Words by: Dennis Cook | Images by: Susan J. Weiand
Return To Forever :: 06.11.08 :: The Grand :: San Francisco, CA
The Basque tongue is considered a language isolate, which means it shares "no demonstrable genealogical relationship with other living languages" (Wikipedia). It's a reminder that for all the talk of "nothing new under the sun" there are unique facets to the world. It didn't take long for Return To Forever to crystallize this concept in San Francisco. "Jazz-Fusion" has always seemed far too small a descriptor for this crazy visionary quartet, who took the newfangled freedoms of the '60s and ran them to splendidly illogical conclusions. No one in the early '70s jazz establishment could have seen this band coming. They were reverential and melodramatically philosophical, yet also hard struttin' in perfectly rumpled leather jackets, lit cigarettes dangling from smiling lips, looking every bit the badasses they were. In S.F., the clothes had changed and temples had grayed but none of their strange, charged voodoo had been lost.
"Relax or don't relax, do whatever you do, 'cause we're gonna turn it on and go someplace," said Chick Corea before settling in behind his mad hatter's keyboard lab. Then, peels of beautiful electric piano and impossibly pure, clean electric guitar from a nicely disheveled looking Al Di Meola filled the air like an exhaled breath from God's lungs, angels backstroking in the vapor. Intricate and otherworldly, they ran into our arms on the strong legs of Lenny White's drums and Stanley Clarke's slow popping bass. Without question all four guys sit near the pinnacle of their respective instruments, and where other settings over the years have sometimes felt a little showy, a skill exposition for the sake of it, together again as Return To Forever after nearly 30 years there seemed to be nothing but unfiltered music flowing through them, their naked passion plunging a long tap into the Universe's belly to draw out the very liquid of life.
It's hard to talk about RTF in less poetic terms. Citing precedent, charting every note played seems to rub against Corea's inducement to "turn it on and go someplace." Corea - whose grin and sometimes peculiar interactions with his bandmates generated speculation about whether he might have enjoyed a San Francisco treat besides Rice-A-Roni before the show – later back announced, "We played 'Song to the Pharaoh Kings,' something before that and then we were just screwing around." Hey, if they're not hung up on names then I'm not gonna be!
In concert, Return To Forever isn't about recreating the frozen moments on their albums. They are engaged - sometimes messily, sometimes gracefully – with a breathing entity, capital "M" music, and the ferocity of Di Meola and Corea was balanced and contrasted with the cool and humor of Clarke and White. One sensed right away how much fun it was to be grappling music with their old mates again. For many in attendance it was a dream to see this group in action again but the pleasure was clearly not only on our side of the stage.
Chick Corea :: 06.11 :: San Francisco|
Each began sequestered in their own quadrant – Clarke center stage with Di Meola and White to his right and Corea nested left – but maintained clear sightlines which quickly drew them out, with Di Meola and Clarke especially anxious to bridge the physical and musical spaces between them. Corea, in one of the oddest moments of the night, hovered next to a seated Di Meola during his "solo segment," clapping his hands and clacking drumsticks together. The guitarist took it in stride, as did the rest later during a particularly drawn-out keyboard tangent that left the rest twiddling their thumbs for a bit. Their broad, knowing grins were priceless when Corea emerged from his trance and reentered the main theme they'd been exploring a good deal earlier. These cats really know each other and that understanding and compassion shows in their faces, their instrumental communication and genuine care for this thing they nurture together.
While these "romantic warriors" occasionally dipped into saccharine waters - no surprise given the downright gushy, between the sheets selections in their catalog – but what kept hitting one in the heart were the many outbursts of "celestial transcendence." Yes, four human beings made this music – conceived it, executed it, etc. – but one felt tapped into something MUCH bigger as Clarke spoke in tongues on his double bass or White took us from the stone age to Shelly Manne in a matter of seconds. It was there in the near bloodlust of Di Meola, working the strings of an acoustic guitar like he was auditioning for the angel band. And it was there in the note stuffed, scrambled acoustics of Corea's mind-boggling inventions. There was so much going on at times that one had to expand their personal capacity for information just to keep pace with them. Stretched and tenderized, the quartet took us frequently to a place of laughing revelation.
Lenny White :: 06.11 :: San Francisco|
We've heard things like Return To Forever; they had contemporaries aplenty (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, Herbie's Headhunters) but they're just more fun, more heartily embracing of funky sounds and slurred dialects, than anything else in the jazz-meets-rock-meets-whatever genre. At one point, a sick harpsichord sputtered into a crunchily melodic Di Meola solo that rumbled their vessel, bashing asteroids while the others poured bubbling cola into the main frame just to see what might happen. Maybe it's their joyful acceptance that they may look foolish or fail in their jumps (though they rarely did) that makes RTF so appealing.
How else to explain our patience with Corea when he emerged for the encore with a keytar to "rawk" shoulder-to-shoulder with Clarke and Di Meola? No one, not even a freakin' genius like Chick, can make a keytar cool. But, he was obviously having a grand time, working the pitch-bending wheel like a man possessed during "Captain Senor Mouse." Snicker inducing but moving nonetheless, the power of their energy music plowed through cynicism and sarcasm. Things grow when musicians conjure like this, and blossoms unfolded and roots grasped as they did that voodoo that only they do so well. They have returned with a sound for forever.
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