Return to Forever: Back, Bold and Badass
“ Stanley and Al as soloists have grown into incredible players. Lenny is really delivering hard on what he's doing these days to interpret the music. I'm proud of the group. ”
The word has long been out and the 2008 reunion tour of Return to Forever, one of the standard bearers of the jazz-rock fusion movement of the 1970s, is well on its way. Intricate, emotive andyesloud music that hasn't really been heard from the band in some 32 years, is being played and enjoyed live once again. With great vigor, to say the least. The tour started on the U.S. West Coast, careened through Canada, and will take off to several countries in Europe before returning to the U.S., ending in New York City in August.
The electric band is scorching, according to audiences that are filling arenas all along the way, as are the musicians themselvesChick Corea on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, Al DiMeola on guitar and Lenny White on drums, considered the "classic" version of the band. Such is the excitement among the musicians that there is already an indication that there could be much more after 2008, even from Corea, who formed his first version of the band in 1972, whom Clarke affectionately refers to as "our fearless leader," and who was most in favor of the band's breakup in 1977.
The music the band is playing is decidedly electric, the way the band eventually evolved in the '70s when it shined brightly among the other major fusion bands of the era. Standing with them were Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters, all coming in the wake of the electricity generated by the Miles Davis bands from 1969 until his silent period that began in 1975.
The RTF set lists are selected from four albums that included the electric guitar prominently: Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973), Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974), the Grammy-winning No Mystery (Polydor, 1975), and Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976). Songs from the set list are also from those four recordings, typically including "Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy," "Sorceress," "Romantic Warrior," "Dayride," "Vulcan Worlds" "Song to the Pharaoh Kings" and more.
Along with the tour, a new two-CD set has been released that also culls music from those four albums, The Anthology (Concord, 2008).
The tour is perhaps the most anticipated projects in jazz this year.
"It feels good to revisit that music again," said White from Portland, Oregon, during the early stages of the tour. "I got an e-mail from a guy who came to the show the other night. He's a musician. And what he said to me really sums it up. He couldn't believe that music that is this old could sound so fresh. Nobody's done it. There have been attempts at it."
He continued, "What's been happening is our fans who are older have been bringing their children to see us. An e-mail I got from a guy who brought his 19-year-old son said his son was flabbergasted. He said he'd never seen anything like that, with everyone playing on that level."
"The audiences are great," said Corea, now 67, from his San Francisco hotel just before a pair of gigs there (the sixth and seventh of the tour). "We've got to get the music [quality] up to them. The audiences are doing great. They love everything we're doing. We try to get all the little details of it together. But everyone's playing very, very strong. Stanley and Al as soloists have grown into incredible players. Lenny is really delivering hard on what he's doing these days to interpret the music. I'm proud of the group."
DiMeola, 53, who joined the group in 1974, not long after he could vote (he was 19), sees technological advances of the last thirty years being a boost to the presentation of the music.
"I think it sounds better. There are lot more technical advances that have been made since the mid-70s that we're able to exhibit with our instruments today. I think the quality of the instruments sound better than what we had then," says the guitarist from a tour bus between gigs in early June.
That bodes well for RTF fans, who revered the band's progressive sound and virtuoso electric adventures those many years ago. Corea is now one of jazz music's most highly regarded pianists with a list of accomplishments almost too long to mention. Clarke was becoming a virtuoso acoustic bassist before he plugged in for RTF after its first two albums (sans White and DiMeola). White, strongly influenced by Tony Williams, would bring "da funk" where needed, but light the fire with a scintillating array of rhythms that would be an influence on many drummersprobably more so than he has been given credit for. DiMeola, a wunderkind at the time, brought more fire to the group with his dexterity, precision and rhythmic strength.
The band, playing mostly Corea compositions but with contributions from each, blazed across the world of music in that era, leaving most bands in its wake and standing up with the very best.
- Children of Miles
- The Beginning
- Going Electric
- The Classic RTF; Al Joins
- The Ride
- The Breakup
- The Impact
- The Return Tour
- More RTF?
