Thursday, August 07, 2008

After 25 years, Return to Forever returns for more

They’ve gotten the band back together.

Twenty-five years after their first, brief reunion and 32 years after their last album, Return to Forever’s classic lineup is back and touring the country.

The revived jazz fusion band performed Saturday in front of a capacity crowd of about 2,750 at Atlanta’s plush Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, which opened last fall. It was the 50th stop on the Return to Forever summer reunion tour.

Now, I’ve been to my fair share of concerts, but I’d never before been to one where every song earned a standing ovation. (Standing-room-only shows don’t count.) The years since Return to Forever’s break-up have only increased fans’ enthusiasm. Some on the front row handed their old, vinyl RTF albums to the roadies for the band to sign. Others paid hundreds of dollars extra for VIP packages that included meeting the band backstage.

Led by keyboardist Chick Corea and featuring guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White, Return to Forever was one of three bands during the 1970s that defined jazz fusion. Along with Weather Report and guitarist John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever mixed jazz improvisation with electric instruments and Motown-inspired rhythms, creating a sound that has influenced a generation of both jazz and rock artists.

Jazz fusion was the flipside of progressive rock, which saw bands like Pink Floyd and Yes blend rock music with elements of jazz and classical.

In conjunction with the tour, Return to Forever has released “The Anthology,” a two-disc set featuring remastered tracks from the group’s four best albums: “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy,” “Where Have I Known You Before,” “No Mystery” and “Romantic Warrior.”

In the years following RTF’s breakup, Di Meola and Clarke launched successful solo careers. Di Meola’s lightning-paced, “shred” guitar style probably influenced even more heavy metal guitarists than jazz players. Clarke, meanwhile, divided his efforts between solo albums and scoring Hollywood movies, including “Boyz n the Hood”(cq)  and “The Transporter.”

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Corea continued with both solo projects and his new group, the Chick Corea Elektric Band.

But to see and hear Return to Forever on Saturday, you’d think the quartet had never been apart. With Clarke taking center stage, the four launched into their classic catalog, deftly trading solos and playfully trying to one-up one another.

The first set featured the group’s spacey, sci-fi influenced tracks like “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy,” “Vulcan Worlds” and “The Sorceress.”

But RTF really shined in the second set, with Di Meola and Clarke switching to acoustic. Di Meola launched into a medley of his solo pieces, including covers of Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla’s compositions and his signature song, “Mediterranean Sundance,” which elicited an enthusiastic response from the audience.

Di Meola may not be as fast as the 19-year-old prodigy who wowed critics and audiences alike in the ’70s, but he makes up for it with even better technique and the sort of emotional depth that comes with time. And he’s still plenty fast with his fingers.

Corea followed with a keyboard solo, setting up Clarke, whose virtuoso, marathon solo on upright bass had people in the balcony calling out, “I love you, Stanley!”

For the encore, RTF returned to its electric bread and butter for one of my favorite of the band’s tunes, “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant.”

Three decades may have passed since RTF’s last recording, but those old songs seem timeless. But what else should you expect from a band named Return to Forever?

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