When Chick Corea reassembled the members of the most commercially successful version of his Return to Forever ensemble in 2008 and embarked on an extensive tour, it was the jazz fusion event of the year. Younger fans barely born when the ensemble's high watermark, Romantic Warrior, was released in 1976 could finally see the group in the flesh. Based on this sizzling double-CD document culled from the tour's highlights, 32 years didn't dim the quartet's enthusiasm or uncanny instrumental precision and interplay. It includes extended versions of half the tunes on Romantic Warrior, the title cut from No Mystery, and three selections from Where Have I Known You Before, with that disc's "Song to the Pharaoh Kings" clocking in at a whopping 27 minutes. Corea keeps his synths reproducing the '70s sounds of the original recordings, which is great for those who want to relive the albums, but brings a somewhat dated touch to much of this. In reality, there are very few bands in 2008 creating this space-progressive jazz-rock fusion, and certainly none with the fine-tuned talents of these guys. Those chops are displayed early on a 13-minute version of "Vulcan Worlds" that can only be described as explosive -- so much so that it elicits multiple rounds of rapturous applause as each member takes his turn in the spotlight. It's especially exciting to hear guitarist Al di Meola once again shredding with his old band, since much of his recent material has been acoustic and world music-oriented. Stanley Clarke remains one of jazz's finest bassists, grounding the sound but also taking dynamic solos that place his instrument in a lead guitar position. Hearing him trading frenzied, electrified licks with di Meola is one of the many pleasures of this reunion.
But the band is intent on showing its quieter side too, with individual and duo collaborations that are predominantly unplugged. First up, Corea and di Meola join forces on "Children's Song #3," then the guitarist romps on acoustic as the piece ends with Corea returning to join in on his famed "Spain." Disc two tamps down the fireworks by featuring lengthy acoustic improvisational work from Corea, Clarke, and drummer Lenny White in that order, that provides a contrast, some might say breathing room, to the fiery group compositions, but also drag down the energy and slow the show's momentum. For jazz students, this is a mini master class for each instrument, yet how often others will return to these sections that comprise nearly half an hour of the second platter's running time is questionable. A 12-minute "bonus track" of "500 Miles High," a song from Light as a Feather, the RTF album with an earlier version of the band that did not include di Meola or White, is tacked on to the second disc. The set closes with producer Sir George Martin presenting the BBC Lifetime Achievement Award to the band, Corea's brief acceptance speech, and a short acoustic performance of "Romantic Warrior." It should be noted that this album's sleeve photos are from the associated DVD of the band's Montreux 2008 set, but only one tune here was recorded at that performance.
Seventies fusion supergroup Return to Forever's reunion and 2008 world tour was one of the year's biggest jazz events. At performances including its Ottawa International Jazz Festival show, the group did more than give a bunch of grays and no-hairs a chance to relive their youth. With a combination of prerequisite testosterone ("This is a man's band," said drummer Lenny White) and some updating to the material, the group proved that its music remains relevant. Returns—a two-CD set that documents a complete RTF performance with a couple of bonus tracks thrown in—documents the cathartic excitement of being there and makes clear that this music still stands on its own.
Returns is the live album that this classic RTF line-up—White, keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke and guitarist Al Di Meola—never released back in the day. With improvements in both instrument and recording technology, the group sounds better than it ever could have before. Grabbing some of the best material from the guitar-centric RTF's four album run—Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973) through Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976)—it capitalizes on individual growth since that time, making this a far more versatile RTF.
Stretched to 38 minutes, the title track from Romantic Warrior includes solo features from Corea (which breaks, midway, into an unexpected, hard-swinging version of Miles Davis' "Solar"), Clarke (referencing some of his own '70s solo albums) and White (a powerhouse solo that segues smoothly back to the song). It's part of an unplugged middle section that also includes a stunning feature for Di Meola and a vibrant group take of the lyrical but thematically knotty title track from No Mystery (Polydor, 1975). Seventies RTF never sounded this good.
But it's the electric RTF that is remembered most, and Returns delivers plenty of high octane playing, especially on a 27-minute "Song to the Pharoah Kings," from Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974). Often criticized for being more style than substance, Di Meola dispels that perception once and for all throughout the set, even supplanting original RTF guitarist Bill Connors' iconic solo on "Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy." Still capable of light-speed finger work that leaves most in his wake, Di Meola has grown significantly since being recruited, at 19, to replace Connors. With greater harmonic sophistication and attention to space, he's the star of the show (among a group of stars) alongside Corea, whose meatier synth tones have never sounded better, adding a broader textural palette to the group.
Rather than being regurgitated as original arrangements, Clarke's "Vulcan Worlds" and White's "Sorceress" get extended workouts—and receive contemporary updates as well, with Di Meola's solo section dropping to a wonderfully greasy, hip hop-informed half-time feel.
The RTF reunion and vigorous performance of Returns say, in no uncertain terms, that high-energy fusion, with complex writing and muscular soloing, is back and relevant in a big way—and it's about time.
1. Opening Prayer (2:02)
2. Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (3:44)
3. Vulcan Worlds (13:45)
4. Sorceress (11:24)
5. Song to the Pharaoh Kings (27:17)
6. Al's Solo, including: Children's Song #3, Passion Grace & Fire, Mediterranean Sundance, Cafe 1930, Spain (8:56)
7. No Mystery (8:53)
Total Time 74:59
Chick's Solo, including Solar (8:54)
2. Romantic Warrior (7:20)
3. El Bayo de Negro (Stanley's Solo) (11:25)
4. Lineage (Lenny's Solo) (7:39)
5. Romantic Warrior (Continued) (3:06)
6. Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant (14:10)
7. 500 Miles High (12:54)
8. BBC Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Sir George Martin; live performance of Romantic Warrior (8:21)
Total Time 72:49
Chick Corea – Minimoog Voyager, Rhodes Midi Piano Mark V, Yamaha grand piano C3MP, Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, Yamaha Motif
Al Di Meola – acoustic guitar, electric guitar
Stanley Clarke – electric bass, acoustic bass
Lenny White – drums