It was Miles Davis who upset the jazz police in the late 1960s when he started changing the musical landscape with electronics. The music was changing before In a Silent Way, which went more heavily electric and was a hint of what was to come in the iconic Bitches Brew album for Columbia in 1969. Times were turbulent in the U.S. at that time and so was the music, which started to turn musicians' heads and hearts, while upsetting many critics. Miles didn't invent fusion music, but, as happened often in his career, his explorations made it safe for others to follow.
"It will never be the same again now, after In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew," wrote renowned jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason in 1970. "Listen to this. How can it ever be the same?" And it wasn't. And in the fusion era, each of the top bands had members who performed on Bitches Brew in Miles' company. In the Wayne Shorter biography (Footprints, The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter," Michele Mercer, Penguin, 2007), the sax legend states the source was Milesfor he and Joe Zawinul as co-leaders of Weather Report, for John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra, and for Corea and RTF. He said all those groups took off from that direction.
"That's pretty spot on," says Corea of Shorter's assessment. "There's a lot of agreement amongst the guys of that eraWayne and my good friend Joe [Zawinul], who just left us recently, John [McLaughlin] and everyone. We all have great reverence for Miles, in that he was a trailblazer, carving new forms and new ways of communicating in order to stay contemporary and keep on communicating with new audiences, but retaining the high quality of music.
"He was an inspiration to us all. Look at all the musicians he spawned way before the 70s, going back to the 50s when he started making records. Then along came Coltrane, and my God! I always thought someone should make a documentary of the second half of 20th century music and have Miles be the center of that. He did spawn that. But everyone took it in some really interesting directions. Check out the differences with what everyone did with it: What Tony Williams did with it [Tony Williams Lifetime], John McLaughlin [Mahavishnu Orchestra], Joe [Zawinul] and Wayne [Shorter] [Weather Report]."
White, too, holds his experience with Miles in high regard, but notes that Williams' group, that had McLaughlin on guitar before Mahavishnu, was also a trailblazer in the music.
"You don't understand," says the drummer, reminiscing fondly of Bitches Brew, a session he played on at the age of 19. "I had never had my name on an album before. Miles Davis was my hero. A lot of people don't even get to meet their heroes. I got a chance to meet and play with my hero.
"This is an honest true story. We did that record in August of 1969. In October, I woke up out of a dead sleep, sat straight up in my bed and said, 'I recorded with Miles Davis.' I couldn't believe it. I was walking in a fog all that time. I actually did something that's historic, that's documented. It's going to be around for people to hear for the rest of the world. That was really special to me. It didn't hit me until a few months later."
But, he says, the originator of fusion was Tony Williams. "Tony was playing in Miles' band at the time, but at the same time Bitches Brew came out, there was Tony Williams Lifetime. Tony Williams Lifetime had John McLaughlin in it. The way the story goes, that I heard, was that Miles wanted to have Tony's band, Lifetime, be Miles' band. But Tony wanted to do his own thing. So Miles put this album together, Bitches Brew. It was kind of based on what Tony was experimenting with. Miles had his way.
"But I do definitely believe that Miles was the one who actually put the stamp on the movement. He was the biggest name in jazz music at the time. In 1959, he came out with Kind of Blue, and it made a whole movement. Ten years later, in 1969, Bitches Brew made a whole movement. So I do agree that Miles put the stamp on it, but Tony was the guy that was the fusion king," says White.
RTF wasn't started with a mythic explosion that startled the fusion movement. Like Miles' change, it occurred over time.
Says Corea, "That was when I put my own band together. I was looking for musicians to play my own compositions. I had just had a two-year tenure with Miles. That led to a beautiful musical relationship with [bassist extraordinaire] Dave Holland. Dave and I went on to form Circle [with saxophonist Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul]. We played and recorded with Circle for a couple years. That's what led me to want to put a band of my own together with my own compositions."
