By Phil Freeman || Chick Corea’s Return to Forever was one of the chops-happiest bands of 1970s fusion. Their complex, frequently multipart compositions offered less pure hard-rock fervor than the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and eschewed the sweet melodies of Weather Report. Instead, they layered Corea’s wild, baroque keyboard explorations and Al Di Meola’s stinging guitars over Stanley Clarke’s funky bass lines and Lenny White’s thunderous drumming, bridging the gap between jazz and the progressive rock of Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Recorded in 2011, this double-live disc (plus DVD) finds Corea, Clarke and White still making vital music under the RTF banner. Frank Gambale replaces Di Meola, and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty has joined the action.
Most of the material is drawn from their ’70s albums. Corea and company rework tracks from Romantic Warrior, Where Have I Known You Before and even a version of “Spain,” from the very first RTF album, Light As a Feather. But they also tackle an epic version of Ponty’s “Renaissance,” and interpolate Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez.” The music never ceases to thrill. Much of it — especially the version of Stanley Clarke's “School Days” — should appeal to both jam-band fans and fusion heads.
Like expert jugglers performing blindfolded on a high wire, the bandmates execute intricate exchanges of ideas. Their obvious comfort level spurs eruptions into wild solos. Ponty and Gambale are terrific additions to the ensemble. The violinist, in particular, expands the boundaries of these familiar compositions. Although the 2008 album Returns, which documented a full reunion of the 1970s RTF lineup, felt superfluous at times, this album finds the longtime compadres truly steering the mothership in new directions.
Review from JAZZIZ, Fall 2009.