[JPL] LA Times: Return to Forever joins the here and now

Doug Crane dcrane at comcast.net
Mon Feb 18 03:39:22 EST 2008

Return to Forever joins the here and now.

By Don Heckman, Special to The LA Times
February 17, 2008

CHICK COREA is smiling. In fact, he's beaming. 
Seated behind his Minimoog and his Fender Rhodes 
keyboards, arms and hands in motion, kicking out 
one brisk rhythmic phrase after another, making 
constant eye contact with the musicians around 
him -- guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley 
Clarke and drummer Lenny White -- he's obviously feeling great.

Wait a minute: Corea, Di Meola, Clarke and White? 
That's the classic lineup of Return to Forever, 
one of the groups that defined the jazz-rock 
fusion of the '70s. They haven't played together 
in 25 years, swore they'd never have a reunion.

Right. But never say never. (Look at the Eagles). 
Return to Forever is, well, returning. And last 
week, the rehearsals were already underway for 
the RTF reunion tour that undoubtedly will be the big jazz news of the summer.

Corea, 66, nods happily, shouts, "Great, great!" 
then turns back to his instruments, roving 
blithely across the electric keyboards, 
emphasizing the crisp clank of the Rhodes, 
tossing in wisps of slippery sound from his 
Minimoog. Di Meola adds shimmering electric 
guitar fills, while Clarke and White dig into the 
groove, driving the beat forward with muscular percussive textures.

A briskly articulated melodic figure from Clarke 
immediately attracts Corea's attention. He nods 
his head -- "Yeah!" -- and Clarke picks up the 
solo thread, responding with his 
characteristically fluid, mobile, acoustic bass lines.

The loose and swinging mood continues, triggering 
a palpable sense of joy in the room -- the eye 
contact and spontaneous smiles exchanged by the 
players visible indications of the music's rich improvisational symbiosis.

It's the real deal: Return to Forever, back again 
-- bringing a 21st century perspective to the 
visceral blend of rock energy with the 
improvisation and compositional structures of 
jazz that made the quartet a phenomenon of the 
'70s, competing with outfits such as Yes, 
Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Weather Report and the 
Mahavishnu Orchestra for the favor of both jazz and prog-rock audiences.

'Snowball in hell'

RTF's return to action took place in the Mad 
Hatter Studios on the Los Feliz edge of Hollywood 
-- a sprawling, well-equipped facility that has 
been the recording destination of choice for such 
artists as Prince, Paul McCartney and Beck. 
Founded by Corea in 1980, it was sold in 2003 to 
Golden Era Productions, the audio-visual arm of 
the Church of Scientology, which counts Corea among its members.

Corea was clearly delighted to be back in his old 
digs, which have been considerably remodeled 
since the studio changed hands. Earlier in the 
evening, there'd been some playful banter about 
what to call the Return to Forever tour. If the 
Eagles 1994 reunion was called "Hell Freezes 
Over," maybe this constitutes "The Snowball in Hell Tour."

Corea, the group's founder, laughingly explained 
that they'd probably stick with the more mundane 
"RTF World Tour Summer '08." And stacks of 
printed T-shirts, emblazoned with the RTF logo 
(as well as a photo, on the back, of the four 
members in their younger, more hirsute days) were 
already in boxes, ready for a pair of tours that 
will cover the U.S. starting in late May 
(including a performance at Gibson Amphitheatre) 
and Europe next year. (An announcement with details is slated for March 3.)

Another important item also had to be jammed into 
the band's busy schedule at Mad Hatter -- photographs.

And here, in an unexpected way, the "Snowball in 
Hell" reference resurfaced when photographer Lynn 
Goldsmith called for an offbeat image set-up. 
Garbed in heavy winter overcoats, positioned 
around piles of suitcases and instrument boxes, 
the players assumed their best band-on-the-run 
poses, their sunglasses registering incongruently 
with the winter fashion imagery.

Goldsmith, darting from one side to another, 
shouted instructions and encouragement, her 
camera clicking madly, eager to catch a spirited moment.

Most jazz musicians are notoriously uncooperative 
photo subjects -- when they're not playing their 
instruments. And the RTF guys were no exception, 
their lugubrious responses to Goldsmith's 
commands the polar opposite of the spirit in their music.

Word about the upcoming tour had begun to leak 
out, and the studio was anything but empty. A few 
people from Corea's management company, various 
techies adjusting the lighting, Corea's wife, 
Gayle Moran -- a singer in her own right, who 
performed in a late-'70s version of Return to 
Forever -- all watched the photo session closely, 
each offering an occasional instructive remark.