Corea met Clarke around that time. "I went to New York, I bumped into Stanley on a week's gig that I did with Joe Henderson's band at a Philadelphia club. We hit it off big time."
"I met Chick in Philadelphia in the early 1970s," says Clarke, now 56, speaking from a tour bus en route from Portland to Jacksonville, Oregon. "I was playing with the saxophonist Joe Henderson. Our keyboard player couldn't make it. So he said he was bringing this guy down from New York. That guy was Chick. We developed a musical relationship from that point and here we are today.
"One of the things that me and Chick used to talk about early on was how music was going to be presented, and some of his ideas of what he thought about music, and what he thought about presenting music. It was very similar to a lot of the ideas I had about how to do music and how to present it," says the bassist. The two played together in some other groups as well, and the seeds of RTF were planted.
"I started putting trios together and trying out my new tunes," Corea says. "It ended up pretty quickly being a quintet with Flora [Purim] singing and Airto [Moreira] on drums and Joe Farrell on sax. That's how it started out. I was booking the band. Stanley and I were carrying the equipment around. We were a self contained unit."
He says he was composing with a conscious effort to find music that expressed basic humanity, "without all the stresses, doubts and insecurities," and came up with the phrase "return to forever," which became the name for the band.
That first group was largely acoustic, though Corea was continuing to play electric piano, the instrument he was first exposed to with Miles. There was also a strong Latin influence. Purim and Moreira are Brazilian, and Corea has always had a strong connection with Latin music. (The influence did not entirely leave later versions of RTF). Light As a Feather was the band's next recording, which featured tunes like "Spain" and "Captain Marvel."
"We definitely were acoustic when we started out," says Clarke. "We were acoustic, but Chick always played a Fender Rhodes piano. I played acoustic bass."
But in 1973, Purim and Moreira left the group, as did Farrell.
Corea says, "It was sort of like life factors entered in. Flora was having a baby. The schedules were stretched that way. Airto wanted to stay home with Flora... We decided to try a new direction at that time and opened it up for that."
Discussions continued between Corea and Clarke, says the pianist. "Stanley said, 'Hey, man, you've got to play with my friend Lenny White.' So we put a week's engagement together at the old Keystone Corner in San Francisco, with Lenny playing drums, Stanley playing upright bass and me playing Fender Rhodes. During that week, we auditioned several guitar players. Billy Connors showed up and had the kind of sound we were looking for. That was the way electric guitar made it into the group."
White had played with Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard and had joined a group called Azteca. He had commitments with Azteca, and Steve Gadd was brought in to play drums on Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. But Gadd didn't want to tour. Corea then got his original wish of wanting White, and the drummer re-recorded the album so that he is featured on the now-classic disc.
"I just remember hearing some things that Chick had given me to listen to, then I did them my way," says White.
Clarke says he hadn't really studied electric bass up to that time. As a youngster out of the Philadelphia Academy of Music, he had startling technique on the upright bass and arrived in New York City garnering work with the likes of Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Pharaoh Saunders, Gil Evans, Stan Getz, and Corea. His bass heroes included Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro.
"When I went to electric bass, it seemed more similar to me. It was more of an afterthought. The acoustic bass, I put a lot of time into that," he says. "When I first started playing, I think I spent so much time with acoustic bass, I benefited from the technique I had on acoustic bass, and it was relatively easy for me to switch over to electric bass. But I had a distinctly different sound on electric bass [in the 70s] than the acoustic bass. But now, it's kind of crossed over."
Corea recalls the era fondly. "It was a very exciting time musically. Mahavishnu was a big inspiration to us because John [McLaughlin] had that searing electric guitar going. Stanley and I heard it and wanted to work with a sound like that." The electric guitar was placed at the center with Corea's keyboards.
But White has his own take on the evolution of the music.
