Billed as an "Anthology Concert", pianist Chick Corea, guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White took a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Without knowing that Return to Forever broke up in 1983, one would imagine that, as a group there was never a lapse of any sort. In fact, the enthusiasm and improvised dynamics they have always been noted for remained seemingly intact. During their more influential years, Return To Forever and other bands of that kind had a tremendous effect on modern day jazz. Fusion was extremely controversial because of its overall content, while deviating from a certain comfort zone many proponents of jazz had become accustomed to.
With a high degree of anticipation, Return to Forever brought the combined musical elements of rock, jazz and improvised syncopation back into the mainstream of America’s "only original art form." For many in the near capacity crowd this was yesterday once more, while for a new generation of participants the group was somewhat of a revelation. But even beyond those facts, this concert was an historical event in the making and may have highlighted the push by commercial radio to downplay the significance of varying styles of jazz. Overall, what has often been billed as fusion in smooth jazz arenas is pale in comparison to the accomplishments of Miles Davis, Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Jazz Orchestra and of course Return To Forever.
Founded by Chick Corea in 1972, Return To Forever was a by-product of Miles Davis’s groundbreaking album ‘Bitches Brew.’ Both Chick and Lenny White were a part of the so-called birth of fusion in 1968 brought about by Davis. Stanley Clarke along with Flora Purim, Joe Farrell and Airto Moreira were founding members of the original group. Other members of Return to Forever have included Earl Klugh, Tony Williams, Bill Connors, Mingo Lewis and Steve Gadd. All four members of present day Return to Forever are relevant musicians in their own right by any standard and their coming together for this "Anthology Tour" has provided a tremendous boost to jazz . But even with the high level of anticipation and nostalgia attached to the band’s second coming, Chick Corea and friends proved their so-called hiatus or absence as a group was well worth a return visit.
The performance of Return to Forever was filled with improvised rhythms, syncopated melodies and the passionate embrace of fusion as an art form. Combined with elements of other varying styles of music, Al Di Meola’s display of lightning quick guitar fingering was flawless and was punctuated by controlled responses from the other guys. Chick Corea exhibited the intensity and sensitivity he is most noted for as he served as the group’s pathfinder. Stanley Clarke’s skills on bass are widely known and his characteristic repose as one of jazz’s best added artistic bliss to the charismatic nature of the band. But it was Lenny White’s relentless pursuit of rhythmic response to the colorful antics of the other three guys that made drove the point home for Return to Forever. Both individually and collectively, this band of merry men displayed a brand of jazz that was qualitatively superior to any smooth jazz concert.
As noted by the enthusiastic standing ovation received from the audience, Return to Forever’s reputation as one of the most noteworthy group’s of their time is still intact. As a retro fusion group, these four guys pushed the envelope of the genre beyond the multifaceted cookie cutter instrumental version of jazz heard on commercial radio. The music of Return to Forever is timeless and represents change as a look back during a time when jazz was truly creative and ever evolving. The incorporation of varying styles of jazz, electronic nuances and improvisation under an umbrella of groundbreaking change laid the path for much of the music we hear today. The performance of Return to Forever in Houston on the evening of May 31st was a view into a style of music that is very important as a major contributor to America’s most enduring art form.