THE DOZENS: RETURN TO FOREVER by Walter Kolosky

As we write, Return to Forever, the pioneering fusion group from the seventies, has reunited for an extensive world tour. Together with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, RTF formed the great triad of the jazz-rock movement, and their return to the stage marks a major jazz event. (All the dates of the reunion tour, which will continue until August, can be found here.)



Save for several New York concerts in 1983, over 30 years had passed since the band last appeared together. The personnel in the band went through several changes during its prominence. But the reunion features the most popular line-up which disbanded in 1976. Founder and keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al DiMeola and drummer Lenny White have all played much important music in the last three decades. They have continued to find new fans inside and outside the fusion box.

It is said any band is only as good as the sum of its parts. In this Jazz.com Dozens we review some of the music of the members of Return to Forever together and alone to help determine if this axiom is true.


Return to Forever featuring Chick Corea: No Mystery

Track

No Mystery

Group

Return to Forever featuring Chick Corea

CD

No Mystery (Polydor 827-149-2)

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Musicians:

Chick Corea (keyboards), Al Di Meola (guitars), Stanley Clarke (bass, organ), Lenny White (drums).

Composed by Chick Corea

.

Recorded: New York, January 1975

Albumcoverreturntoforeverfeaturingchickcorea-nomystery

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

The better fusion bands would always take a few moments or so on their records or in concert to show off their pure virtuosity. Electronics can cover a lot of bad notes. But in delicate or intricate acoustic music, a flubbed note could stick out like a liberal on Fox News. These bands would risk playing a beautiful melody in order to demonstrate that they knew as much as their jazz forefathers about musical tradition maybe even more. It was reverse machismo. When loud fusion bands unplugged to lower the volume, that's when they were showing off most! When bad bands tried this, it was a cosmic joke. When great bands did it, the result could be transcendent.

Chick Corea's Return to Forever could be such a unit. "No Mystery" is a beautifully realized composition. Interwoven with the delicate fluttering of Corea's keys and Di Meola's strings, the tune is performed in several movements. It is filled with highly elaborate flights of joy and more somber tones as Clarke bows his upright. Percussionist Lenny White provides rhythmic texture while never pounding away on a single drumhead. Sure, lots of this music was written out and improvisation was at a minimum. "No Mystery" is even more classical than it is jazz. But performances like these set Return to Forever and other such bands apart. They expected their audiences to appreciate good music in all of its forms. If they had to teach their new rock fans this fact, that is what they were going to do. A little showing-off during the lesson never hurt anybody.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Al Di Meola: No Mystery

Track

No Mystery

Artist

Al Di Meola (acoustic guitar)

CD

World Sinfonia (Tomato R2 79750)

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Musicians:

Al Di Meola (acoustic guitar),

Dino Saluzzi (bandoneon), Chris Carrington (classical guitar), Arto Tuncboyaci (percussion), Gumbi Ortiz (congas)

.

Composed by Chick Corea

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Recorded: New York, October 1990

Albumcoveraldimeola-worldsinfonia

Rating: 89/100 (learn more)

Every few years Al Di Meola has put together a version of the World Sinfonia. Of all of his projects, this is the most honest and heartfelt. The music is international in scope, all-acoustic and totally noncommercial. Dino Saluzzi, who plays the bandoneon, is the other principal soloist. The bandoneon is an Argentinean instrument that somewhat resembles a complicated accordion. It has buttons instead of keys. The buttons themselves are not arranged in a typical scalar fashion, so you have to literally memorize the placement of each note. The notes are even different depending on whether you play the instrument closed or open. It is not easy to play. It is also an acquired taste to listen to.

