The reunion of jazz-rock fusion pioneer Return to Forever was a much-ballyhooed event before, during and after it took place in 2008. As captured on the double-CD Returns
, it's easy to see why it attracted old school fusion fans plus prog music aficionados of all ages.
In purely technical terms it is a tour de force. Each man in this groupkeyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al Di Meola and drummer Lenny Whiteis a master of his respective instrument, as well as the complex original material from the group's halcyon days. "Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy" is just one vintage number chosen for its tour repertoire, and it's breathtaking.
Just as the set list did not vary dramatically from show-to-show during the course of its 2008 summer tour, neither is there a great sense of true improvisation at work here. These shows were concertsrecitals if you willin the classic(al) sense of a formal presentation. Each player has his designated solo spotlight but, like Di Meola'swhich includes excerpts from five different tunes and features two duets with Coreathey only whet the appetite for more genuine spontaneity.
Given the fact that this version of Return to Forever hadn't played together for some twenty-five years, the collective willingness to open themselves up to the spur-of-the-moment in the course of traversing challenging changes may have been limited, and reasonably so. The extended performance of "Romantic Warrior" is sophisticated enough in itself, and there's nothing antiseptic or blasé about the musicianship. There's more than a mere modicum of pleasure on the part of all involved, but especially Clarke.
Yet the real challenge for Return to Forever lies in the most pragmatic terms of the working musician in the 21st century. The group will only progress beyond mere nostalgia by working together regularly, even if sporadically, to nurture the trust necessary to let it play without inhibition. Bernie Kirsch performed masterful work with his expert recording and mixing here, but the fact that this release is not available as a digital download from the band's website limits its potential audience as much as the strict adherence to structure in its playing.
Times have changed dramatically since Corea, Clarke, White and Di Meola last played together. As musically impressive and glamorously packaged as this two-CD set is, Returns will be best remembered if it becomes, in hindsight, another step in the evolutionary process of a groundbreaking group.
Personnel: Chick Corea: Yamaha Grand Piano Model C3MP, Yamaha Motif XS 8, Rhodes Midi Piano Mark
V, Moog Voyager, Prophet 5; Stanley Clarke: acoustic and electric bass; Al Di Meola: acoustic
and electric guitar; Lenny White: drums.