"Let me clarify something. It wasn't fusion. What we called it when we started playing it was jazz-rock. It was jazz because of the fact that we improvised over changes with phrases and things like that. But it had the rock sensibility. It had the massive sound. It had beats that were close to what rock beats would be. It was geared to a larger audience. And then it had other elements, like classical elements.
"It was weird, because when Yes and King Crimson started to put classical influences in their music, they called it progressive rock. So what we were doing was called jazz-rock at the time. Then when the other elements started to come in, funk and whatever, they started to call it fusion. The music that Return to Forever, Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles and Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters were doing was called jazz-rock. Then it became fusion.
"When you think about it from the traditional standpoint, Stanley on the bass would play a 4/4 walking motif, and I would play straight-ahead ride on the cymbal. The emphasis on the 2 and 4 would be in the high-hat and not the backbeat. When we started to do this music, the emphasis is on 2 and 4 with the backbeat. Stanley started to play lines, structured lines, that were not 4/4. They were more syncopated than just playing 4/4 on the bass. Those elements were related to rock or to R&B. You take those elements and you put harmonies on top of it that would be considered jazz harmonies, and you have jazz-rock."
Even though jazz musicians cranking up the volume was being bashed in some circles, even among musicians, Corea was steadfast. He addressed the issue in a 2003 interview with All About Jazz saying, "I always saw the kind of music I love being involved in as having an atmosphere of freedom in it. Freedom to develop ideas. I never saw music as having a law about it, one way or the other. I'm just taking whatever path musicallywhatever sounds, musically, whatever instrumentsto take me on musical journeys that end up making this kind of music, different kind of music. The rallying point is my own interest and what choices I make about what I want to do.
"You can think about electric instruments and acoustic instruments as just tools of the trade. It's like whether you're writing a poem or a short story or a novel or a promo blurb or a report, different kinds of writings. Different kinds of techniques are needed. Different kinds of effects are produced by the use of these techniques. Same thing. Electric instruments and the sound of music is all surrounded in the subject of the style of music and the clothing that you put on a message. You can deliver a message of gentleness, for instance, with an acoustic piano solo. You can deliver a message of gentleness with a 100-piece symphony orchestra playing gently. Electric instruments have their use and they have an effect they create on the listener. That's how I use them."
By the middle of 1974, Connors was apparently unhappy with the rock-music direction the band was taking. He had fit in well with the band's sound, with an emotive quality and a singing voice, perhaps more akin to Carlos Santana. It was a sound Corea liked, but nonetheless the reality of a member leaving had to be dealt with.
"I don't like to audition people. I like to hire musicians for a gig or play for a week and see how it works out. It's sort of an audition, but not really," says Corea. Based on a tape the pianist received of DiMeola playing in a live setting, a telephone call was placed and the youngster was enlisted, with the chance to sink or swim.
In that frame of reference, DiMeola came on like a shark.
DiMeola was a student at Berklee College of Music and a huge RTF fan. He knew the music. But he didn't know Corea was aware of his existence. It seems a friend of his sent the tape to Corea. Upon getting the call, the guitarist dropped everythingschool, girlfriend, the city of Bostonand returned to his New Jersey home to prepare for a baptism of fire. The first gig he was to play was Carnegie Hall.
"We were recalling it at dinner the other night. Al was recalling the story from his viewpoint of him being this young kid and getting a call to play... Al's first gig was at Carnegie Hall. He was reading music on stage," Corea recalls, chuckling. "He was telling us that his parents didn't believe him, and he had to actually bring them to New York to show them he was playing at Carnegie Hall. It was that kind of feeling."
He adds, "He very quickly took command of his portion of the group, that's for sure."
"It was a wonderful opportunity. I joined my favorite group in the world. It was really a dream come true to be able to do that," DiMeola says. "There was a lot of momentum the group had already started. When I joined, it just continued that same path. We eventually started selling a lot of records and playing very big places."
Clarke was surprised in the beginning, not being sure what the young man was capable of. "At the time, we just needed a guitarist. But after Al joined the band, I recognized it was a step up. The band changed drastically. It was a step up. He brought a lot of things to the band. He could do a lot of things with the guitar. It was very hot, very light. He came to the table with a lot of things."
