Return to Forever, as Lenny White proudly told me, was a “jazz quartet on steroids” — with all of the muscular virtuosity and boisterous flourishes implied. Enter violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, however, and the Mach IV version of this legendary group begins to take on subtler shadings.
Ponty, a contemporary force in fusion who worked with Frank Zappa, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and his own very interesting groups in the 1970s, plays with a feathery sensitivity largely unheard on those earlier feats of musical acrobatics — imbuing Return to Forever at times with a startling delicacy. A group that once moved with this brawny verve is experienced anew on a sprawling new three-disc live set called The Mothership Returns, due June 19, 2012, from Eagle Rock.
Of course, there was always more to Return to Forever than something so bulky and specific as “jazz rock,” from co-founding leader Chick Corea’s intelligent comingling of Latin and classical styles at the piano, to the fonky thump favored by bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer White. That core group remains as effortlessly imaginative as ever, from the crystalline and then dancingly rhythmic performances by Corea, the thundering slap-bass showmanship of Clarke (in particular on the ageless “School Days”), and the soul-deep cool of White.
Here, too, we have Frank Gambale, a veteran of bands led by Corea, Billy Cobham and Steve Smith, replacing longtime RTF member Al Di Meola. He adds splashes of color and intrigue, in particular during a masterful take on “Beyond the Seventh Galaxy” — a key track from 1974′s Where Have I Known You Before, Di Meola’s initial RTF album. Gambale, certainly the least known figure hear despite having such a distinctive sweep-picking style, more than holds his own.
Make no mistake, there are times when they kick ever-loving ass.
But I kept coming back to Ponty, even as Return to Forever moved through Clarke’s emotional “After the Cosmic Rain,” from Return to Forever’s first full-scale foray in jazz rock on 1973′s Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy; and into a breathtaking new iteration of Corea’s “The Romantic Warrior,” the title track from their best-selling 1976 release. (That’s not to mention, of course, the nearly 20-minute take on Ponty’s classic “Renaissance,” from 1976′s Aurora.) In many ways, Ponty — who has matured into a far more considered version of his former high-flying self — is the most consistently fascinating thing about The Mothership Returns, after that initial burst of delight surrounding RTF’s reunion in 2008 following nearly 25 years apart.
Ponty’s presence, more than anything else, seems to validate the notion that RTF’s most recent tour — and this new live document — was more about finding fresh moments of discovery within these old favorites than it was simply reliving the original glories. That kind of uncommon risk taking is what made Return to Forever so interesting in the first place.
‘The Mothership Returns’ offers two discs of music, with additional highlights like “Senior Mouse,” “Sorceress” and “Conceirto de Aranjuez,” among others, packaged in an eight-panel digipack with exclusive tour photos and essays by the band members. The third disc is a bonus DVD with nearly two hours of extras, including a pair of full-length live song performances and the new “Return to Forever: Inside the Music” documentary, featuring interviews with Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White.