Saluzzi is Chick Corea on Corea's classic fusion composition "No Mystery." Al Di Meola plays himself the same way he did in Return to Forever. Di Meola has written a nice arrangement here. The memorable and uplifting theme is stated first. Di Meola and Saluzzi then play off each other in a serene spatial section. The tune stays pretty close to the original. But Di Meola has made room for some slow movements for Saluzzi. These add a lilting gentleness to the piece not found on Return to Forever's version. Also of note is that Di Meola does not use his trademark "muffled" note style in his solos. This is welcome. The tune, propelled by the percussionists, turns full Latin for awhile before a series of more textured sections arise. The band slowly reprises the theme to great content.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Return to Forever featuring Chick Corea: Excerpt from the First Movement of Heavy Metal

Track

Excerpt from the First Movement of Heavy Metal

Group

Return to Forever featuring Chick Corea

CD

No Mystery (Polydor 827-149-2)

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Musicians:

Chick Corea (keyboards), Al Di Meola (guitars), Stanley Clarke (bass, organ), Lenny White (drums).

Composed by Chick Corea, Lenny White, Stanley Clarke & Al Di Meola

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Recorded: New York, January 1975

Albumcoverreturntoforeverfeaturingchickcorea-nomystery_1

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

On "Excerpt from the First Movement of Heavy Metal" Corea's keyboard introduction is one of high drama worthy of any classic horror or mystery film soundtrack. It is a powerful opening statement of a tune that will last less than 3 minutes. But, in that short time, the piece manages to pack a wallop. As Corea posits the theme, a young Di Meola enters over Corea with a wicked scorching electric guitar. Drummer White kicks in with some straight-ahead power drumming as Clarke lays out a big fat fuzzy bass line. After a brief Corea synthesizer turn, the tune erupts upward culminating in Corea revisiting the theme he established early on.

I think that Jazz.com's mission to review each jazz tune, rather than each album, is a unique and valuable addition to the world of jazz knowledge. But things don't happen in a vacuum. I believe that about songs, too. A finely crafted album is not just a hodgepodge of tunes. It is a collection of performances that should be placed in a carefully considered order that gives the listener the best impression of the total work. In that way, producing good albums is not so different from the placement of great artworks for an important exhibit. Certain art is located next to other art so that patrons can enjoy the overall exhibition in its finest light. My point is simple. "Excerpt from the First Movement of Heavy Metal" is best appreciated if you also listen to the tune before it and the tune after it in their intended order.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Lenny White: Heavy Metal Monster

Track

Heavy Metal Monster

Artist

Lenny White (drums)

CD

The Adventures of Astral Pirates (Wounded Bird WOU 6121)

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Musicians:

Lenny White (drums),

Nick Moroch, Jeff Sigman (guitars), Patrick Gleeson (synth programming, keyboards), Alex Blake (bass)

.

Composed by Lenny White

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Recorded: San Francisco, CA, August 1977

Albumcoverlennywhite-theadventuresofastralpirates

Rating: 82/100 (learn more)

Drummer Lenny White's fortuitous inclusion in the fusion supergroup Return to Forever will always be his most famous calling card. But like other noted jazz-rock drummers of his day, such as Tony Williams, Billy Cobham and Alphonse Mouzon, White was deemed worthy by record executives to front his own band to try and grab a piece of the fusion commercial pie. White was different from other fusion drummers of the day, who really depended upon the muscularity of their drumming to carry the fusion banner. White had some of that power, though a bit less than the others I mentioned. White showed off the more funky side of rhythm, especially on his own records. This style was an acquired taste, and many rabid fusion fans (including myself) never entirely glommed onto it. But thousands did, and White developed a loyal following.

I am not sure "Heavy Metal Monster" lives up to its title, but it is a fine jazz-rock tune, full of sustained power guitar chords and modern 1977 synth sounds. While its underpinning is jazz-funk, there is enough full-strength fusion seeping out of its pores to claim its rightful place in the genre. Guitarist Moroch and synth player Gleeson carry on an aggressive and impressive call and response as White and bassist Blake funk it up but not too much.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Return to Forever: Vulcan Worlds

Track

Vulcan Worlds

Group

Return to Forever

CD

Where Have I Known You Before (Polygram Records)

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Musicians:

Chick Corea (piano, synthesizers), Al Di Meola (guitar), Stanley Clarke (bass), Lenny White (drums).

Composed by Stanley Clarke

.

Recorded: New York, July-August 1974

Albumcoverreturntoforever-wherehaveiknownyoubefore

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Where Have I Known You Before marked the most significant change in Corea's Return to Forever group. It was on this album that a 19-year-old guitarist named Al Di Meola first appeared as a member of the band, replacing Bill Connors. This personnel change would create the band's most effective and ultimately most famous lineup.