Recalls DiMeola of getting to Carnegie Hall, "It was interesting because there was a lot of pressure. After three days of rehearsal, there I was at Carnegie Hall with my favorite group. The chance of that happening was one out of ten billion, I would say. I won the lottery.
"The second gig I remember, we played the Houston Astrodome as part of the Newport Jazz Festival. That was also quite a trip. One week before, I was still in college with no thoughts of joining the group. Then I get this great opportunity. We ended up playing Carnegie Hall, Houston Astrodome, Cincinnati Reds stadiumall kinds of interesting venues. It propelled me to notoriety land right away."
That notoriety eventually led to placing DiMeola near the top of the guitar totem pole, considered by those in any genre as one of the finest virtuoso players. He's had associations over the years with people like Jean-Luc Ponty, McLaughlin and others, and with his own successful groups and recordings. But in 1974, naturally, there were nerves. And pressure.
"These guys were already legends when I joined the band, in my eyes. Now that so many years have gone by, we all have done tons of work, a lot of records. Between the four of us, we've probably done 300 records in that span of time. But if you go back to the beginning, I was kind of frightened of the world I got propelled up to. I had to prove myself," DiMeola says.
But he survived.
"You bring all your experience to the band," he says. "The choice of what you play is a result of what you acquired and learned from a child. So whatever that ismy sense of rhythm, I'd say, or my phrasing capabilities and technique. Technique is a very important part of playing with this kind of fusion group. My ability to read music, I think, is essential because of the need to execute these long compositions. I had a lot of that ability. That helped me land that position with the group."
"Al brought a rhythmic fire into the band that I really liked," Corea says. "Billy Connors was a lyricist. He had this beautiful soaring sound. Al came in with a rhythmic fire and also a love for Latin rhythms that matched mine, which then combined with Lenny and Stanley's jazz and funk, or whatever you want to call it. You mix it around and put it in a blender and come up with Return to Forever, I guess."
The addition of DiMeola contributed to its meteoric rise in the music world. Like the other great fusion bands, RTF was playing before younger audiences and at huge venues. But it wasn't just a loud rock band. Corea's composition skills were, and remain to this day, extraordinary. The propulsion of White and Clarke gave an expansive and eclectic cushion on which the band could soar. The band was good. And they knew it.
"It's funny, when you're young and you're out there trying to get better and get more of whatever you don't have, you're never really surprised," Clarke recalls of the band's rising status. "You look back, retrospectively, at your life and you can come up with those kinds of questions. But when you're young, it's all passion and aggressiveness. You expend whatever intelligence you have. You're never really surprised going forward. You play a club. Then a bigger club. Then a small theater. Then a bigger theater. In the case of Return to Forever, playing small arenas, playing electric musicit seemed very natural."
"What I liked about it is we were doing something different," says White. "Back then, it was the credo to do something different, to shake things up. It's gotten to the point now where you don't do anything different. You do what the norm is, status quo, and that way you can get played on radio. But that wasn't the credo back when we were doing it. You had to something that was challenging. If you didn't, then you were frowned upon.
"It felt great. I knew when we were making this music it was going to ruffle some feathers because it was very dynamic, very powerful."
Ruffle feathers they did, as did the whole fusion movement, with some jazz critics and fans feeling they were abandoning the tradition, for music of little value. But improvisation was still extremely important to RTF and the major fusion bands. From this version of RTF spewed the albums Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery and Romantic Warrior. Fans loved them and followed the group in legions that traditional acoustic jazzers could only imagine.
Corea described the experience as "kind of like riding a wave. It happened gradually and constantly. Back then, when we were doing it, we weren't doing anything else. None of the guys had any other projects. We were out on the road all the time. We were hardly home, actually. Then we started to have help from booking agencies and tour managers and other people started to help us out, and the whole things started to grow. I don't know that we ever had a PR company, but I guess we got a lot of mention in the press and people began to find out about the band. It was like a snowball. We started opening for, and actually had opening for us, rock bands. We were playing different kinds of environments than [when] we started out.