"Tell Chick to take off his glasses," Moran 
called out, trying to help matters along. Then, 
to a bystander: "He has such beautiful eyes."

Corea flashed her a wan glance.

The photo session completed, he seemed much 
happier taking a break for a chat with the other 
RTF players and a journalist eager for answers to 
some fundamental questions: Why this, why now?

Responses came quickly. Looking relaxed and not 
hesitating to be gregarious, they sprawled across 
a couch and a love seat, often responding with 
the same quick-witted interplay they had brought to the music.

"I made the decision a couple of years ago," 
Corea said, "to just turn the heat all the way up 
on live performance. I started resisting going on 
the road, like you do when you get older -- stop 
traveling, stay home. But no, man. If I had 
pursued that way, it was the way downhill to 
death. No. 1, performing is my bread and butter. 
But more than that, it's the thing I love doing most."

Di Meola noted that there had been a previous 
attempt at a reunion in 1982. He referred to it, disparagingly, as a "blip."

"The reunion lasted a month," he added. "So I 
like to make it more interesting by saying it's 
been 30-something years since the last time Return to Forever was together."

During those years -- which actually date to the 
summer of 1974, when Di Meola, then 19, joined 
Corea, Clarke and White in RTF -- each of the 
players had moved on with their individual careers.

Corea, always overflowing with creative ideas, 
led his Elektric Band, Akoustic Band and the 
groups Touchstone and Origin; created dozens of 
new compositions; recorded Mozart; and 
occasionally paired up with the likes of Herbie 
Hancock, Béla Fleck and Gary Burton.

The other members were following their own muses. 
A reunion seemed less and less likely as the 
years passed. Di Meola focused on his busy solo 
career, leading his own groups and partnering 
with others -- guitarists John McLaughlin, Larry 
Coryell and Bireli Lagrene, and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty among them.

Clarke, 56, jokingly noted that "I was actually 
so busy I didn't even remember I played with 
Return to Forever." Met with derisive laughter 
from the other group members, he added, "Hey, 
man, there were a lot of years when I came off 
the road and just did movie scores, sometimes two 
or three movies a year, plus television shows."

"But," he added with a grin, "I wasn't 
considering dropping the bass completely."

Nor was White, 58, thinking of abandoning his 
drums while he was working as a producer. He did, 
however, have his doubts that a reunion would ever take place.

"We had gone through so many questions," he said, 
"of people asking, 'When is it going to happen?' 
and it would get to a certain point and it 
wouldn't go any further. Then things began to 
change, and people started listening to different 
kinds of music -- to the point where I just said, 
'Man, I just don't think it is going to happen.' 
But then we started talking. And I felt that 
maybe the time had finally become right musically 
for something like this to happen."

Adding some twists

BACK in the studio, White's speculative feeling 
came to life with a rehearsal virtually 
guaranteeing that the "time had finally come" for RTF to return.

They'll be returning without new material, but 
audiences won't be simply hearing the same old 
songs. Corea had insisted earlier that he planned 
"to take the songs from the albums we made in the 
'70s and just play them like they've never been 
played before." Which is exactly what they did in 
their rehearsal of "500 Miles High," a tune 
recorded by an earlier installment of RTF, before Di Meola joined.

The goal was to integrate Di Meola's guitar into 
the steaming pocket that the rhythm section had 
created, while adding his cutting edge, 
guitar-god wail and fiery, rocket-propelled, 
fusion-driven lines. It took a couple of passes 
before the piece began to come together, the big 
room reverberating with the visceral power of the 
sound and the infectious body-moving influence of the rhythm.

Other pieces followed, a mixture of technical 
rehearsing and the reestablishment of their 
former cohesiveness: Corea propelling it all 
forward with enthusiasm; Clarke, ripping off a 
fast-fingered riff, pausing in dissatisfaction 
before trying it all over again; Di Meola carving 
out his role in the music, allowing it to evolve 
with each successive try; White, the spark plug, 
embracing the love affair between rock and jazz rhythms.

As the music unfolded, Corea's summing up of what 
had really brought these players back together -- 
taking a break from their busy individual careers 
to revive an elusive musical ghost -- came to mind.

"For me," he said, "what made me want to do it 
was just recalling how great the feeling was 
playing with these guys. Just the experience of 
playing, when I thought, 'Wow, yeah, that was an 
amazing period -- fun, creative, exciting.' And 
then, when we finally sat down for the first time 
the other day and started touching the 
instruments -- boom!" He snapped his fingers. 
"There it was. All the talk went away, and we 
were back into the music, back into RTF, right where we belonged." 

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