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Return to Forever

Forever is a mighty long time: Al DiMeola (from left), Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea and Lenny White are Return to Forever.
lynn goldsmith

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.

During that first rehearsal, Corea was also impressed with the quality of everyone's approach, adding that the "physical sounds were so much better than thirty years ago. The improvement was incredibly noticeable, and that was just touching the tip of the iceberg."

Since each musician has an additional three decades of experience under his belt, the guys will put fresh spins on the older material. "There is going to be, time permitting, whatever rearranging or adding things," he says. "Even in the short rehearsal we had, we had to change things around a little bit and add a little part here and say, 'Why don't we do this with that?'"

These musicians should have no problem pulling it off, considering their world-class caliber.

"I could write a book about each guy," Corea says. "They've each got their unique qualities, man. Stanley is a great composer. And look at what he developed on the bass, man. He developed a way of playing on both acoustic and electric basses. Stanley has one of the most widest and broadest approaches to music that was similar to my own interest in a lot of different kinds of music. That was the point that we hit it off together. Lenny's the only drummer that plays kind of jazz/rock fusion music in a way that makes it sound like jazz. I always loved the way he played a backbeat and approached funk and rock, because it always had a swing to it. That's the kind of swing I grew up with — the bands of Bud Powell, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. Lenny's the greatest at that. And Al's got a whole other thing. Al's got like a Latin soul and an amazing sound and lyricism on the guitar that he brings to the band that rounds the whole thing out."

Each musician will be working together to interpret Corea's goal when he originally formed the band. "I've been on a constant quest to continually figure out how to present just something that's high-quality and beautiful to audiences," he says. "It's not always something that's just my personal taste. It's something that I feel that I love to do, that I can get across to audiences." So one of the goals of Return to Forever "was to reach out and really put whatever musical tastes and abilities were in order to bring pleasure to people — not just to jazz fans, but to people who didn't know anything about jazz."

Seeing these guys together three decades after they changed the scope of jazz fusion should bring a lot of pleasure as well. "We're going to bring all that back and put it into the mothership," Corea says. And that mothership, when it takes off, will most likely be fueled with the spirit of Miles Davis.


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