By Noah Hubbell
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After working with jazz luminaries like Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Chick Corea performed and recorded in Miles Davis's electric bands in the late 1960s and early '70s. During that time, he played on Davis's Bitches Brew, a revolutionary album that gave birth to jazz-rock fusion. Davis, who'd already pioneered cool and modal jazz, became a chief inspiration and mentor for Corea.
"When I distill the whole experience down, the one thing that continues to live, that I learned from Miles and was an inspiration, is that he never compromised his vision," Corea says. "He always had the courage and the strength to just go ahead and turn the next corner and try the next idea. He didn't wait until it was popular or until someone agreed with him or the record company gave him the okay to do it. He went ahead and pursued it, because that's what he saw to do. That is an intense demonstration of integrity, where you follow through with what your dream is. He strengthened that purpose in me."
Davis had a similar effect on other musicians from Bitches Brew who went on to create three incredibly influential fusion bands: John McLaughlin formed Mahavishnu Orchestra; Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter started Weather Report; and Corea formed Return to Forever with the idea of putting a band together that had a real groove, a melodic approach and a singer, Flora Purim.
"One of the first tunes I wrote when I got back to the East Coast was a tune I titled 'Return to Forever.' And the first album was called Return to Forever. The idea was that there's this unique place where we all find ourselves spiritually, which is who we are — our basic personalities, our basic goals and artistry. Everyone is who they are. And sometimes, or often, or most often, we lose sight of that. It's a return to that nature — that basic spiritual nature of artistry and freedom of expression and the ability to enjoy life that we all have within us. It's a quest that everyone has. Everyone pursues it in their own way."
Over the years, Corea headed up three different versions of Return to Forever, along with bassist Stanley Clarke. While the first version was mostly about the jazz, Corea steered the second incarnation closer to rock after seeing McLaughlin perform with Mahavishnu Orchestra. "I had never heard anything like that," Corea says, "And I thought, 'Man, John's got this amazing thing going. It's exciting and it's got impact, and it's got high artistry to it.' It was very inspirational." The show also inspired Corea and Clarke to recruit electric guitarist Bill Connors and drummer Lenny White, whom Corea knew from the Bitches Brew sessions, for the group's 1973 album Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy.
After Connors left to pursue a solo career, Corea enlisted nineteen-year-old Al Di Meola, who'd had a friend who'd been persistent in getting the guitarist's demo tape to Corea. After Corea heard the tape, he says he knew without question that he wanted the guitarist to join the band. Corea says that a week after he offered Di Meola — who was studying at the Berklee School of Music at the time — the spot, the band played Carnegie Hall.
"He had all the sheet music in front of him because he didn't have time to memorize it all," Corea says. "We certainly didn't have time to rehearse at all. You ought to hear his story about it. He came and started delivering up right away, man. He was telling us when we saw him a couple of months ago that his mother and father didn't believe him. They said, 'What are you looking so busy for?' He said, 'Well, I got a gig with Chick Corea at Carnegie Hall in a week.' And they didn't believe him. He had to take them to the gig, and then they believed him."
Di Meola initially appeared on Return to Forever's Where Have I Known You Before, from 1974, which was also the first album to feature the classic Return to Forever lineup of Corea, Clarke, Di Meola and White. The group went on to record No Mystery and Romantic Warrior — all of which, along with Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, have been remixed, remastered and recently released as part of Concord Records' two-disc set titled The Anthology. "I'm incredibly happy about it, because I've always wanted to remix those records, especially the first couple of records," Corea says. "And none of us had very much recording-studio smarts at that time, and now we all do. The technology has advanced so much. I always wanted to bring out more of the impact of those records, which we have now done. The remixes are incredible."
For the past thirty years, the four musicians had talked about reuniting, and they came close, but it wasn't until recently that the time was right for a major American and European tour. Although they'd seen each other a lot over the years, Corea couldn't remember any point where the four had been in the same location at the same time, so he was excited when everyone showed up at his Mad Hatter Studio in Los Angeles.