The whole group burns on Clarke's "Vulcan Worlds." Corea began heavy-duty use of the new synthesizer technology beginning with this album. His style on the new toys, which he would further develop, is instantly unique. Di Meola's solo turn is a revelation. John McLaughlin had a new challenger for fusion guitar god! It's scary. As impressive as Di Meola's playing is on the cut, it still comes across as a bit tentative compared to the speed and relentless precision he would obtain on future records. Double scary. Clarke is even more impressive than Di Meola in the turn that follows. And speaking of double Lenny White is in double-time most of the time. The tune ends with a rave-up fusion hymn. Good-bye old Return to Forever. Hello music history.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Stanley Clarke: Concerto for Jazz/Rock Orchestra, Parts 1-4

Track

Concerto for Jazz/Rock Orchestra, Parts 1-4

Artist

Stanley Clarke (bass, Maestro bass synthesizer)

CD

Journey to Love (Epic EK 36974)

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Musicians:

Stanley Clarke (bass, Maestro bass synthesizer), David Sancious (electric guitar), George Duke (keyboards), Steve Gadd (drums),

Jon Faddis, Lew Soloff, David Taylor, Peter Gordon, Allen Rubin, Tom Malone, John Clark, Earl Chapin, Wilmer Wise (brass section)

.

Composed by Stanley Clarke

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Recorded: New York, 1975

Albumcoverstanleyclarke-journeytolove

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Even more so than his phenomenal contemporary Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke was the fusion genre's first electric bass superstar. This didn't make Clarke better or more important. The argument as to who was better will go on forever, and is pointless, really. Both players set standards that are still in place. But there were reasons for Clarke's greater popularity. His bass sound, even when playing rapid-fire runs, was smoother than Jaco's. This stylistic and audio difference helped Clarke introduce fans to the idea that the electric bass could be an important melodic instrument. Clarke was also a better-rounded composer than Jaco, so his tunes were more accessible. Additionally, after leaving Chick Corea's Return to Forever, Clarke made some wise business and music decisions that allowed him control over his music and those he played it with. On this album alone, he was able to bring in Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Jeff Beck and George Duke.

"Concerto for Jazz/Rock Orchestra" is a full-blown bass concerto. While this piece is classical in the formal sense of movements, it is anything but classical in a musical sense. Part 1 is the slow movement. Hand bells, acoustic bass and piano establish a gentle tableau. Part 2 is definitely a fast movement! Clarke blazes a path. Duke is outstanding on synthesizer. Sancious wails on electric guitar. The full horn section joins in on an explosion of the movement's thematic riffs. The third part is propelled by a fast Gadd shuffle leading to a last short and sad movement gently punctuated by a wistful melodic undertone. In the context of such a written-out piece, improvisation is at the highest levels. The players are all outstanding. But, in the end, it is the composer's skill that stands out.

By the way, Stanley Clarke's smooth bass sound would eventually get the best of him. He lost his initial fan base, but attracted a larger one in the mainstream. In the last couple of years, however, there seems to be hope that jazz and jazz rock fans will once again hear the Stanley Clarke we once knew. In fact, at this writing, he is planning an upcoming Return to Forever reunion tour. While it is hard to criticize such a talented musician for taking advantage of financial opportunities, I am glad to see the artistic direction of some of his latest projects.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Al Di Meola: Egyptian Danza

Track

Egyptian Danza

Artist

Al Di Meola (electric guitar)

CD

Tour De Force "Live" (CBS CK 38373)

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Musicians:

Al Di Meola (electric guitar), Jan Hammer (keyboards), Anthony Jackson (bass), Steve Gadd (drums),

Victor Godsey (keyboards), Mingo Lewis (percussion)

.

Composed by Al Di Meola

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Recorded: Philadelphia, PA, February 4, 1982

Albumcoveraldimeola-tourdeforcelive

Rating: 82/100 (learn more)

Di Meola was coming off multi-years of winning the Guitar Player magazine poll as best overall guitarist when he recorded this live album. He surrounded himself with some of the greatest fusion players of the era. Jan Hammer, Steve Gadd and Anthony Jackson were no slouches. However, this tune, because of a lack of improvisation, seems more in the character of early progressive rock, trying to get radio airplay, rather than jazz-fusion.

