Return To Forever’s inventive jazz-rock

For many jazz traditionalists, the electronic experiments of the early 1970s that fused the music with rock and roll damaged a storied genre. To hear some tell it, the wired intrusions replaced sophisticated melodies and earthy rhythms with rambling noise.

But musicians and fans who came of age during that era celebrate those years for the creativity and improvisational prowess that linked jazz and rock audiences, lured younger fans — and produced some of the world’s most innovative bands.

Among the leaders was Return to Forever, an ensemble of musicians led by pianist Chick Corea that combined sophisticated jazz composition and improvisation with funky rhythms and electrified energy. The latest incarnation of the group, which includes longtime members Stanley Clarke on bass and Lenny White on drums, performs today at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis.

In my view, Return to Forever was rivaled by only by two other elite bands — the jazz fusion group Weather Report and guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. It took the music of European-based compositional music of progressive rock groups like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer a step further by adding a structured yet agile jazz approach that the band’s members didn’t hesitate to show off. Indeed, they put other groups in their sights.

“If we were at a concert with another band they’d better have their stuff together because we came to deal,” White told me a few years ago. “It was a healthy competition. It raised the bar, so you had to be on your toes. It wasn’t about who could write the biggest hit dong. It was about what band could play the best.”

Like other groups during the jazz-rock heyday, Return to Forever owes its direction to Bitches Brew, the revolutionary recording built on rock, funk and jazz that trumpeter Miles Davis released in 1970, backed by musicians who would go on to form the decade’s three elite fusion groups.

Return to Forever didn’t start out intending to be a jazz-rock powerhouse. Early on, the band featured percussionist Airto Moreira and vocalist Flora Purim on Brazilian and Latin-inspired numbers.

All that changed with Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy in 1973, a jazzy record with rock n’ roll influences that included guitarist Bill Connors. The band featured Corea on the Fender Rhodes piano – he would add the synthesizer later — and Clarke on acoustic and electric bass.

The group’s musicians separated in the late 70s. But three years ago, its most popular lineup — Corea, Clarke, White and guitarist Al DiMeola — toured following the release of Return to Forever: The Anthology. The two CD-set of remixed and remastered music came from four influential albums the musicians released from 1973-1976: Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery and Romantic Warrior.

When DiMeola joined the band in 1973, he added rapid-fire playing and flamenco rhythms, helping the band produce highly electrified music, particularly on Romantic Warrior, a concept album based on a medieval theme. The compositions had movements, much like classical music, but with a funky driving beat underneath the tunes and extended solos. It was roaring and imaginative music that told instrumental stories.

White, the drummer, could play rock beats, but also gave Corea and Clark a foundation for creative exploration, at times a mystical journey, at others a thunderous ride. In the days before computers, sequencers and drum machines replaced great musicians, the band’s artistic and musical virtuosity set a standard — even though some jazz critics derided the music as too much like rock, and rock critics called it jazz.

On the current tour, DiMeola is replaced by guitarist Frank Gambale, who has played with Corea’s Elektric Band. Also joining the group is violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, who played with Frank Zappa and the Mahivishnu Orchestra before leading his own successful fusion groups.

A special guest will be Zappa Plays Zappa, the guitarist Dweezil Zappa’s band, which plays the music of his father.

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