Every music genre seems to have its Mt. Rushmore-style supergroup. Country had the Highwaymen. Rock has had
Cream, Blind Faith and the Traveling Wilburys, among many others. In R&B it was LSG, the trio of Gerald LeVert, Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill.
Jazz has had more than its share of luminary combinations, but few shone brighter as a group than Return To Forever, which spent five years in the ’70s defining jazz-rock fusion and bringing the music to larger audiences thanks to free- (or at least freer) form FM radio at the time. Now the group’s most famous combination — keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al Di Meola and drummer Lenny White — is back together for the first time in 25 years for a summer reunion tour that Corea says was inevitable.
“We’ve been talking,” says Corea, 67, who founded RTF in 1972. “Every time we meet each other or talk on the phone, it’s one of the subjects that comes up — ‘Hey man, when we gonna get back together again? Why don’t we play some more?’
“But all four guys remain so busy with their own projects that we never sort of settled down to actually clearing a schedule until about a year and a half ago. Finally it was like, ‘Well, what about the summer of ’08?’ So everyone got back and said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“I knew at some point it would happen. It just took a little longer than I thought.”
Making things easier, the keyboardist says, is that there was no real animosity between any of the players, who made three albums together — 1974’s “Where Have I Known You Before,” the Grammy Awardwinning “No Mystery” in 1975 and “Romantic Warrior,” which was RTF’s best seller, in 1976. Corea, Clarke and White also made another album, “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy,” in 1973 with guitarist Bill Connors before Di Meola joined the fold as a 19-year-old prodigy. (Detroiter Earl Klugh filled in briefly between them.)
“Fortunately, there was never a problem with the group,” Corea notes. “There was never really a break-up in that sense. The rapport and the affinity amongst all of us was there through the years. Every time we would meet, the thing that would always be really easy to notice is how exciting it was to play together. It was always a pleasurable experience.”
That kind of creative connection was exactly what Corea had in mind in 1972, when he left trumpet legend Miles Davis’ band — after playing on the landmark “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew” albums — to pursue his own vision. RTF was original a Latin-flavored outfit with vocalist Flora Purim and her husband, drummer Airto Moreira, but once he hooked up with Clarke and, subsequently with White, Corea took RTF in a more electric and aggressive direction.
“I remember during the ’70s, and the ’60s, too, there was a lot of motion in music — a lot of creativity, a lot of change, a lot of experimentation in a lot of different forms of music,” Corea explains. “There was just a lot of change going on.”
RTF’s dynamic, virtuostic approach and rock-flavored attack, meanwhile, allowed Corea and company to reach an entirely new audience that wasn’t attuned to jazz yet.
“The one effect I always enjoyed,” Corea says, “is when people used to come up and say they had never heard of anything to do with jazz before. But after they heard (RTF), they went out and checked out Miles Davis or John Coltrane music. It was a real discovery for them. There was a real broadening
effect the band had.”
Corea says that he tries “to avoid any negativity” when it comes to the end of RTF — first with Di Meola and White leaving in 1976, then with Corea pulling the plug entirely in 1977, with just one brief reunion of the quartet in 1983. “To me it was always a kind of natural evolution of the musical minds that were involved,” Corea says.
“When I first met Stanley,” he explains, “Lenny and Al hadn’t done their own bands very much, if at all. Because they gave so much of their time and their energies and their lives to my vision and my project, I always felt good about trying to help get theirs going. I helped Stanley produce his first solo album. I helped Al get his first solo album going.
“I encouraged all of the guys to do that, thinking that’s the way I’d like to be treated if I was in their position.”
Now that RTF is back together, however, Corea sees it as a going concern. He and Clarke compiled a new retrospective called “The Anthology,” and Corea expects to document the current tour via album and DVD.
But he’s also confident that new RTF music is also in the offing.
In fact, Corea says that he’s “got a bunch of ideas tucked away” for RTF but says that turning that into finished music is “a real natural process we’ll follow once we’re spending more time together.”
“I wrote a song (in 1973) called ‘Theme to the Mothership,’” Corea says. “That was my analogy for Return To Forever as a group. I thought we’d go our separate ways, learn other things and return to the mothership.
“And we did. It took 30 years or whatever, but the mothership has returned.”
Return to Forever performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (June 21) at the Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, 14900 Metropolitan Parkway at Schoenherr Road, Sterling Heights. Tickets are $48-$78 pavilion, $30 lawn. Call (586) 268-5100 or visit www.freedomhill.net.
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