Return to Forever | 06.17.08

live_rtf_sm.jpgTheir performance surpassed even my expectations, like a fantasy that comes true and is even better than you had imagined.






The Fox Theatre, St. Louis


For those of you who know what Return to Forever is all about, I almost don’t even have to say another word. For those of you not familiar, as one of my friends put it, "It’s like having Superman, Spiderman and Batman together in a group and backed up by the Green Hornet!" Yeah, that about sums it up. Each of the four musicians of this band is considered by many to be the very best in the world on their respective instruments. The original lineup of Chick Corea on keys and piano, Stanley Clarke on electric and upright bass, Al DiMeola on acoustic and electric guitar and Lenny White on drums and percussion have not shared the stage for 25 years. I personally have been waiting impatiently the entire time.

I first heard the LP Romantic Warrior when I was 15 and it changed my life: I pretty much stopped listening to any rock radio during the ’80s and became a full-fledged jazz fusion fanatic. When you listen to instrumental music such as this over and over again for years on end, it becomes a soundtrack to your life; a part of your memories, like a faint scent that takes you right back to childhood. I have wanted to see this music performed live for so long, the entire night had a dreamlike, ethereal mood. Based on the electric energy of the crowd, I was not the only one feeling this way. Everyone I spoke to agreed that this was the concert of a lifetime. Their performance surpassed even my expectations, like a fantasy that comes true and is even better than you had imagined.

Stanley Clarke’s bass sound was larger than life, Al DiMeola’s fingers were a flawless flurry, and Lenny White painted a background of rhythmic excitement, all in perfect synchronized support of Chick Corea’s compositional and improvisational genius. The show was a fantastic balance of epic pieces from their golden days such as "Vulcan Worlds," "The Sorceress" and "No Mystery." and duets and solos by each of the members. Each one took the opportunity to play little tidbits or entire pieces from the wealth of music that arose out of their solo careers over the past quarter of a century of raising the bar and inspiring musicians around the world.

Al DiMeola came out blazing on the opening tune "Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy," with his trademark black-and-white Les Paul, a personal favorite of mine and his axe of choice in the old days before he started using the Paul Reed Smith and arch top guitars on his solo albums. DiMeola’s signature black Ovation was fitted with a MIDI controller, creating the unique blend of guitar and synthesizer that he has championed through the years of emerging technology. He played a nylon string for his solo piece and displayed some of the finest strumming and picking techniques known to man. He also delivered some beautiful passages from his acoustic World Symphonia project and touched on some of his masterpieces, including "Rhapsody of Fire" with a wicked display of rapid strumming on impossible chords. His playing all night was graceful and controlled and right on the money; his solos were soaring and awe inspiring.

Stanley Clarke definitely brought the funk as he slapped, popped and plucked his way through seamless unison lines with DiMeola and Corea without moving from the groove. It is not just the speed of his fingers on his right hand or the unbelievable stretches on his left hand, it is the sheer authority with which he plays. The lines he creates are somehow percussive and melodic at the same time. There is also a certain ease with which he navigates the twists and turns of the song forms and effortlessly joins in perfectly synchronized unity on the turn of a dime. His playing on the upright is even more impressive than on his iconic Alembic electric bass, especially on one of my favorite tunes, the epic acoustic saga "Romantic Warrior," conjuring notes with long, smooth strokes of his bow over lingering haunting notes, leading subtly toward an ever-building flutter of deft hands climbing to crescendo. We were all witness to mastery in motion.

I was mesmerized by Lenny White’s total control over percussive nuisances that provided Corea and the boys with a solid platform to display their musical prowess. His drumbeats would seem like an ordered chaos of ever-evolving, undulating rhythms until you realized that he was constantly accenting even the slightest of melodic motifs from the guitar, keys and bass. From years of close listening to the original records and having never seen Lenny White perform before, I had always pictured that in order to hit all of the complex parts, he would have to appear something like Animal from the Muppets trying to keep up. In reality, just the opposite is true: He plays with a controlled confidence that makes it seem impossible to produce that range of rhythmic motions with such subtle movements.

It was nothing short of a privilege to see Chick Corea play again. I saw every Elektic Band show that came through town over the years, plus a few choice acoustic performances, including an amazing show in the warm setting of the Sheldon Concert Hall. However, I was not prepared for how incredible his old Fender Rhodes and Moog synthesizer would sound cranked up, reverberating through the cavernous volume of the beautiful room at the Fox. You could not help getting goose bumps. Corea’s playing is better than ever, and the things that his mind comes up with on the fly are astounding. His set up covered the whole range from new to old technology including a grand piano behind him. He played a jaw-dropping duet with just the piano and the drums that seemed to break all the rules of time and harmony. At one point he was attacking the piano strings with a mallet in near irreverence, and in another lyrically telling a story as if in a soft, foreign tongue. Some of my favorite moments occurred when Corea and DiMeola traded solos, such as on "Song for the Pharaoh Kings," each line and each tradeoff more unbelievable than the previous.

As an illustration of the type of crowd that they draw, having provided years of music for musicians, DiMeola stepped back from trading solos and Corea started trading solos with the audience. This was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. He would play a melody and the crowd would sing it back to him. Not just simple predictable lines, but complex little ideas with odd intervals and twisted shapes, and the audience was just nailing it every time. No question there; you’ve got a house full of musicians tonight. We have all been at rock shows in which the band tries to get the audience to participate. It is hard enough to get a crowd to sing back to something even simple, much less freeform jazz lines. They closed out the night with a rousting encore performance of "Spain," where they all had a chance to stretch out some more and try and outdo each other. What a sight to be seen; what magic to behold.

I almost worked out the opportunity to interview all or some of the members. It didn’t pan out, but like any fan, I had all these questions: Why wait so long for a reunion? How does it feel to be together again? What is the chemistry like onstage? Do you interpret the music differently now? What gear are you using? The truth of the matter is that none of that matters at all; there is no need to ask. The performance spoke for itself and told me all I needed to know. I spoke with quite a few musicians I knew during the intermission; the consensus was, "All the players played with such ease and familiarity with their instruments and each other." You could not pull something like this off if not for incredible teamwork to create something bigger than the sum of the parts. The technical ability of each performer is astounding enough; however, combine that with the richness of the compositions and sheer entertainment you get from being blown away by their expressiveness, and it becomes in my opinion the finest live performance I have ever attended.

Together again, Return to Forever has pioneered the limits of creativity and virtuosity to forge a collective expression awash in a spectrum of sound. | Derek Lauer

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