Return To Forever is more than a novelty act. It's four matured musicians together again after 25 years of development as instrumentalists, as bandleaders, as composers and as producers. It's not the original lineup, but instead the classic lineup that recorded three albums between 1974 and 1976.
Guitarist Al DiMeola was only 19 when he linked up with three musicians who were already legends. DiMeola's advancements since 1974 are remarkable and he unquestionably propels Return To Forever to once impossible heights. He wields a cutting electric tone and the band doesn't need to leave much of a hole for DiMeola's solos. Stanley Clarke showed no reservations on the bass and, whether playing an electric or his upright, his speed and technique are as crisp now as ever. Clarke's a more soulful musician today and his solo portion of the concert -- tender, low-octave melodies played on the upright -- provided one of the evening's highlights.
Chick Corea proved the most frustrating of the four. Corea has devoted much of the past two decades to the grand piano and it's a wonder why he spent as much time at his electric instruments as he did Friday. During his first few solos -- played almost exclusively on the Fender Rhodes and Mini Moog -- Corea struggled with timing and placement. His solos fizzled and generally came to abrupt halts at precise runs that sounded more rehearsed than improvised. Corea's shining moments, and almost certainly the most exhilarating music of the performance, came when he turned to the grand piano a few songs into the first set. Corea grabbed a mallet and reached inside the piano to strike at the strings. After some droning, Corea launched into a furious improvisation that blurred colors and expressions in abrupt turnarounds, waves of music rising, building and crashing on jagged chords. Only Clarke and drummer Lenny White could chase at the heels of Corea's frenetic harmonic voyages, with DiMeola dropping out to give space for the trio.
Clarke seems the most limited with the arrangements as member rather than bandleader. Perhaps Clarke took a veiled jab at Corea when explaining the pleasure of sharing the stage with great musicians "and Chick Corea, the great composer." Yet it's Clarke's bandleader skills that glued Return To Forever together in Chicago and kept the performance consistently excellent. Clarke and White seem to connect effortlessly, which lets Clarke focus on bringing the best out of Corea during the electric material. With the accompanists firing on all cylinders it facilitated several thrilling DiMeola solos. Fans of electric DiMeola: hold your breath for a live release from this reunion.
Some of Chicago's Friday night crowd seemed only partially aware of the spectacle they witnessed. Clarke and DiMeola both had moments of evident frustration with a crowd that shouted during quiet parts and clapped in four to songs in odd time signatures. Even professionals break composure with unruly crowds -- Clarke and DiMeola kept chiding to a minimum. DiMeola and Corea also suffered numerous equipment failures throughout the evening. The worst technical issues forced DiMeola to drop out entirely while his tech tooled with equipment while the band played. Corea seemed to struggle with monitors and it's perhaps unfair to criticize a musician who couldn't hear himself play. Still, if his piano solos were methods of blowing off steam, Corea should spend more time steaming and less time struggling.
Return To Forever conclude this tour with eight more dates along the East Coast, starting in Florida on July 30.
30 - Miami, FL - The Fillmore Miami Beach
31 - Clearwater, FL - Ruth Eckerd Hall
1 - Orlando, FL - House of Blues
2 - Atlanta, GA - Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre
4 - Baltimore, MD - Merriweather Post Pavilion
5 - Philadelphia, PA - Mann Center For The Performing Arts (w/ Bela Fleck and The Flecktones)
6 - Boston, MA - Bank of America Pavilion (w/ Bela Fleck and The Flecktones)
7 - New York, NY - United Palace