J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

RTF35

Return to Forever
The Anthology
Concord Records


Budapest is a beautiful city, but the only sight I wanted to take a picture of were the huge transit advertisements for the upcoming Return to Forever concert, much to the bewilderment of my Czech and Slovak companions. Over twenty-five years have passed since RTF disbanded and thirty-five years since Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy redefined the Chick Corea led band in a fusion super-group context. That entire album is included in a new RTF collection, remixed, re-mastered, and released to coincide with their reunion tour, simply titled The Anthology.

In addition to the complete Hymn, 1976’s Romantic Warrior is also included in its entirety. From the intervening releases, just the brief solo piano interludes from Where Have I Known You Before are omitted, which might be nice within the actual album, but can easily be dispensed with in the anthology format. The only substantial tracks from this four year period not included on Anthology come from the No Mystery album, but the hit title track is indeed represented, making it a good value, perhaps not for completists, but for those looking to plug gaps in their collections.

Hymn really is a highpoint of the fusion era. Though RTF had still not coalesced into the celebrated quartet of Chick Corea, Lenny White, Stanley Clarke, and Al di Meola, their now overlooked guitarist Bill Connors was a key ingredient for the first album’s success. The title tune establishes a hard-driving rock edge for the then new RTF incarnation. “Captain Senor Mouse” is an ingenious reworking of the Corea standard for the brave new jazz-rock world. Hymn is actually quite a melodic session, with real bite provided by Connors’ guitar.

On Where di Meola replaces Connors, but the same jazz-rock ethos remains. The vibe is a bit mellower though, particularly on White’s “The Shadow of Lo,” although de Meola eventually heats it up, and on Corea’s short interludes (again, only the guts of the album are included on Anthology). No Mystery, the other partial album of the set, happens to be the most uneven, but it does include a classic rendition of the title track.

With Romantic Warrior, RTF’s imagery shifts from science fiction to fantasy, but that is alright, Corea’s spiritual leader wrote both. White’s “Sorceress” is quite funky, but features an engaging acoustic solo from Corea. Rhapsodic and sweeping, Corea’s title track is also largely acoustic. It concludes with the sprawling jazz-rock epic “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant, part 1 & 2,” which perfectly exemplifies the strengths and weaknesses of the group. Corea has always been a strong composer, and di Meola’s virtuoso guitar work is frequently incendiary but the keyboard effects can sometimes sound dated (to put it diplomatically).

Their world tour and release of Anthology offers a good opportunity to take stock of RTF and the era they were a part of. Along with Weather Report and Lifetime, the fusion years marked the only real period in jazz history when small groups really were bands, and not just combos backing up a famous leader. Of course, Corea was the driving force of RTF, as Tony Williams was for Lifetime. RTF might sound very much of their time, but the vitality of these sessions remains undeniable. For fans of the acoustic Corea, New Crystal Silence, his latest collaboration with Gary Burton, will be more to your liking. For fusion enthusiasts, your wait will soon be over. The U.S. leg of their tour starts July 31st.

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