Return To Forever – Returns (2009)

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NICK DERISO: Pianist Chick Corea’s then-shocking turn into jazz populism with Return to Forever in the 1970s was as commercially successful as it was different from intelligent, straight-ahead efforts like his superlative “The Song of Singing.”

And over, just like that.

By 1977, save for a brief series of concerts in 1983, the band had splintered into solo careers. Could they ever again ascend to the dizzying counterpunctual heights of, say, 1975’s pulse-quickening jazz-funk excursion “Vulcan Worlds?”

A summer reunion last year — captured on a new 2-disc Eagle Records release called “Return to Forever: Returns” definitively answers: Yes, indeed.

Corea is again joined by bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al Di Meola and drummer Lenny White for a stunning fusion set that recalls all of the glories of this group’s electric musings in the mid-1970s. Released on March 17, “Returns” is the first recording from this group since “Romantic Warrior” some 32 years before.

Looking back, a redo seemed to have been building for some time, with Corea appearing on Di Meola’s “Consequence of Chaos” in 2006; then all but Corea sharing a stage at the fourth annual Stanley Clarke Scholarship Benefit in Hollywood. All that was left was to shape the content of the shows.

When the principals got together, they quickly ditched the idea of presenting all-new material, as Return to Forever had in that ill-fated ’83 tour, deciding instead to focus on favorites from the catalogue — including the ubiquitous “Children’s Song.” Corea presents only one new cut, “Opening Prayer.”

Each member — now, of course, a star in his own right — gets a solo turn: Corea on “Friendship,” Clarke on “El Bayo de Negro,” Di Meola on “Passion, Fire & Grace” and White on “Lineage.”

But it is within their 21st century interplay that this recording finds its best moments. The perhaps logical 1970s musical outgrowth of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” — on which both Corea and White played — Return to Forever remains every bit as athletic as it is wow-man cosmic. (You can then draw a straight line from RTF, as fusion calcified into smooth jazz in their absence, to the jam bands of today.)

RTF bounces unselfconsciously through the old tunes, even on the somewhat dated quasi-mystical stuff. “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy” and “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant” (embedded below) retain a surprising amount of their experimental verve.

Corea, boasting the same tinkling fullness at 67, is still one of the most distinctive piano voices in jazz. This lastingly adrenalized band, notably in the lead-guitarish work of Clarke, is as complex and energetic as ever.

The packaging and presentation on “Return To Forever: Returns” is first rate, with a number of photographs from the 50-date 2008 reunion tour and bonus tracks that include “500 Miles High,” a snippet from a lifetime achievement award presentation on BBC by George Martin (legendary producer of the Beatles among others) and a second performance of “Romantic Warrior.”

Eagle Vision has announced plans to release Return to Forever’s 2008 appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festival later this year on DVD.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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