Spunk, funk, fusion

Return to Forever returns
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Pianist Chick Corea's band Return to Forever was the last of the fusion fruit to drop from the tree of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970). From its early-1970s start, RTF followed the Joe Zawinul/Wayne Shorter–led Weather Report and John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra into the critically thorny but audience-friendly avenues of rhythm-based electric jazz. Corea fronted several versions of the band, but from 1974 to '76, a balanced muscular quartet variation — with the leader on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, Al Di Meola on guitar, and Lenny White on drums — became a popular and resonant standard of the fusion genre. RTF confidently balanced jazz, funk, and rock on three studio albums before Corea reconfigured the ensemble as a more bloated lineup that included four horn players and his wife Gayle as a vocalist. Now, after more than three decades, the definitive RTF quartet has reunited for an international tour and a two-night, four-show stand in San Francisco. And on May 27, Concord Records released a newly remastered two-CD anthology of music by the foursome, including 1973's "Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy" with Di Meola's predecessor, guitarist Bill Connors.

Corea modeled the band on the power of McLaughlin's group, but his spunky RTF had more personality onstage, more subtlety in its playing, and more diversity in its songwriting. Clarke, who figured in all the RTF variations, was just coming into his own as a writer and performer with the quartet. The bassist would go on to show his versatility by playing in a number of jazz styles with George Duke, Pharaoh Sanders, and McCoy Tyner, as well as taking a rock 'n' roll side-trip with Ronnie Woods' New Barbarians and sharing the stage with Keith Richards during the New Barbarians' tour in 1979. Di Meola was just 19 when he joined the combo in 1974 and became an international star through his collaborations with fellow guitarists McLaughlin and Paco DeLucia. White, a veteran of the Bitches Brew sessions along with Corea, was playing with the Escovedo brothers' legendary Azteca when Corea asked him to join RTF. White has since balanced drumming with mainstreamers like Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Henderson while producing Nancy Wilson and Chaka Khan, among others.

All RTF members wrote music for the outfit, and though Corea's compositions were prominent, the others' contributions were integral to the quartet's accessibility. The quartet's first album, and RTF's fourth overall, Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974), sports a heavy, fuzzy sound: Corea plays Moog synthesizers on a recording for the first time, and the group searches for identity in its use of electronics and its blend of jazz and rock influences. The project's next — and best — album, No Mystery (Polydor, 1975), includes more funk as well as tunes by each band member, all while mixing electric and acoustic instruments. Clarke's groove-driven "Dayride" leads to a rock-based jam titled "Excerpt from the First Movement of Heavy Metal" — RTF had a generous sense of humor — and eventually Corea's elegant title tune. The pianist's complex "Celebration Suite" closes the disc. No Mystery's follow-up and the quartet's last album, Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976), was the ensemble's best-selling full-length, again mixing electric and acoustic textures in ways that most fusion bands wouldn't dare.

Three years and three albums doesn't necessarily add up to a legacy, but this foursome always was more than the sum of its parts.

RETURN TO FOREVER

Tue/10–June 11, 7 and 9:30 p.m., $79.50

Regency Center Grand Ballroom

Sutter and Van Ness, SF

(415) 421-TIXS

www.goldenvoice.com

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