What happens when legends re-unite?
In the case of the members of Return to Forever, the answer was presented last night in Boston. The fabled band, last seen together in 1977, played a set of music that was unique and powerful, a summation of all they had done before but also much more than that.
The band's leader, Chick Corea, is a living jazz legend and wrote most of the songs which RTF performed. He would be famous even if he'd never played with this group, but only in RTF did he take the jazz fusion vocabulary and greatly expand its pallete. Last night, he was a dervish at the keyboard, playing guitar-like synthesizer lead lines, lyrical electric piano and a diverse array of other sounds that he somehow coaxed out of his instrument array. Chick seems endlessly inventive and the group continues to revolve around his musical vision and leadership.
Stanley Clarke was like a big bear on electric and upright bass. He hung back a lot and anchored the rhythm section, but also stepped forward and played bass chords, impossibly fast lead lines and a robust vocabulary of whacks and thacks that always fit (or set) the mood.
Back in the seventies, Al DiMeola was an instant flash guitar legend in his early years with the band. On the band's last album, Romantic Warrior, he began to add emotion to the flash. By the time I saw him again at the Montreal Jazz Festival around 1990, DiMeola had become the compleat musician: soulful, intense and generous. With this group, Al is just a star among stars, but he seemed to revel in this role last night. On the electric music, he began the night playing legato lines of distorted guitar, that would morph during his solos into a McLaughlin-esque fury, then slip perfectly back into place when his solos were over. But as the evening progressed, he switched guitars and mixed in lines that were quiet, thoughtful and full of soul, paying attention to each note.
Lenny White is perhaps the least famous of the group, but holds his own just fine with his musicality and consistent drumming. Last night the band featured one of his compositions, Sorceress. He also got a rise out of the crowd when he said they were not just another "boy band", but a "man band". He can bang out a beat on the tom-toms when the music calls for it, but I was most impressed with his tight cymbal work he joined Clarke and Corea to play a few minutes of acoustic jazz.
My favorite pieces last night were from their final album together, Romantic Warrior. The final piece of the regular set was the title track from that album, where the band proved it can light up the arena with intensity just using their acoustic instruments.
The song begins with Stanley Clarke bowing out a low pitched set of chords on his upright bass, soon joined by Chick trilling high notes on his piano, sounding like birds getting ready to take flight. DiMeola began with faint notes on his Ovation guitar and White showed a deft touch on light cymbals and snare. The music built up and each musician got a chance to play solos against Chick's harmonic structure. On acoustic, DiMeola played his share of fast licks, but it was more like a mesh of sound than a virtuouso turn. Then, he turned to comping chords, while Clarke showed his mastery of acoustic bass, in music that at times moved me to tears. The man played so well -- it felt like he was calling me home. Then Al stepped away for awhile and Chick played his main instrument, acoustic piano, playing with variation upon variation on the song's themes, alternative delicate and percussive. This morphed into the trio jazz moment I described earlier, then Lenny White had a chance to play his own solo. I find drum solos get old fast, but White was tasteful and played with the timbres of his full kit, interspersed with occasional percussive bursts from Clarke or Corea. As the solo finished, DiMeola rejoined the group and they re-stated the song's fast paced melody time and again, before building to a crescendo and a final thundering group chord.
By now, it was after 10:30, but we called the band back after they took their bows. They finished with another tune from Romantic Warrior, Duel Of The Jester And The Tyrant. This tune is electric and features a whole series of fast runs, where DiMeola's electric lines morph into Chick's synthesized leads in looping fashion. it was a romp, one more fine ensemble piece from the band that had already given us so much.
I attended the concert with my son, who has adventurous tastes in music, but had never heard the band before. He was amazed by the variety of music they played, but had a really hard time hearing the structure in the music, since RTF has advanced far beyond the normal jazz routine of starting with the melody, improvising against chords and then re-stating the melody. Yes, they did that in a way, but the songs owed a lot to the free jazz of the Sixties, while accented by Chick's lyricism.
This is music to listen to again and again. I've played my copy of Romantic Warrior a lot, though not much in recent years. This concert was a reminder of just how good this band can be. I must say that I'd love to hear them work on new compositions, since the musicians have all evolved since they did this special thing with RTF during the Seventies. We got a taste of where that might lead, on a cloudy night in Boston, as their music rang out and brought us, their audience, to a special place for a few hours.