "Lo"Ponty and Corea passing the spotlight like a tag-team baton for one of the set's more subdued high pointsit's when Clarke and White segue into the greasy "Sorceress" that Mothership's 16-minute medley really kicks into gear. An unexpected slide guitar solo from Gambale leads to a lengthy piano solo where Corea playfully engages with Clarke, only to open up to an intensifying, high-velocity section where, switching to synth, the keyboardist, Ponty and Gambale (sweep-picking like his life depended on it) trade-off amiably but fervently, building to an incendiary climax, only to settle back to the greasy coda of "Lo."
As with the 2011 Ottawa show, if there's a single star to choose amongst this group of clear fusion-meisters, it's Ponty, who's clearly playing with more fire and commitment than ever. His own "Renaissance," first heard on Aurora (Atlantic, 1975), acts as an all-acoustic palate-cleanser between White's medley and the electrifying "Cosmic Rain," though as the song picks up speed it turns into yet another unequivocal show-stopper. Perhaps it's because the energy that pervades much of The Mothership Returns is expected from Corea, Clarke, White and Gambale but not so much from Ponty that the violinist's contributions are so uniformly impressive throughout a 110-minute set that closes with the one-two-three punch of Corea's "Spain" (with, perhaps, one of the stranger audience participation segments on record), Clarke's anthemic title track to his own School Days (Epic, 1976), and a short-but-relentless "Beyond the Seventh Galaxy."
Rather than include a concert DVD with nothing more than performance footage, Librado Barocio's 65-minute film, Return to Forever: Inside the Music, includes plenty of concert material, but with plenty of valuable interview footage about the history of the band and the genesis of the music interspersed. There's also live footage of Clarke's buoyant "Dayride"the opening track to RTF's No Mystery (Polydor, 1965)which sadly didn't make it onto The Mothership Return's CDs. The DVD also include, as bonus features, a nine-minute trailer (which includes Corea humorously recounting being introduced to Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones, but not knowing who he was), and unedited high definition concert footage with alternate versions of a 17-minute "After the Cosmic Rain" and 23-minute "The Romantic Warrior," the latter from the 2011 Montreux Jazz Festival, and both performances different than those on the CDs.
Despite the success of the 2011 tour and, now, The Mothership Returns, there's no sign of additional activity...yet. Still, with Corea, Clarke and White continuing to tour as a trio in 2012, hope remains that this incarnation will continueand, perhaps, bring new compositions into the repertoire. Until then, The Mothership Returns is a vital and thoroughly commanding document of a tour that, from the smiles seen all around the stage in the concert footage, clearly brought the fun back to RTF and, with the core trio's continued activity, suggests a relationship well worth fostering.
Tracks: CD1: Mediaeval Overture; Senor Mouse; Shadow of Lo/Sorceress; Renaissance. CD2: After the Cosmic Rain; The Romantic Warrior; Spain; School Days; Beyond the Seventh Galaxy. DVD: Inside the Music (film); After the Cosmic Rain (Live, Austin, Texas); The Romantic Warrior (Live, Montreux, Switzerland); The Story of Return to Forever (sneak peek movie trailer).
Personnel: Chick Corea: keyboards; Frank Gambale: guitars; Jean-Luc Ponty: violin; Stanley Clarke: electric and acoustic basses; Lenny White: drums.
All Photos: John Kelman