For the haters who love to proclaim that jazz is dead and pop is king, not so fast, Spice Girl. Just watch Chick Corea’s Return To Forever IV take over the world.
Corea shrewdly brought back collaborative gold with two of his original R2F bandmates – bass superstar and co-founder Stanley Clarke and drumming monster Lenny White, his Elektric Band partner-in-crime, “The Sweeper” guitarist Frank Gambale, and then added Mahavishnu Orchestra’s popular violinist Jean-Luc Ponty to the legendary mix.
While the American Idol contingent was busy downloading Top 40 rip-offs or fist-pumping mindlessly to the same three-chord electronic blasts in dance clubs, it seems the rest of the world picked up on the tremendous word of mouth that R2F was back, dusted off the old ‘70s vinyls, and busted the bank accounts to attend one of over 90 scheduled concerts this year. These guys are like the Rolling Stones of jazz; they stay relevant through the decades.
On a recent Saturday night (September 24), jazz fans packed downtown Seattle’s Paramount Theatre in droves to catch the band’s last U.S. show before heading to Japan. Comprised mostly of enthusiastic 30- to 50-year-old men reliving the glory days of their youth, the sold-out crowd couldn’t wait to see the masters of jazz in action.
They came to relive R2F’s—and its individual band members’—set list of past hits, Corea’s “Spain,” “The Romantic Warrior,” and “Captain Senor Mouse,” Stanley Clarke’s “School Days” and “Vulcan Worlds,” Ponty’s “Renaissance…” Many of the more critical jazz fans went to compare and contrast whether the guys chosen for this year’s world tour still had their stuff, versus guys like Al Di Meola (a whole other drama there altogether) who wasn’t.
Most of the current crew are now in their 50s to 70s. Lenny White still struggles with some physical constraints (pinched nerves and disabled right arm since 2007, rotary cuff surgery in 2008).
You’d never know it from the way he and his band mates played that night—with the same fire, focus, intensity, and perhaps more finesse in every pluck, swoop and stroke of their instruments.
Nothing was lost in the translation from age to age.
Especially fitting and enlightening: the marriage of old and new in the introduction of R2F’s opening band, Dweezil Zappa’s Zappa Plays Zappa – with Scheila Gonzalez (sax, flute, keys, vocals), Pete Griffin (bass), Billy Hulting (marimba, mallets, percussion), Jamie Kime (guitar), Ben Thomas (trumpet, shaker, vocals), Joe Travers (drums, vocals), and Chris Norton (keys, vocals).
Not only did this band do its own thing, hilarious, outer limits but pitch-perfect, layered send-ups on Frank Zappa’s classics, such as “Po-jama People” and “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow,” even bringing on drum tech crew member Pete Jones for the wild Beastie Boys/Axl Rose on steroids, “treacherous, razor edge vocal” circus attraction.
But the band joined in jam sessions during their opening act with R2F IV’s Frank Gambale and Chick Corea, as well as a grand finale of old school teaches young guns in a rousing rendition of Clarke’s “School Days.” Usually opening acts keep to themselves. But this one clearly got off as fans of R2F’s music, and vice versa.
Zappa Plays Zappa was about more than replicating tricks, twists, turns, and wacky sound effects. From the flashy, rockin’ jazzy opening number showcasing each member’s chops – nice Gary Burton/four-mallet technique, there Billy – to the audience-favorite, show-boating blip in the middle of it all with dueling megaphones involving Ben and Dweezil (boss won), to some weird space-aged, fast-moving but textured re-interpretations, the Frank Zappa tribute band laid down its own history-making tracks.
When Return 2 Forever finally took the stage (after a one-hour-10-minute opening romp and what felt like a one-hour second equipment set-up), people were dying. So much was going on musically right off the bat. Focusing on any one high note amidst this sensory overload became an ongoing challenge.
There’s Jean-Luc Ponty lifting the heaviness of the grinding guitars, throbbing drums, and straining keys, with an almost classical, but melodic distinction, his violin an unconventional, therefore, scene-stealing stand-out. Then, there’s El Maestro himself, Chick Corea, surveying his rhythm section and points in between, like the Wizard of Oz behind his tricked-out rig, as he adds his offbeat flourishes in songs within songs. But who could ignore the seven-ft. (okay, more like 6’3”) towering monolith known as Stanley Clarke just ripping his electric bass apart? When Clarke and Corea exchange thunder for thunder in their mind-blowing keys/bass duet, the crowd roared its approval.
Any question of Frank Gambale’s suitability as an Al Di Meola replacement was quickly shut down with the first ferocious stroke of the guitar – in a preamble duet with a tough-to-impress-but-clearly-impressed Dweezil Zappa earlier on and the main attraction’s first three tracks. Never mind the infamous Sweep-Picking technique, for which the Australian guitarist is famous—his widely followed instructional books and DVDs have showed the way for many, including Dweezil.
Just listen to the rich tones, layered melodic structures, inhuman but thoughtful speed within the notes, and creative progression of his play. Be dazzled by his engaging bodacious swagger that comes off as cool rather than overconfident.
While Gambale shined in all his solos, he wasn’t given nearly enough of the spotlight when it came right down to it. Still, whenever called upon, the man stepped up, and more than held his own, holding down the fort, keeping up with Corea’s trademarked tricky chord and tempo changes, multi-stylistic, intricately measured counter-points, and unexpected, inspired lapses into varying codas (delving into anything from gypsy-jazz, Flamenco, and Beethoven concerto synapses, to chronic post-be-bop electronica, and riffs off the most bizarre series of harmonic notes).
As outstanding as all the other players were, renowned bassist Stanley Clarke was in a class by himself as he took his upright bass, used it concurrently and alternately as percussion, guitar, piano, and bass—all the while, using his body as a restless lover hungry then weary for more. He was amazing to watch, fingers lightly fluttering over strings and frets, thumbs popping mercilessly, jutting forward, hanging back, going up and down every square inch exhaustively. Just when you think you can’t take anymore and have almost forgotten everyone else on the stage, Jean-Luc Ponty comes forward to do some damage in a memorable duel for duel with Clarke, going back and forth then almost violently stroking and plucking together on a hot melodic tour.
It all came down to whether Return 2 Forever still had the goods to command any stage. If their recent Seattle show was any indication, the answer’s a resounding hell yeah.
As veteran drummer Lenny White put it about 3/4ths of the way through their high-energy show, as he thanked their diehard fans for keeping up: “We don’t have the kind of songs you hear on the radio. We don’t have videos. But you still showed up.” Yup.
For more info: Return 2 Forever IV kicked off its 32-city U.S. tour this summer. They’re taking over Japan now, then Korea, before eventually settling back in the States to celebrate Chick Corea’s 70th in November at NYC’s Blue Note for several gigs. Included in this celebration is a chance to check out Corea’s Elektric Band stuff, featuring Frank Gambale.