Spanish and Egyptian in nature, "Egyptian Danza" is a pure chops-fest. Di Meola impressively runs the minor scales at terminal velocity. But it is speed virtually devoid of charm. Aside from Hammer's short solo and a brief bass statement, Di Meola so dominates the piece that the other players are mere spectators. There is no stretching out, no exploring, which is too bad. You would think a live recording would allow Di Meola to expound a bit. It is my belief that Al was reading too many guitar magazine polls at this time.

There is no denying that Di Meola is a great guitarist who plays demanding music worthy of an audience. I just wish there were more magic to it. But with very few exceptions during his career, it just isn't there. That being said, I would give my left nut to play half as good.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Stanley Clarke: Jerusalem

Track

Jerusalem

Artist

CD

The Toys Of Men (Heads Up HU CD 3128)

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Musicians:

Stanley Clarke (bass),

Rusian Sirota (keyboards), Michael Landau (guitar)

.

Composed by Rusian Sirota

.

Recorded: Topanga, CA, 2007

Albumcoverstanleyclarke-thetoysofmen

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Welcome back, Stanley Clarke! The antiwar The Toys of Men is the best thing he has put out in years. It reestablishes him as one of the premier bass players and musical minds in the business. There are 13 cuts on the album, 12 of which are very good.

Though Clarke's own composing is compelling on The Toys of Men, "Jerusalem" was written by keyboardist Sirota. Various ambient effects and a far-away disconnected electronic voice usher in this lovely ballad. Clarke plays the lead melody with a patient understanding of space and texture. It is an eloquent display of the emotion his mastery can elicit. Landau and Sirota generously provide the backdrop for Clarke's jaw-dropping virtuosity. In the hands of a lesser musician, this tune would come off as Smooth Jazz. (Pardon me while I gag.) But the complex dexterity and musical knowledge Clarke exposes would make musicians of that genre feel bad about themselves.

Here's hoping the lucrative years Clarke spent writing soundtracks and Smooth Jazz will afford him the luxury of making more music like this.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Al Di Meola: Kiss My Axe

Track

Kiss My Axe

Group

Al Di Meola Project

CD

Kiss My Axe (Tomato R2 79751)

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Musicians:

Al Di Meola (guitar, synthesizers),

Barry Miles (piano), Rachel Z (synthesizers), Anthony Jackson (bass), Omar Hakim (drums), Gumbi (congas), Art Tuncboyaciyan (percussion, voice)

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Composed by Al Di Meola

.

Recorded: New York, May 1991

Albumcoveraldimeola-kissmyaxe

Rating: 85/100 (learn more)

Al Di Meola is well known for having an attitude. For years he has been quite vocal about his belief that the music business has failed progressive artists such as he is. As a fan of the more progressive side of rock and jazz, I tend to agree with many of his assessments. At the same time, sometimes I feel Di Meola does himself a disservice by being so blunt. "God bless him," I think as I read another scathing Di Meola letter to the editor of a music magazine. Why does he have to be so angry? And why doesn't he use an editor?

The title of this album is a perfect example. Kiss My Axe has two meanings. First, it refers to the erotic theme of the album. Di Meola is pictured on the cover with a half-naked woman and his guitar. This is the perfect metaphor. Second, the statement "kiss my axe" is a direct thumbing of his nose to the music establishment he feels abandoned him.

"Kiss my Axe" is actually less in your face than you would expect. Di Meola's guitar is warm in tone. As almost always with Di Meola, a Latin landscape is formed. (Of interest is that a few times on the album Di Meola explores some Eastern sounds not usually found in his bag.) His muted fingering, performed at breakneck speed, creates a vibe not unlike that heard in his rave-up tune "Egyptian Danza" from more than a decade earlier. Miles's piano brings a calming influence to the piece. What the tune lacks in the fusion energy of his earlier days, it makes up in his more sophisticated approach.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Lenny White: Mating Drive

Track

Mating Drive

Artist

Lenny White (drums)

CD

Venusian Summer (Wounded Bird WOU 435)

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Musicians:

Lenny White (drums),

Ray Gomez, Doug Rodrigues (guitars), Larry Young (organ), Onaje Allan Gumbs (keyboards), Doug Rauch (bass)

.

