Return to Forever: Back, Bold and Badass

R.J. DeLuke By

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Stanley and Al as soloists have grown into incredible players. Lenny is really delivering hard on what he's doing these days to interpret the music. I'm proud of the group. —Chick Corea
Chick Corea / Return to Forever The word has long been out and the 2008 reunion tour of Return to Forever, one of the standard bearers of the jazz-rock fusion movement of the 1970s, is well on its way. Intricate, emotive and—yes—loud music that hasn't really been heard from the band in some 32 years, is being played and enjoyed live once again. With great vigor, to say the least. The tour started on the U.S. West Coast, careened through Canada, and will take off to several countries in Europe before returning to the U.S., ending in New York City in August.

The electric band is scorching, according to audiences that are filling arenas all along the way, as are the musicians themselves—Chick Corea on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, Al DiMeola on guitar and Lenny White on drums, considered the "classic" version of the band. Such is the excitement among the musicians that there is already an indication that there could be much more after 2008, even from Corea, who formed his first version of the band in 1972, whom Clarke affectionately refers to as "our fearless leader," and who was most in favor of the band's breakup in 1977.

The music the band is playing is decidedly electric, the way the band eventually evolved in the '70s when it shined brightly among the other major fusion bands of the era. Standing with them were Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters, all coming in the wake of the electricity generated by the Miles Davis bands from 1969 until his silent period that began in 1975.

The RTF set lists are selected from four albums that included the electric guitar prominently: Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973), Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974), the Grammy-winning No Mystery (Polydor, 1975), and Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976). Songs from the set list are also from those four recordings, typically including "Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy," "Sorceress," "Romantic Warrior," "Dayride," "Vulcan Worlds" "Song to the Pharaoh Kings" and more.

Along with the tour, a new two-CD set has been released that also culls music from those four albums, The Anthology (Concord, 2008).

The tour is perhaps the most anticipated projects in jazz this year.

"It feels good to revisit that music again," said White from Portland, Oregon, during the early stages of the tour. "I got an e-mail from a guy who came to the show the other night. He's a musician. And what he said to me really sums it up. He couldn't believe that music that is this old could sound so fresh. Nobody's done it. There have been attempts at it."

He continued, "What's been happening is our fans who are older have been bringing their children to see us. An e-mail I got from a guy who brought his 19-year-old son said his son was flabbergasted. He said he'd never seen anything like that, with everyone playing on that level."

"The audiences are great," said Corea, now 67, from his San Francisco hotel just before a pair of gigs there (the sixth and seventh of the tour). "We've got to get the music [quality] up to them. The audiences are doing great. They love everything we're doing. We try to get all the little details of it together. But everyone's playing very, very strong. Stanley and Al as soloists have grown into incredible players. Lenny is really delivering hard on what he's doing these days to interpret the music. I'm proud of the group."

DiMeola, 53, who joined the group in 1974, not long after he could vote (he was 19), sees technological advances of the last thirty years being a boost to the presentation of the music.

"I think it sounds better. There are lot more technical advances that have been made since the mid-70s that we're able to exhibit with our instruments today. I think the quality of the instruments sound better than what we had then," says the guitarist from a tour bus between gigs in early June.

That bodes well for RTF fans, who revered the band's progressive sound and virtuoso electric adventures those many years ago. Corea is now one of jazz music's most highly regarded pianists with a list of accomplishments almost too long to mention. Clarke was becoming a virtuoso acoustic bassist before he plugged in for RTF after its first two albums (sans White and DiMeola). White, strongly influenced by Tony Williams, would bring "da funk" where needed, but light the fire with a scintillating array of rhythms that would be an influence on many drummers—probably more so than he has been given credit for. DiMeola, a wunderkind at the time, brought more fire to the group with his dexterity, precision and rhythmic strength.

The band, playing mostly Corea compositions but with contributions from each, blazed across the world of music in that era, leaving most bands in its wake and standing up with the very best.

Chapter Index
  1. Children of Miles
  2. The Beginning
  3. Going Electric
  4. The Classic RTF; Al Joins
  5. The Ride
  6. The Breakup
  7. The Impact
  8. The Return Tour
  9. More RTF?

Children of Miles

It was Miles Davis who upset the jazz police in the late 1960s when he started changing the musical landscape with electronics. The music was changing before In a Silent Way, which went more heavily electric and was a hint of what was to come in the iconic Bitches Brew album for Columbia in 1969. Times were turbulent in the U.S. at that time and so was the music, which started to turn musicians' heads and hearts, while upsetting many critics. Miles didn't invent fusion music, but, as happened often in his career, his explorations made it safe for others to follow.

"It will never be the same again now, after In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew," wrote renowned jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason in 1970. "Listen to this. How can it ever be the same?" And it wasn't. And in the fusion era, each of the top bands had members who performed on Bitches Brew in Miles' company. In the Wayne Shorter biography (Footprints, The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter," Michele Mercer, Penguin, 2007), the sax legend states the source was Miles—for he and Joe Zawinul as co-leaders of Weather Report, for John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, and for Corea and RTF. He said all those groups took off from that direction.

