Return to Ever?

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.

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.

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.
Subscribe by Email or RSS
All JBJ posts

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. says

    What about Tiny Grimes? You didn’t mention Tiny Grimes?! How could you not mention Tiny Grimes?
    I am going to sit down right here on your comments page and SULK until you mention Tiny Grimes and how his quartet was oozin’ fusion almost before Chicky-baby was even BORN.
    And I ain’t budgin’ ’til you do.
    HM: Well, yr right, Mr. G. Tiny Grimes — the Cats and the Fiddle, Slim Gaillard, yes indeed a fusion of myriad elements pop ‘n’ jazz. Also, I must add: Bob Wills (preceding Speedy West and other maestros of the pedal steel — that’s where Gary Burton got his start. Interestingly, the country & western crowd didn’t question or reject stylistic fusions as so many deep-dyed jazzbos did (and do). Now we get Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson as two men with the blues — ain’t that fusion, on the face of it?

  2. says

    You nailed it, “..the supergroup was born several minutes past fusion’s finest hour…”
    As a guitar hippie who heard Hendrix live, Larry Coryell at Slugs in the East Village, John McLaughlin at a church before he started Mahavishnu, then the first Mahavishnu gigs at the Gaslight and Beacon Theater (3rd bill to Steve Miller, what a disgrace), and Weather Report’s first US gigs at the Gaslight, Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall and many other great bands during the late 60’s and early 70’s, I was disappointed when I heard RTF at their first gig at Max’s Kansas City. To me, they seemed more like interlopers than innovators. (Zawinul was in the audience, he left after 2 tunes.) Chick Corea said after the gig that Zawinul was “the master”. Later, I was horrified when RTF played after Weather Report at Lincoln Center, like WP was the opening band. Sacrilege!
    Have a happy eternity,
    Johnny Asia
    HM: Thanks for your note, Johnny — yes, I saw Hendrix live three times, lots of electric Miles, Mahavishnu Orchestra in its first (classic) incarnation, Coryell often (though most memorable to me is one of his late ’70s gigs in acoustic duo with Steve Khan), and Weather Report, too, preferring them all to RTF in its guitar-bass-drums-piano form. My question post-Ottawa is what are they fusing? Is there any rock ‘n’ roll, is there bluesy jazz, or is it kind of like Emerson Lake & Palmer, pseudo-classical riffs, ostinato bass lines, plus jousting improv? The best features in RTF’s set were the solo spotlights, mostly acoustic. Hmmmmmm. For comparison, consider those couple of tracks of jams by Hendrix with Larry Young.

  3. says

    Jazz has always been fusion. I think this somehow gets lost on those working uptown. Either there is no jazz anymore…or Oregon is jazz. I go back and forth in my thinking between a hyper-inclusive concept of jazz and another feeling in which I’d rather give up the word entirely, like Duke did sixty years ago. Frisell always speaks eloquently to this issue if you recall any of his interviews.
    Dimeola in particular was major rocks off for me when I was a budding guitarist “at seventeen” (1976) listening to Romantic Warrior and his early solo albums, but indeed I’ve found that his music hasn’t aged well in my psyche. As one of the supreme masters, Chick often sounds fresher.
    It’s been a pleasure lately getting to know some of the early or classic Fairport Convention music in more depth, having largely skipped them some how early on in favor of Steeleye Span, for which I’m overdue for re-investigation. I haven’t heard Bachelors Hall since I’ve been married…(!) Pentangle is an even further bridge that I could traverse.
    Beyond the obvious connection to other folk-rockers like Steeleye, there’s a more subtle relationship that Fairport Convention has to stuff like Syd Barrett and Early Floyd. This gives it it a sort of Kevin Bacon-type relationship to other complicated psychedelic roots-ish stuff like the Dead; even Little Feat in a way (rhythmically in particular, although Feat went deeper into that element).
    In addition to the overall productions, one gets all kinds of early splashes from hyper-identifiable stylists like Swarbrick and Richard Thompson, let alone Sandy Denny. Fairport is the folkier side to the more famous British Blues boom groups like Cream and the Stones, and the seemingly forgotten early Fleetwood Mac.
    My brother reminded me that I should mention the eclecticism of Led Zep, which would be relevant to this thread even if Sandy Denny hadn’t guested on Battle of Evermore, making obvious their place in my comment. A year or so ago I went over many of the great live Zep things on DVD that are now available. Having heard them here in town in ’77 at Madison Square, I was struck again by how their in concert developments resembled what a good jazz group would do with the tunes. Rock-jazz, like Jeff Beck, rather than jazz-rock I guess. Introductions expanded, looser improvisation sections, you can really hear them aiming for and making more of the various famous climaxes in different ways.
    As a mainstream group back in the day they would seem foreign to our contemporary “play it like the record” industry. But there’s plenty of good music today, you just have to know where to point yer ears. I won’t be going out of my way to procure a $100 RTF reunion ticket to join a “festival crowd”. As I approach my 50th, I indulge in my share of nostalgia, but I have my limits (!)…

  4. says

    Really all music is fusion but Jazz has always been fusion. I think soon as we find something that becomes what we consider a “pure” jazz to us we see everything after it as fusion and somehow out of place in jazz.
    HM: Very good point, and that’s the kind of crystallization of a concept we need to guard against if we care to enjoy the benefits of being continuously surprised and reminded of how strange, fresh and valid different ideas can really be.

  5. transatlantic looker-in says

    funny you should mention Pentangle. They are on a reunion tour (all five still going) here in the UK, too. Haven’t caught them, but reviews sound more promising. More point to them getting back together than RTF, methinks. Folk-jazz fusion lives…
    HM: Interesting, I can’t think of any folk-jazz fusions that took root in the U.S. Maybe Oregon? Or those band-members original gig, in the Paul Winter Consort? Is a band like Hot Tuna a jazz (blues)-folk fusion? Do you hear jazz (I don’t, much) in Sweet Honey in the Rock? Who am I forgetting?

  6. says

    Re: “I can’t think of any folk-jazz fusions that took root in the U.S. Maybe Oregon? Or those band-members original gig, in the Paul Winter Consort? Is a band like Hot Tuna a jazz (blues)-folk fusion? Do you hear jazz (I don’t, much) in Sweet Honey in the Rock? Who am I forgetting?”
    Oregon certainly, although talking folk-jazz would only be the beginning of the conversation.
    Maybe Dave Grisman and the whole Dawg music jazz-grass thing?
    HM: Is bluegrass itself a folk-jazz fusion?

  7. johnny asia says

    Here’s my take on it, Afro-Bluegrass
    The drummer, Joakim Lartey, learned from his tribal elders in Ghana,
    then he heard Miles and Hendrix, came here to the US. He’s played with Jack
    De Johnette, great player. I was at Joakim’s house and had the
    idea to do one of my bluegrass tunes with him. He had never heard
    it before, it was an impromptu jam Since then, I’ve “jazzed” it up a bit, adding a section
    of Gypsy-tinged chords. I forced Dom Minasi to play it with me
    at a gig, I asked, “Wanna try some bluegrass?”, he said, “Oh, no, man”,
    I started in on it anyway, he jumped right in and the audience loved it.