Composed by Lenny White

.

Recorded: New York, August 1975

Albumcoverlennywhite-venusiansummer

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

This performance was recorded while Lenny White was still an active member of Return to Forever. "Mating Drive" is an unrepentant riff-fest. White's proclivity to funk things up is totally absent. The tune opens with some atmospherics probably provided by the combination of Allan and Young on keyboards, who could make their instruments do some crazy things back in the day. White backs them with a rapid pulse beat. A melody is presented for a second or two and then dispensed with. Guitarists Gomez and Rodrigues go at it tooth and nail. Many times their unison lines sound like a single electric violinist. This sound was very "in" at the time. A great treat is to hear the legendary organist Larry Young on this unadulterated fusion paean. He plays a more straight-ahead organ on "Mating Drive," which is quite a digression from his other recordings during this period. What a player! This tune is principally made of one outrageous mantra-like riff after another. Good stuff!

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Stanley Clarke: Hello Jeff

Track

Hello Jeff

Artist

Stanley Clarke (bass, organ)

CD

Journey to Love (Epic EK 36974)

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Musicians:

Stanley Clarke (bass, organ), Jeff Beck (guitar), Lenny White (drums).

Composed by Stanley Clarke

.

Recorded: New York, 1975

Albumcoverstanleyclarke-journeytolove

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Jazz fusion received quite a boost when rock star guitarist Jeff Beck decided to enter the fray. Though Beck was not a composer, his stylish and engaging performances of fusion numbers written by Jan Hammer, Max Middleton and Narada Michael Walden, among others, brought more rock fans to the jazz-rock party. His getting together for this cut with Clarke and White, two members from the supergroup Return to Forever, was quite an event.

As evidenced by the song's title, Clarke really knew who he was writing for. "Hello Jeff" is drenched in Beck's guitar persona. His inimitable style makes him the owner of one of the most famous riffs Clarke has ever written. Rhythm section Clarke and White are highly paid and highly effective support players on the tune. The very accessible "Hello Jeff" could have easily fit onto Beck's mega-hit Wired without anyone batting an eye. Clarke's ability to write this type of hook-laden song kept him in the popular fusion spotlight for quite a few years.

As I write these words, Beck, Clarke and White have been revisiting fusion music. This is very welcome. I would not be surprised if they recorded again. Wishful thinking perhaps, but music this good needs to be further explored.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


Chick Corea: Compadres

Track

Compadres

Artist

Chick Corea (keyboards)

CD

Touchstone (Warner Brothers)

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Musicians:

Chick Corea (keyboards), Al Di Meola (guitar), Stanley Clarke (bass), Lenny White (drums).

Composed by Chick Corea

.

Recorded: Los Angeles, 1982

Albumcoverchickcorea-touchstone

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

"Compadres" is the only recorded performance of the famous Return to Forever lineup of Corea, Clarke, Di Meola and White that appeared outside the auspices of the formal group. Recorded a year before a short series of RTF reunion concerts in New York City, the tune shows a more technologically advanced sound while retaining the band's core personality.

The biggest sound difference from the mid-'70s aggregation is Corea on keyboards. The sound of his synthesizer is heavier and more polytonal. In fact, the first minute of the tune could easily be mistaken for Joe Zawinul and Weather Report. After the introductory section, the guys settle into the Return to Forever mode of Latin-influenced riffs and displays of singular virtuosity. The melody of "Compadres" is not the star. Each player except White is predictably given solo time. This is all very impressive. Meanwhile, White has plenty to do as he ratchets up the tempo until the tune becomes a driving blues-infected rocker. Also of note are some moments of humor. This is not something fusion music was known for. In particular, from left field Corea tosses in some short quotes from the old days. They sound so innocent in the context of the new music that you can't help but giggle a bit.

Reviewer: Walter Kolosky


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