"That's pretty spot on," says Corea of Shorter's assessment. "There's a lot of agreement amongst the guys of that era—Wayne and my good friend Joe [Zawinul], who just left us recently, John [McLaughlin] and everyone. We all have great reverence for Miles, in that he was a trailblazer, carving new forms and new ways of communicating in order to stay contemporary and keep on communicating with new audiences, but retaining the high quality of music.

"He was an inspiration to us all. Look at all the musicians he spawned way before the 70s, going back to the 50s when he started making records. Then along came Coltrane, and my God! I always thought someone should make a documentary of the second half of 20th century music and have Miles be the center of that. He did spawn that. But everyone took it in some really interesting directions. Check out the differences with what everyone did with it: What Tony Williams did with it [Tony Williams Lifetime], John McLaughlin [Mahavishnu Orchestra], Joe [Zawinul] and Wayne [Shorter] [Weather Report]."

Lenny White / Return to Forever White, too, holds his experience with Miles in high regard, but notes that Williams' group, that had McLaughlin on guitar before Mahavishnu, was also a trailblazer in the music.

"You don't understand," says the drummer, reminiscing fondly of Bitches Brew, a session he played on at the age of 19. "I had never had my name on an album before. Miles Davis was my hero. A lot of people don't even get to meet their heroes. I got a chance to meet and play with my hero.

"This is an honest true story. We did that record in August of 1969. In October, I woke up out of a dead sleep, sat straight up in my bed and said, 'I recorded with Miles Davis.' I couldn't believe it. I was walking in a fog all that time. I actually did something that's historic, that's documented. It's going to be around for people to hear for the rest of the world. That was really special to me. It didn't hit me until a few months later."

But, he says, the originator of fusion was Tony Williams. "Tony was playing in Miles' band at the time, but at the same time Bitches Brew came out, there was Tony Williams Lifetime. Tony Williams Lifetime had John McLaughlin in it. The way the story goes, that I heard, was that Miles wanted to have Tony's band, Lifetime, be Miles' band. But Tony wanted to do his own thing. So Miles put this album together, Bitches Brew. It was kind of based on what Tony was experimenting with. Miles had his way.

"But I do definitely believe that Miles was the one who actually put the stamp on the movement. He was the biggest name in jazz music at the time. In 1959, he came out with Kind of Blue, and it made a whole movement. Ten years later, in 1969, Bitches Brew made a whole movement. So I do agree that Miles put the stamp on it, but Tony was the guy that was the fusion king," says White.


The Beginning

RTF wasn't started with a mythic explosion that startled the fusion movement. Like Miles' change, it occurred over time.

Says Corea, "That was when I put my own band together. I was looking for musicians to play my own compositions. I had just had a two-year tenure with Miles. That led to a beautiful musical relationship with [bassist extraordinaire] Dave Holland. Dave and I went on to form Circle [with saxophonist Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul]. We played and recorded with Circle for a couple years. That's what led me to want to put a band of my own together with my own compositions."

Corea met Clarke around that time. "I went to New York, I bumped into Stanley on a week's gig that I did with Joe Henderson's band at a Philadelphia club. We hit it off big time."

"I met Chick in Philadelphia in the early 1970s," says Clarke, now 56, speaking from a tour bus en route from Portland to Jacksonville, Oregon. "I was playing with the saxophonist Joe Henderson. Our keyboard player couldn't make it. So he said he was bringing this guy down from New York. That guy was Chick. We developed a musical relationship from that point and here we are today.

"One of the things that me and Chick used to talk about early on was how music was going to be presented, and some of his ideas of what he thought about music, and what he thought about presenting music. It was very similar to a lot of the ideas I had about how to do music and how to present it," says the bassist. The two played together in some other groups as well, and the seeds of RTF were planted.

Stanley Clarke / Return to Forever "I started putting trios together and trying out my new tunes," Corea says. "It ended up pretty quickly being a quintet with Flora [Purim] singing and Airto [Moreira] on drums and Joe Farrell on sax. That's how it started out. I was booking the band. Stanley and I were carrying the equipment around. We were a self contained unit."

He says he was composing with a conscious effort to find music that expressed basic humanity, "without all the stresses, doubts and insecurities," and came up with the phrase "return to forever," which became the name for the band.

That first group was largely acoustic, though Corea was continuing to play electric piano, the instrument he was first exposed to with Miles. There was also a strong Latin influence. Purim and Moreira are Brazilian, and Corea has always had a strong connection with Latin music. (The influence did not entirely leave later versions of RTF). Light As a Feather was the band's next recording, which featured tunes like "Spain" and "Captain Marvel."

"We definitely were acoustic when we started out," says Clarke. "We were acoustic, but Chick always played a Fender Rhodes piano. I played acoustic bass."

But in 1973, Purim and Moreira left the group, as did Farrell.

Corea says, "It was sort of like life factors entered in. Flora was having a baby. The schedules were stretched that way. Airto wanted to stay home with Flora... We decided to try a new direction at that time and opened it up for that."

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