"It was a ride, man."
All good things come to an end, the saying goes. As the individual band members got into their own projects, there may have been some distractions. But most of the band wanted to continue. Theories exist about Corea not wanting to go on, and other issues clouding the scene, but the foursome is not pointing fingers at this juncture.
"We had problems like any band," admits Clarke. "When you're with a band, it's very similar to a marriage. You have some good days and some bad days, and you hope that you have more good days than bad days. For a band to stay together, you have to have more good days than bad days. The band had a nice run. We did four albums. But even before that, me and Chick went all the way back to the early 70s. It was a good amount of time we spent together."
"It ended far too early, in my opinion. It wasn't until recently we got around to doing it again. But it's 32 years later," says DiMeola, happy nonetheless to be back.
White agrees the breakup was premature. "What happened was Chick felt as though he wanted to do something else. I pleaded with him not to break the band up. I said, 'Go ahead and do whatever you want to do, but always leave it open that we could come back to it.' But he didn't see it that way. I understand. He wanted to do different things. I never felt that we had reached our full potential. And I still don't. What we're doing now is getting back to revisit what we'd done before. We haven't started to do new things. I believe it still may happen."
Corea has an extremely calm demeanor, and conversations with the pianist are always levelheaded. His comments in June:
"The basic thing that was going on there, aside from any differences we may have had about why it was happeningthe basic thing that was going on there was growth. There was a very fast artistic growth that happened in those years. There was a lot of experience under our belts. It's not like we were playing two gigs a week. We were playing practically every night. We were continually thrown into new situations, making new records, writing new music, seeing how it would turn out.
"The creative juices were flowing so much that it was really the right thing for everyone to start forming their own bands and making their solo records, which is something I always encouraged anyway. I thought it was right for that to happen. Those guys were spending months and years of their lives playing tunes that I wrote and a direction that I set. It seemed right that everyone do their own thing more, and that's the way it went."
Clarke, who had been there since the very beginning, seemed unpuzzled by the turn of events. "I didn't let it affect me much. Once we broke up, it just gave me more time to do other things. I didn't realize we would get back together after such a long time. I never thought that. I thought we would just break up and that's it."
As always, the music prevailed, and the four folks who are back out on tour are aware of their place in history.
White places RTF among the seminal bands of its era. "If I could just put all of my thoughts in a capsule, to let everybody know what that was like. Creativity was at such a high level, because you had to be on top of your game in order to create that way," he says, noting there was a healthy competition among groups like Weather Report, Hancock's group and McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. "Each band was out to cut the other band every night. Come with it, or else we're going to sound better than you."
DiMeola agrees the band ranks right at the top of the fusion genre. "The impact that Return to Forever had was bridging the gap between jazz and rock, with classical influences. Also, the improvisational lines. It had those two components [rock and jazz] that were mixed in, I would say, in an equal percentage. Weather Report and Mahavishnu, as exciting as they were, were very different. They were far less compositional types of fusion group. Return to Forever won the award for composition."
Corea appreciates all the great music produced by his friends Shorter, Zawinul, McLaughlin and Hancock. He also knows the music of RTF stacks up favorably, regardless of one's preferences. "I've been revisiting some of those records... [In the '70s] I wasn't much into listening in detail to the records my friends were making. I was too busy doing my own thing. Then I got tired of it by the end of the 70s. It wasn't until more recently, the past five or ten years, that I started listening again to those records. I have come to see how fresh that music was.
"I'm not much of a sociologist. I've never been much into that. I know that my pleasure with that band, as it is with all my bands, is to bring the most creativity that I can out of my partners and create a musical atmosphere that's real strong. Also, I like to write for the people in the band. So I feel that's my contribution to the band. Maybe I gave it a sound," says Corea.
