By: Dennis Cook
Return To Forever is back. For those in the know, a happy shiver runs up your spine, and for the uninitiated there's a world of treats in store during their upcoming summer tour that kicks off May 29 at the Paramount Theater in Austin, TX. This seminal '70s band used jazz as a launching pad for explorations into rock, Cubanismo, space music, flamenco and much more, all of it charged with crackling electricity and jaw dropping musicianship. Like Can and Traffic, RTF doesn't always get credit for exploding music's walls and creating the borderless atmosphere that made the jam scene possible. Their fearless, jubilant sonic revolt helped show several generations of players that one needn't adhere to what anyone says is the "correct way" of doing things. Sometimes it takes visionaries like Return To Forever to help clear the sleep from our eyes.
Outside of a brief reunion in 1983, Chick Corea (keys), Al Di Meola (guitar), Stanley Clarke (bass) and Lenny White (drums) haven't played together since 1977. Each has made an indelible mark on jazz (and a few other genres) in the intervening years but there's never been anything quite like the bubbling, irresistible, even volatile chemistry they shared together for a few short, ridiculously creative years.
"A lot of times you do things, whether or not they come out good or bad, and you don't get an opportunity to revisit them. Let's say you made a mistake and you say, 'Oh well, I gotta chalk that up.' Or you did something and you had a great time but it becomes memories. To get the opportunity to revisit those sorts of situations is kind of special," says White. "To go back and look at this music for a second time, in a new time and new space, is pretty special."
At the time of their inception, there was considerable controversy in the jazz world over the hybrid they'd created. Founded in 1972 by Corea and Clarke, the lineup went through some changes before settling into what most regard as the classic RTF quartet that's reassembled today. Each of these gifted musicians – Airto Moreira, Joe Farrell, Bill Connors and Steve Gadd are alumni – offered pieces of the puzzle along the way. Bringing in scraps of what they'd heard in Hendrix and Santana, as well as harnessed noise, Sibelius' modal implications and myriad other random threads, Return To Forever helped birth a new sub-genre: jazz fusion.
"The jazz police stuck us up. Even to this day when you look at the history of jazz, the jazz police still kind of cut this part out of the lineage. It is a different time now, and the climate is good for it because things have changed not for the better but the worse, in terms of what we did with instrumental music and really music in general," says White. "They've taken the human process of making music out. You go to see Justin Timberlake tour, to see Madonna tour, something like that, that's one thing and it's good for that, but what we're talking about is playing instrumental music that doesn't have singers, a light show and all that. There are maybe two generations that haven't seen much of this so there's a curiosity. Jam bands do this, so we're considered one of the forefathers of jam bands by some."
Return To Forever 2008 by Lynn Goldsmith
However, the stratospheric skill level and compositional acumen of Return To Forever is a rare, rare thing in the jam sphere. The fundamental solidity of every aspect of RTF is a huge part of why this music initially put the zap on people's heads – filling coliseums and selling unprecedented albums for an instrumental, ostensibly jazz band - and why it endures today.
"I believe that was the climate we emerged from. It was good and healthy competition. You had to be on your game. Everyone else around the genre was stepping up their game. We come from an era where you had to be able to play your instrument and make something happen. I think that's different now," White comments. "I always use Sean 'Puffy' Combs as my barometer. He had a very successful series on MTV called Making The Band, and nobody in the 'band' played an instrument! It was a boy band, a singing group, and no one played an instrument. That's what it's come to. Music is made by non-musicians."
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