Return to Forever
June 3, 2008
The movie version of Sex and the City opened last weekend, and the entertainment pages reported that theaters were jammed with women sporting the most expensive fashions they or their credit cards could handle. Seven hundred dollar Manolo spike heels were everywhere. In contrast, the crowd at Tuesday night's Return to Forever concert looked like a music nerd's convention. A typical fashion statement included shorts, tennis shoes and mid-calf brown socks. Grey hair, no hair, and middle-aged paunches were everywhere. I felt right at home. Since most of the women were still seeing Sex and the City, men outnumbered women Tuesday night by about three to one. Oh wait, that's just RTF's typical demographic.
Once the music started, none of that mattered. This form of entertainment isn't about sights: it's about the sounds. I can't even remember what the band members were wearing. Chalk that up in part to my male attitude (like I care what guys wear?), but mainly that's because I was there for the music, and so was the band.
Return to Forever had roughly three incarnations during its lifetime in the 1970s. The middle period lineup was far and away the most muscular, and that's the crew that is currently on tour. Each member has developed the highest possible skill level on his instrument, and each wants you to know it. Chick Corea on keyboards and Stanley Clarke on bass were in each incarnation of the band. Al DiMeola on guitar and Lenny White on drums round out this version of the band.
This crew, except with Bill Connors on guitar in place of DiMeola, released an album in 1973. Then the lineup currently on tour released three studio albums. Their last (and most popular), Romantic Warrior, was released in 1976, and Corea reformed the band not too long after that. Except for a brief reunion around 1983, RTF has existed only via its recordings since then. Thus the cult-like followers of RTF have had a long dry spell.
The show started with the band members engaging in some extended foreplay by noodling around with "Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy." Each player fooled around with the theme by themselves in kind of an arrhythmic way, leaving the audience yearning in anticipation. One of the prime attractions of these guys is their speed-of-light ensemble playing, both in unison and in counterpoint. In the intro they were just fiddling about individually. One guy near me even hollered, "Get on with it." Finally, they got together like a band and found the groove.
All the hyperspeed playing, the pyrotechnics, the staccato, unison bursts from the recordings were there, albeit a tad looser sometimes. It's one thing to hear this type of playing on a recording; it's another to see it. DiMeola, in particular was visually stunning; not because he danced around the stage, threw his head back in real or imagined ecstasy, or because he lit anything on fire or caused any explosions. He just stood there and played. But that's all he needed to do. His left hand on the fret board looked like a manic, almost mechanical, four-legged spider doing some highly intricate, nearly impossible step on the narrow dance floor. Clarke, on bass, affected a similar visual and sonic stage presence.
Corea ensconced himself in the requisite keyboard cockpit with pianos and synthesizers on three sides of him. He spent much of his time in the first set hovering over a classic Rhodes electric piano, which gave the band that authentic 70s sound. He also spent some quality time with a number of synthesizers and had fun bending the pitch on a regular basis. That's a classic RTF trick and was a pretty new sound when the band was around the first time. As for drummer Lenny White, if you looked only at his head and torso, you might have thought he was sitting back and driving down a long, flat interstate highway on a beautiful sunny day, he was that relaxed. Of course, that look totally belies what his arms and legs were doing with his drum kit. To say he's a busy drummer is an understatement. He laid down an unending series of polyrhythms and joined in many of the unison sprints (that's like a "run" only much faster).
For those of us who invested many hours of our adolescence soaking up RTF's records, much of the program was quite familiar. The band didn't stick to the original recordings note for note, however. In true jazz form, they laid down many of the familiar themes and then took off to improv land. Often, they sounded like a jam band on some aggressive steroids. Many of the band's compositions are almost like mini symphonies with many different movements. They moved in and out of the themes, threw in some solos, hit some more themes, more solos and in general created new versions of the classic RTF tracks.