He adds with a fond chuckle, "What really gave it the sound was the guys playing the notes that I wrote. They weren't really playing the notes that I wrote. They were playing their own notes. When you write a composition for great musicians sometimes, it becomes like a game plan because you want improvisation to happen. That's what happens."
White knew the band was performing at a high level and enjoyed the challenges it brought each and every night. "Anytime you get put in situations like that where you have to rise to the occasion, you learn something about yourself. It wasn't very simple things to play. It was music that was that powerful and had that much mass... The records never reflected what we did live. When we started to play live, the people were like... you could see the expression on people's faces go, 'Whoa!'"
DiMeola, the youngest, just starting to forge his own strong career at that time, says the experience with Corea's music has served him in good stead ever since RTF.
"I was very influenced by his proficiency in composing, and I really tried to let it influence me," says the guitarist. "I think it had to influence my own composition moving forward after that. Also the way that he plays very articulatelyit was something I was going after myself. I liked his rhythmic sense and his articulation and the other aspects of the way that he played. Even though it's a different instrument, Chick would become an influence on my own guitar playing."
Thoughts of getting back together to explore the fusion music of RTF rolled around every so often, the musicians say. Now that it's happening, all four are excited.
" We started communicating amongst each other about how we should get together. It took a little while because all the guys had their own position about how we should get back together," says Clarke.
"It was an evolution of conversations that went on through the years," explains Corea. "We'd see each other every now and again, cross paths, call each other on the phone. Most often, the subject of the band would come uphow nice it would be to play together, why don't we get the band together again. The talk went around and around. Al would call me up and say, 'Hey man, I just talked to Stanley and we were talking about the band.' Eventually what would happen is everyone was doing other things, and we never got around to laying it on a schedule until about a year ago. The talk built up and it was like, 'OK, we're going to do it.' And it actually happened. I got responses back from everyone, and it was laid down for 2008.
"It's another ride. It's got a different vibe. There's more nostalgia connected to us now. Audiences know us when we walk out on stage, which is interesting to experience. It's a nightly adventure. We're putting all our sensibilities back together again, using the '70s repertoire as a jumping off point."
"Each show gets better and better," acknowledges Clarke.
For DiMeola, playing with RTF hasn't lost any luster from his days as a wide-eyed young man walking into Carnegie Hall.
"It's fun. It's like we're reliving that past dream," he says. "It was very natural to come back to, even after all of these years. And I think we made a wise choice to focus on pieces of music that are not new, that the crowd recognizes. So we make the experience for the fans that much more fun. It's like going to see the Rolling Stones. No one cares about their last 15, 20 records. They want to hear hits from those early records that bring back the memory of that time. That's what we're doing with this. There's some nostalgia."
"It's been great, by the reaction of people. We're getting standing ovations after every tune. It's really impressive," says White. "Anytime you reach people and go back to that, it feels great. To be part of an organization, that's the highest dynamic you can have as a group. It's like you have a great team, a great basketball team that wins. The guys feel good about it because the intention was to get together as a team and go out and win. We're a team and we're winning."
Though there isn't any new written music, Corea stresses that new sounds, new ideas emerge by the nature of bringing four superb improvising musicians to the table.
"Even though some of the compositions have more notes than others, they're basically guidelines to improvisation. Except for one or two tunes. 'Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy' that we play, that's practically all written notes. But most of the other compositions are just jumping off points for improvisation. So it's the solos and the group playing that define the music now. In that sense, I think it's sounding different, to my ears anyway. The sound of the band is big and thick and rich. I like it."
He notes that for himself, his keyboard rig has gotten more complex over time, and he is trying to adapt that to RTF. "When I'm at home with no band around me, it's easy to say, 'I think I'll add another keyboard here' or 'I'll put this other gizmo in' or 'there are some good sounds on my laptop I need to add.' I end up with too much stuff. I'm trying to work it all together into some logical sound."
