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Lenny White: Just Doing It

Rex  Butters By

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The friendship level in Return to Forever is much better than in '83 and this is reflected in the music. Actually the best it's ever been, ever.
Lenny WhiteMiles Davis kicked the fusion door open in 1969 and some people still haven't gotten over it. Among the future jazz star innovators on Bitches Brew (Columbia/Legacy, 1969) was an unknown eighteen year-old Tony Williams fanatic named Lenny White, who found his recording debut making history. Now an elder statesman at almost sixty, White maintains a furiously fast level of invention tied to an appropriately superhuman technique. Despite recently recovering from shoulder surgery, White packs a punch enviable in a man half his age.

AllAboutJazz: How's the shoulder holding up?

Lenny White: The shoulder is coming along fine thanks but my problem is twofold. I have a spinal impingement that made all my muscles in my right shoulder and arm atrophy. Now it's just about building up my strength and that's getting better.

AAJ: In many ways, this RTF tour and the response you're getting is a major vindication of your original vision. Aren't you sold out in New York?

LW: We have a sold-out show on August 7th [2008] and another show added August 8th.

AAJ: How much do you think resentment over your popularity influenced critics to turn on you?

LW: That could have been a real possibility but it's always hard for artists who are doing something contrary to the norm to gain acceptance from critics. They think their job is to tell the audience what they should listen to and like.

AAJ: Miles took the initial critical heat with Bitches Brew, sessions in which you participated. There are still web chat groups devoted to debating the value of Miles' move. Now, with multi-disc reissues of Miles electric sessions and electric Miles tribute bands dotting the landscape, has fusion gone respectable?

LW: I must clarify, what we did in the early years was called "jazz-rock." It had the sophistication harmonically and somewhat rhythmically of jazz performed over simplistic forms and rock-like rhythms. Critics didn't know what to call it so they called it "jazz-rock." The "fusion" name came latter and now has somewhat cross-collateralized everything to be lumped under that name. There is a real difference and true fans know it.

Lenny White / Miles DavisAAJ: These are interesting distinctions. If you could elaborate, at what point did the music you were involved in expand from jazz-rock to fusion?

LW: The distinction should be obvious but if you'd like examples: Tony Williams Lifetime, RTF, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Larry Coryell and The Eleventh House were bands that had big guitar elements relating to the rock sounds of the day. Weather Report and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters had the traditional saxophone lead but were much more progressive than the traditional jazz groups.

An example of what Fusion became is Spyro Gyra or The Yellowjackets. Their directions were clearly defined and more mainstream. All the other bands I named had a direct lineage to Bitches Brew. Their music encompassed many influences—classical music, Brazilian music, rock, soul and electronic music and the no boundaries attitude was the thing that made the music interesting. I believe this is where the name fusion took, because it was indeed a fusion of all these different musical styles.

AAJ: As with any stylistic development, a number of sessions appeared throughout the '70s and early '80s hoping to cash in on the fusion craze, without necessarily capturing the sizzle and pop of the best of the genre. Did uninspired copycats help to diffuse the impact of fusion?

LW: Yes, I do agree with that.

AAJ: You're in the European leg of the RTF tour after having played some North American gigs. Could you describe any differences between your European and American receptions?

LW: The European leg of the tour has been phenomenal. The music has taken a definite upswing and the audiences have been so appreciative. I must say the American audiences were fantastic too, but the music now is so, so much better. We played a concert in Budapest, Hungary that for me was the best RTF has ever sounded.

AAJ: From all reports, Chick Corea was the last holdout for the reunion, but from what I read on fan blogs, it sounds like he's having a great time.

LW: This is very true. We are really having a great time and are talking about new directions musically. The only time you talk about things like that is when you feel musically safe to try new things together.

AAJ: Why did you leave the old RTF?

LW: I didn't leave. That band broke up for artistic differences.

AAJ: Did the '80s RTF reunion tour generate the same enthusiasm as the current one?

LW: Not really, this is something different. The friendship level is much greater than in '83 and this is reflected in the music, which is much better. Actually the best it's ever been, ever.

Lenny White / Return to ForeverAAJ: Will there be a recording this time?

LW: We will have a live DVD and we are talking about a new studio recording with a somewhat new direction.


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