A musical chameleon, guitarist Bill Connors has gone through at least three different incarnations in the past. As the first guitarist in Chick Corea's Return to Forever, Connors attracted attention for his stinging and passionate work on Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973). But no sooner had his star begun to rise than he left the band, the more aggressive fusion stance of the band being a far cry from the more Latin-informed group that he joined on the basis of Light as a Feather (Polydor, 1972).
Surfacing on the ECM label, Connors reinvented himself as an acoustic guitarist on two solo discs influenced in no small part by label-mate Ralph Towner, as well as the classic Of Mist and Melting (1977) that teamed him with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Connors would return to a cleaner electric sound as a member of Garbarek's quartet and as guest on vibraphonist Tom van der Geld's under-appreciated release Path (1979). Then he disappeared again, resurfacing in '85 with a return to fusion that highlighted a more Holdsworth-esque legato approach, recording three albums over the next three years. Then he disappeared.
In the ensuing years Connors has continued to teach and study, and now he's back with an album that finds him in fine form with a completely unaffected and warm, big-bodied sound. Return has enough energy and groove to appeal to fusion fans but, without the bombast that is so often pegged with that genre, a more direct and economical approach that will appeal to those of a more purist persuasion.
Back from Connors' '80s recordings is drummer Kim Plainfield, last heard on pianist Bill O'Connell's genre-bending Latin Jazz Fantasy . O'Connell is on board as well, as is bassist Lincoln Goines, who has had a remarkably diverse career with artists including Mike Stern, Eliane Elias and Michel Camilo. The quartet, augmented on some tracks by percussionist Myra Casales, is flexible enough to handle everything from the funky shuffle of "Mr. Cool" to the up-tempo Latin workout "On the Edge," the more comfortably-swinging yet rhythmically-complex"Mind Over Matter," and the loosely blues-based "Terrabill Blues." The chemistry is palpable, with everyone sensitive enough to follow yet strong enough to lead in this clearly democratic environs.
Connors may have led a number of musical lives over the past thirty years, but they do share some common ground. Even in the context of Corea's overblown fusion, Connors demonstrated a certain concision, a search for the "right" note that gave his work more substance and emotional resonance than his replacement, the technically adroit but clinical Al DiMeola. Here he retains that same sense of thrift, capable of lightning runs when necessary but always constructing solos that make sense and are more than simply a series of notes strung together. Return is, indeed, a welcome comeback from a guitarist whose reputation has never been less than stellar, even though he's never achieved the same level of stardom as some of his contemporaries.
Note: outside of North America, Return is being released by ESC Records at www.esc-records.de .
Personnel: Bill Connors (guitar), Bill O'Connell (piano), Lincoln Goines (bass), Kim Plainfield (drums), Myra Casales (percussion)