Playing Ottawa’s Confederation Park outdoor main stage to a reported record-breaking 11,500 paid attendees, RTF was actually less loud and fast than anticipated — not necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately, it was also dull.
Loud, fast and chopsy — that was the definition of “jazz-rock fusion” assumed by panelists (including me) in a Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Matters public panel discussion of “Fusion at 40” held in conjunction with the headline appearance of Return To Forever at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.
RTF — introduced by pianist Chick Corea in 1974 to comprise guitarist Al DiMeola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White — is a banner act at jazz fests most everywhere this summer. This lineup is together for the first time since 1983, its tour promoted as a 25-year anniversary and accompanied by a two-cd retrospective album (Return To Forever The Anthology) which has gangstered much jazz magazine coverage. RTF meets the loud, fast and chopsy criteria, sorta. But the supergroup was born several minutes past fusion’s finest hour, and its members’ collaboration honestly shows their age.
Corea is one of jazz’s most positively lyrical pianists since Bill Evans and he gave himself a generous concert grand feature, but played mostly Fender Rhodes electric piano and high tech gear duplicating some of the expanded palette new synthesizer-keyboards offered in 1978, when the RTF brand name was at its peak. Fine: Corea was one of the first who demonstrated genuine interest and mastery of those instruments (along with Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul of Weather Report, Jan Hammer of John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra and maybe Mike Mandel, to whom I am not related, in guitarist Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House). He’s stellar in many settings (last year, with vibist Gary Burton revisiting their 1972 album Crystal Silence) and maybe suffers lapses of taste, yet keeps busy doing what he wants.
Di Meola projected his trademark highly amplified precision fast-handedness (he was 19 when he first joined RTF), and also picked acoustic guitar deftly in a flamenco-tinged feature (though my colleague James Hale noted he didn’t play much past guitar 101). Clarke, a bass prodigy first discovered by Pharoah Sanders but soon converted to Fender electric (on which he became a dazzler) is still fast and clear, also bowing beautifully on his upright. White, a progenitor of black rock drumming back in the day, sat at his traps behind baffles. We older codgers must protect our ears. On that, if little else, the band seemed agreed. No one tried to break free, steal the show, upset expectations — just fulfill them.
Such caution was unknown in 1978, when bigger-faster-louder-further was the order of the fusion day. Probably there is no return to then. If fusion is 40 (born in 1968, one year before the release of Miles Davis’s erotic electronic sonata In A Silent Way) it’s natural that audiences turning up for its first generation bands’ comebacks include more survivors of those past four decades than youngsters born in their wake (though there were indeed young Ottawans in the crowd). And everyone knows older crowds want the same old thing. Don’t they?
No. Did RTF get anyone’s rocks off? The record-breaking Ottawa audience’s response was polite, receptive, mild — not hot. Yet fusion at the its conception was either thrilling or nothing but bombast. The style was intended to further excite innocent, eager audiences already intoxicated by the co-mingling of jazz, blues, rock, soul, boogaloos, outlaw country, field recordings, psychedelic and experimental musics heard during the ’60 everywhere. Fusion was promoted as the melding of heightened skills (if not always sophisticated tastes) with mind-bending new sonic possibilities, in pursuit of vast popularity. Wild themes and far-flung variations, stingingly tactile timbres and raging rhythms, almost always way-loud dynamics were the norm. Eventually this all was watered down (cf. The Jeff Lorber Fusion, the horn-dense band Chicago, and, I’m sad to say, Grover Washington Jr. leading to smooth jazz ‘n’ Kenny G.).
Fusion’s origins are still lovingly celebrated by its adherents — as in Ottawa by my fellow panelists jazz journalist Hale, poet Reuben Jackson (Duke Ellington archivist of the Smithsonian Institution), guitarist and guitar educator Wayne Eagles and AllAboutJazz senior editor John Kelman. We essentially agreed that Coryell’s band the Free Spirits gets a lot of credit as first recorded jazz fusion group but had competition from flutist Jeremy Steig and his Satyrs, the Blues Project (cf. “Flute Thing”) and Paul Butterfield Blues Band (which recorded a sidelong, Coltrane-inspired modal jam on its second album, East-West), as well as James Brown, Sly Stone, the Rotary Connection and the first edition of Soft Machine (as a dada trio opening for Jimi Hendrix’s first U.S. tour). Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” radio hit for Cannonball Adderley’s band, Ramsey Lewis’s funky “The In Crowd,” Wes Montgomery’s recordings of “Tequila,” “Goin’ Out of My Head,” and “California Dreaming”, George Benson’s Uptown also preceded our favorite In A Silent Way, as did Blood Sweat & Tear’s eponymous second album, which launched the term “jazz-rock fusion” into broad media use. Hendrix and Frank Zappa were purveying genre-smashing music in New York in 1967, too, and in Britain the acoustic Pentangle was concocting unusual post-folk instrumental repertoire.
Of course “fusions” of jazz and pop go way back, including Louis Jordan’s rhythm ‘n’ blues, Nat King Cole’s vocal turns, the young Louis Armstrong, his buddy Fats Waller and even Jelly Roll Morton jazzin’ pop tunes in propulsive, virtuosic, by no means modest fashion. It may be redundant to talk of jazz-pop fusion — in the U.S. haven’t they always been one and each other? But in the music-dominated ’60s, Dylan had literally electrified the Newport Folk Festival (Butterfield’s band behind him), Monterrey, Woodstock and the Fillmore revelled in cross-genre bookings, FM radio was a vehicle for freely associative programming, and add props to young-gifted-and-black Aretha, jazzy, folksy, due-for-rediscovery Laura Nyro. When “fusion” became a watchword, it was simply recognition of a jazz-pop essence.
All this and much more preceded the birth of Return to Forever, which based its mid-’70s thrust on leader Corea’s desire to “communicate” with listeners more directly than he’d been able to with earlier efforts. I liked those efforts: the two RTF albums with reedsman Joe Farrell, Airto and Flora Purim, Corea’s quartet Circle with Anthony Braxton and his trios (hear Now He Sings, Now He Sobs and Song of Singing). I faulted the guitar-driven RTF for lacking the ferocity of mid ’70s Miles, the inspired peaks of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the murky complexity of Tony Williams’ Lifetime, the global vision of Weather Report, the other-wordliness of Sun Ra, the blues explosions of Hendrix, the sharpness of Zappa. First with guitarist Bill Connor then with Di Meola, RTF was fast, loud and chopsy, yes, but without much intrigue, substance or surprise. The band’s flashy competitiveness smacked of gearhead’s garage jams. So it remains today, any edge of freshness and discovery gone.
Maybe in the mid ’70s the world needed a band upon which musicians getting their hands on new gear and flush with maturing powers could model themselves, even without stunning compositions and original improvisational ideas. Maybe young listeners today look to RTF for validation of the fast, loud, chopsy, not very meaningful jam. But in 25 years RTF has been outpaced by myriad stylistic and instrumental developments that render it old beyond old.
There would seem to be many bands that have emerged with more energy, curiosity and faith in the present and the future than RTF, because for RTF’s members the future has arrived. Older, wiser musicians realize the future will be coming, of course, and at best experience gives them perspective to see that ramped up energy is not an end in itself, most often just sound and fury that signifies nothing. Enduring fusions require sense and sensibility, too; RTF circa 2008 demonstrates no real reason for being or shared mission besides getting through a reported 40 – 50 dates. Like all too many reunions, the occurence may be nostalgic, but pointless. We want more. Unable to recapture before or envision what’s next, Return to Forever should at least be here now.