"There's no limit to what we can do. It's just a matter of finding a time to do it and making it happen," says DiMeola. "Sticking with the plan. We certainly had a plan back then. Then one day we woke up and decided not to. Who knew that it would lastthirty years of not doing it again? You just never know. This could be the last tour or it could continue. We don't know."
More RTF is a distinct possibility, especially with Corea committed to the idea.
"I think it's everyone's wish to do that [reunite beyond 2008]. It looks to me like that's going to happen. We're thinking maybe we shouldn't wait another thirty years to put it together. That would make me close to 100 years old," Corea says with a laugh. "I think we're going to do some more together," noting that new compositions that the group can explore would very much be a part of those plans.
Meanwhile, for the pianist, "I've got several things going on. I've been enjoying several duet collaborations with Gary Burton, Bela Fleck and Bobby McFerrin. There will probably be some more of that, but a new project that I'm getting into next year is a band I put together with John McLaughlin. We're going to write some new music. We'll be playing with Kenny Garrett, Vinnie Colaiuta and Christian McBride. I'm looking forward to that. I'm a great admirer of John. He's a dear old friend, but we've never really got down to making some music together."
For Clarke, his adventures include an upcoming album of titan bass playershimself, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten, and some tour dates with that group, which will be billing itself as SMV (Stanley, Marcus, Victor).
White has always been active as a producer (as has Clarke). "I'm producing some other records. I did a record with a pretty popular Polish singer, Tatiana Okupnik. We actually opened last year for the Rolling Stones. I went over and played with her, and we opened for the Rolling Stones... I think I'm going to have a record come out next year," he says. "I've also been writing some symphonic music for the past eight years. I had some stuff performed in Russia in 2006 and 2007. I went over with some Russian musicians, [bassist] Eddie Gomez and myself, and performed with a string quartet." He hopes to be able to do more with that music.
"I have been working primarily with my acoustic group, World Synfonia, more often in Europe and Russia," says DiMeola. "That's comprised of two acoustic guitars [Peo Alfonsi, second acoustic guitar] and an amazing accordion player [Fausto Beccalossi] who improvises phenomenally well. We have a really good rapport. And I have a percussionist [Gumbi Ortiz] that has been in all my groups for the last twenty years. These four players are ones I'm putting most of my time into, outside of this [RTF]."
As for fans of RTF, it could be a return to... tomorrow.
Return to Forever, The Anthology (Concord, 2008) Photo Credit
Chick Corea, The New Crystal Silence (Concord, 2008)
Chick Corea, The Ultimate Adventure: Live in Barcelona (Concord, 2007)
Stanley Clarke, The Toys of Men (Heads Up International, 2007)
Stanley Clarke, Night School: An Evening with Stanley Clarke & Friends (Heads Up DVD, 2007)
Al DiMeola, Flesh on Flesh (Telarc, 2002)
Lenny White, Edge (Hip Hop Essence, 1999)
Al DiMeola, The Infinite Dream (Telarc, 1999)
Stanley Clarke/Al DiMeola/Jean-Luc Ponty, The Rite of Strings (Capitol, 1995) Al DiMeola, New World Sinfonia (Rhino/Wea, 1991)
Chick Corea Elektric Band,
Al DiMeola, Kiss My Axe (Mesa/Bluemoon, 1991)
Lenny White, The Adventures of Astral Pirates (Elektrica, 1978)
Al DiMeola, Elegant Gypsy (Sony, 1977)
Lenny White, Venusian Summer (Nemperor, 1977)
Return to Forever, Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976)
Stanley Clarke, School Days (Nemperor/Epic, 1976)
Return to Forever, No Mystery (Polydor, 1975)
Stanley Clarke, Stanley Clarke (Epic Europe, 1974)
Return to Forever, Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974)
Return to Forever, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973)
Return to Forever, Light as a Feather (Polydor, 1972)
Return to Forever, Return to Forever (ECM, 1972)
Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969)
Chick Corea, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs (Blue Note, 1968)
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