Say what you will about the 1970s, but where music is concerned, it was a decade of extraordinary fermentation, with interesting musical experiments bubbling up all over the place, not the least of which was an alchemical concoction of rock and jazz called “fusion.”
These days, everything is fused to everything else, so the idea doesn’t seem quite so revolutionary. But back then, in college dormitories, coffee shops, and cultural hotspots all over the country, fusion jazz was exciting because it seemed to offer an intelligent escape route from both the three-chord monotony of rock ‘n’ roll and the meandering pointlessness of so much modern jazz. Picking up where Miles Davis left off, a couple of young jazz notables named Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke hooked up with several players before betting their band’s future an eighteen-year-old dropout from the Berklee College of Music, Al DiMeola, and a self-taught drummer named Lenny White. These four formed the core lineup of Return to Forever, a band that many thought was going to reinvent both rock ‘n’ roll and jazz at the same time, leading us all into a more sophisticated, adventurous, and respectable musical future.
Uh, didn’t happen. Like so many other promising ideas of the 1970s (free love, pop rocks, the slip ‘n’ slide), it fizzled. Instead, fusion became a kind of musical joke. On the radio, it morphed into a thousand different permutations of smooth jazz, all of which sounded the same, and the daring technical brilliance we guitar-plucking wannabes so admired came to be regarded as just a bunch of self-indulgent noodling. A few respectable bands—the Yellowjackets, Spyro Gyra, The Pat Metheny Group—kept the fire burning, but the revolution didn’t happen quite as advertised.
Yet things have changed. Since Return to Forever broke up in the early 1980s, all four members of the band went on to establish themselves as nothing short of legends on their respective instruments. It’s only remarkable in hindsight that four of our country’s most gifted musicians were able to find each other so early in their musical careers and do something so extraordinary in such a short amount of time. Which is why, when Chick Corea, Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White took the stage last night at the Orpheum, virtually everyone in the audience leapt to their feet and gave them a long, deliriously loud standing ovation. This outpouring of love repeated itself after each tune, and sometimes after solos within a tune. I stopped counting the standing O’s after thirteen or so, because my thighs were starting to cramp up.
And once the music began, it was instantly apparent that none of these guys has lost a beat—indeed, they may have gained a few. Their fingers are still limber, and combined they have an extra century’s worth of musical intelligence under their belts, so they sounded tighter and cleaner than ever. DiMeola can still spit lightning out of all six of his guitars, Stanley Clarke has clearly spent the intervening years traveling to distant galaxies for musical inspiration, Chick Corea is still a playful, brilliant little imp on keyboards, and Lenny White is simply a monstrous, tireless innovator on drums. Their records may sound a bit dated, but live, Return to Forever sounds like a group of proven musical geniuses who started a conversation a long time ago but never had the chance to finish it. Now, twenty-five years later, they have picked up the discussion and are clearly enjoying it. The surprising thing is how much they still have to say.
“We want to thank you all for sticking with us these past twenty-five years,” Lenny White told the crowd, adding “especially since we haven’t done anything.” White also had the zinger of night, telling the audience, “In an era of boy bands, this is an all man band!,” complete with fist pump. Then, of course, they went on to prove it, playing an all-electric set, one mostly acoustic set, and a couple of blistering encores.
The set list for the evening reads like the program at a Dungeons and Dragons convention: Hymn of the 7th Galaxy, Vulcan Worlds, Sorceress, Song of the Pharoah Kings, The Romantic Warrior, Duel of the Jester and Tyrant, Medieval Overture, etc. But the concert itself was a kind of transcendent time capsule, one featuring songs with familiar starting points that ended up in places no one in the audience had ever heard before, because they’ve never been played that way before, ever, and may never be played precisely that way again. To give you an idea of how much improvisational territory was covered, consider that the concert lasted more than three hours, but technically speaking the band played only ten or eleven songs. The rest was sheer musical mastery.
And sure, it was thrilling to hear many of Return to Forever’s signature riffs, with DiMeola and Corea racing each other through all sorts of myxolydian madness, and Clarke and White funkifying the groove behind them. But the highlight of the evening was, believe it or not, Stanley Clarke’s otherworldly solo on an upright bass. At times jazzy and delicate, at others angry and mournful, and still others playfully irreverent, Clarke bowed, popped, slapped, banged, tapped, strummed and cajoled his instrument through what amounted to a mini seminar on the history of bass, as well as a mind-bending glimpse at what bass players might be called upon to do in the future—if in fact it turns out that Stanley Clarke is god and not Eric Clapton.
Return to Forever’s stop in the Twin Cities was such a momentous event that it would be easy to forget it was simply the beginning concert of the 10th annual Twin Cities Jazz Festival, which runs through June 29. Many of the upcoming concerts on Peavey Plaza and in St. Paul’s Mears Park are free, so make a point of getting out there to see a show one of these fine, sunny days. Who knows—the future members of an iconic band full of geniuses may be playing their hearts out right down the street.
For a full schedule of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival, go to twincitiesjazzfestival.com.