Listening to…..Return to Forever

Rather worryingly – though more for him than for me, you understand – Chick Corea turns 70 in a couple of years.  I only mention this because I’m old enough to remember when he and all those other guys who aided Miles in his late 60’s electric travels were like the new young kids on the jazz-rock block and the future seemed an open book full of electric pianos reverbing endlessly onwards.

Not sure what happened thereafter but I do know that Corea fell off my radar fairly early, to the extent that when I bought the ‘Like Minds’ album (with him and Pat Metheny and Gary Burton plus others) a few years back, it was the first time I’d listened to him for many years. 

The reason for all this is undoubtedly connected with what happened to Return to Forever between their eponymous first album in 1972 and round about the ‘No Mystery’ album some 4 years later.  Being a jazz fan who had come to jazz from rock music,  it was more or less inevitable that I would be interested in anything that involved jazz musicians heading in the opposite direction.  The early 1970’s were fertile territory for this kind of thing, especially for anyone who had been involved with Miles; thus we had Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra producing their first albums in 1971,  though there had been other, earlier solo work from McLaughlin, Shorter and Zawinul and, indeed, Corea,  that  had in some senses anticipated what was to come.

Corea, meanwhile, had formed an early association with the new ECM label.  He  had already been involved in the sprawling free-jazz ‘Circle’ band (with Dave Holland & Anthony Braxton) and had produced 2 volumes of solo piano improvisations for that label.  His next project was quite different and perhaps grew out of the work that he had done (and would continue to do) with Stan Getz . 

In February of 1972, he went into a New York studio with Joe Farrell (saxes & flutes), Stanley Clarke (bass) and the Brazilian husband & wife team of Airto Moreira (drums & percussion) and Flora Purim (vocals) and came out with a new solo album entitled ‘Return to Forever’, which cruised along on a cool Latin breeze, propelled by Clarke’s bass and Corea’s electric piano, with Purim’s (sometimes wordless) vocals floating over the top.  It was a great album, particularly for a summer’s evening and it was, perhaps as Corea had intended, almost like a ‘Getz/Gilberto’ project for the 1970’s.  Initially, however, it got only a limited release in Europe and the future of the whole project remained uncertain for some time.  Tours in Europe and Japan helped to cement the band’s appeal and they signed to Polydor, (who would release their next 4 albums)  in 1972

What I’m listening to right now is a recording of Corea with the original band (but minus Purim) which I suspect is the work of Sveriges Radio.   Certainly, it is a broadcast quality recording and was recorded in Stockholm in September of 1972.  By this point, the band were touring as Return to Forever, rather than ‘The Chick Corea Band’ or similar. This would have been shortly before the band (with Purim) re-entered the studio to produce the second (and final) album with the original line-up, ‘Light as a feather’.

The band play 3 pieces – a lengthy version of ‘Spain’, which would appear on  the next album, as would the fragmentary ‘Children’s Song’, which Corea had already recorded on one of his ECM solo piano albums.  The final  28 minute long piece is  split into two parts and  is sometimes listed as ‘Noon Song’  –  another title from those solo sessions, though it may also be an early version of a song called ‘Matrix‘, which was recorded for the next RTF album but remained unreleased for many years.

Anyway, it’s an excellent 40-minute slice of the band at their early best, with Farrell in terrific form on flute and soprano sax.  It’s hard to say what decided Corea to break up this band, something that happened the following year.  All the participants had their own solo careers, which may have been a factor, but maybe, just maybe, Corea had seen the huge success the Mahavishnu Orchestra were having and decided that he would have some of that action.  We may well never know the truth, but the fact is that by the time RTF reconvened for 1973’s ‘Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy’ album, the cool latin vibe provided by Farrell, Moreira and Purim had been supplanted by the much more powerful drumming of Lenny White and the electric guitar of Bill Connors.

For me, RTF became infinitely less interesting from that point onwards, though their increased public profile and record sales  through the mid-70’s show – not for the first or the last time – that I was somewhat out of touch with general perceptions.  For me, the early promise of ‘jazz-rock’ or ‘fusion’, so thrilling and fascinating in the late 60’s and early ’70’s, had, by the middle of that decade all too often become an excuse for empty displays of soulless virtuosity.  By 1974 or thereabouts, I was referring to bands like RTF and the Mahavishnu Orchestra in particular (there were others) as the ‘Pay-per-Note’ brigade, the general idea being to play staccato riffs at high speed, featuring blistering solos where technique trumped feeling at every turn and  where as many notes were crammed into the available space as possible.  The Carlos Santana/McLaughlin album from 1975 ( ‘Love, Devotion & Surrender’) is usually seen as the high-water mark for this kind of speed-demon nonsense

It could have gone on like that indefinitely.  I buried myself in 1960’s Blue Note re-issues and hoped that someone with a different sensibilty would come along.  Weather Report were like a lone voice crying out in the wilderness at this point and albums like ‘Mysterious Traveller’ (1974) probably stopped me giving up on jazz-rock altogether.

Then, one Saturday in 1977, I sat down and listened to the late Charles Fox’s radio show on the BBC.  He played a nine-minute track –  ‘Sea Journey’, written (ironically) by  RTF’s Stanley Clarke – performed by Gary Burton’s latest band with Pat Metheny on guitar and Eberhard Weber on bass.  Later the same week, someone introduced me to Keith Jarrett’s ‘Köln Concert’ and these two records set me off on a much more rewarding path, largely thanks to the bewildering diversity of the ECM Records catalogue through much of the ensuing 30 years.

Mc Laughlin and Corea carried on through various incarnations of various bands and both would flit between acoustic and electric line-ups and occasionally (McLaughlin’s 1985′ ‘Mahavishnu‘ album for example) one of them would produce something interesting, but despite all the marketing hype, neither have regained that primacy or centrality they had in the first years after they left Miles.  Of those early bands, only Weather Report survived into the 1980’s with their reputation enhanced. 

I don’t imagine that Chick Corea has too many regrets and I certainly wouldn’t expect his many fans to agree with my analysis of his career.  After all, the world of jazz and rock is full of people who produced one or two great records and then disappeared or sold out or died….I’m glad to be able to sit down and play that first Return to Forever album from time to time and this Stockholm recording offers a nice companion piece.

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