Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Case of the Missing DVD (Dark Tales of the Black Forest) Part 3

The plot thickens.

CDJapan is now listing a DVD called "Recorded Live At Montreux Jazz Festival/Chick Corea & Return To Forever" as available for pre-order, with a release date of February 18, 2009 - two weeks prior to the scheduled release of the 2CD set. It is listed as a single disc, but at 151 minutes and priced at ¥3800 or $41.29, it may be two discs.

That's the good news.

The not-yet-good news is that here in the States you will need a modified region-free DVD player to see it, because the listing says it is "Region Code: 2 (Japan, Europe, Middle East, and South Africa only)".

Hm-m-m-m. What this means for us Yanks is hard to tell at this point, but as soon as I know it will be published here.

To be continued.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Hiromi and Sonicbloom's performance at Berklee to be streamed live New Year's Eve

Hiromi Uehara and her band Sonicbloom are scheduled to kick off National Public Radio's annual live New Year's Eve broadcast tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. EST. Hiromi and Sonicbloom (David Fiuczynski, guitar, Tony Grey, bass, Martin Valihora, drums) will perform live from the Berklee College of Music Performance Center. The performance will be broadcast on Boston's WGBH and streamed live as part of NPR's Toast of the Nation, although local broadcast times on the member NPR stations may vary:

If you miss the live broadcast tomorrow night, the performance will apparently be archived by National Public Radio

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Return To Forever Live CD to be released March 2nd, 2009

Good news! The most reliable of sources at Chick Corea Productions emailed me to say that a release date of March 2nd, 2009 has been set for the much-anticipated CD of live performances from Return To Forever's phenomenally successful 2008 tour. Very soon the info on price and availability will be appearing all over the web. It's not too late to write a letter to St. Nick if you mail it fast. Just tell him you'll fill him in on the details later...
At long last we will get to hear those four incredibly talented jazz/rock virtuosi play their music again, live and loud. Get those speakers and headphones ready for a workout!
No news yet on the DVD, but as soon as I know the date it will be published here.
Stay tuned.

Friday, December 19, 2008

"Chick Corea's Five Peace Band: Live In Europe" double CD to be released in February 2009

photo by Noridamar

Chick Corea's Five Peace Band: Live In Europe, a double CD of Five Peace Band's live performances in Europe, is scheduled to be released in Japan on February 4th next year on the Universal Music label. Cost in Japan is ¥3500, $37.91

You can pre-order at these prices from CDJapan. I've purchased CDs from them and they are great - they ship inexpensively and fast in very sturdy containers.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Stanley Clarke trio (Stanley, Lenny White and Hiromi) studio recording coming soon

What I heard coming from the mixing board late last Sunday night at Mad Hatter Studios was the deconstructed melody line of a very familiar tune. It took me a few seconds after walking through the door before I recognized it as the Red Hot Chili Peppers' tune "Under the Bridge". It got me to smile as I recalled a similar musical incongruity listening to a radically re-arranged tune a few years ago... "We decided when we were planning this tour that we needed to do a standard as part of our set," Lenny White dead-panned as he introduced the number that night. When he put the mic back on its stand and joined Larry Coryell and Victor Bailey in a de- and re-constructed version of Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog", the contextual atmosphere of Catalina's Bar and Grill (Hollywood's counterpart of New York's Blue Note) was so completely different from any setting for my previous hearings of the tune that it took me until the refrain to recognize it. And when I did, man, did I listen to it!

Such is the power of well-played music. Finely wrought jazz, particularly in the bop tradition of deconstruction of a familiar tune, can wield this power with great force. This incorporation of popular tunes, interpretation of the simplicities of the everyday into the sophisticated language of jazz, reawakens the senses to the world, and deconstructing a tune, when done with musical precision, results in a kind of musical re-birth that can teach the listener to hear what he's never heard before. It makes the ordinary extraordinary. It wakes the dead. Like John Coltrane's take of "My Favorite Things" or Miles Davis' many renditions of "Someday My Prince Will Come", two songs written for Walt Disney movies and rescued from trite musical oblivion by artistic geniuses, such jazz compositions grab a real listener by the ears and take him through expanded realms of expression. Everything old is new again.

So as I listened to these three geniuses reinvigorating and reinventing "Under the Bridge" the thought came to me, once again, that something truly new was happening. Hiromi's lyrical solo began to soar beyond the sad sentiments of the original song of a junkie's lament into a paen to the beautiful, brave new streets of my home town of Los Angeles. Incredible! Like a magnificent sculpture being freed by Michelangelo's hands from a block of stone, the original's beautiful melody was freed from its maundering lyric by these three masterful musicians and transformed into a jazzer's "I Love L.A....Despite Her Many Serious Flaws". Los Angeles through Hiromi's and Stanley's and Lenny's eyes is a new place, or at least a place I had long forgotten exists. This tune never sounded so good.

Other tunes on t
he recording (barring Mr. Clarke's disapproval, in accordance with his exacting tastes) will include a mind-blowing version of Joe Henderson's "Isotope", "Bass Folk Song," a re-visited tune of his own from the original Return To Forever catalog, a jazzed version of the traditional Japanese song "Sakura, Sakura", and a killer bass and drum duet with Lenny called "Take the Coltrane" -- of which I heard three takes and liked them all. The very last is probably what you will hear when Stanley releases the record, but whichever one it is, you will like it. Stanley's exquisite touch on the bass and Lenny's endlessly imaginitive drum work go different places each time, and I wish you could hear them all. But no matter. This composition has one of those indestructible hooks that sounded good every time Stanley and Lenny played it.

When this recording shows up, you could very well pinch pennies and wait around for some website to post a set of MP3 files for you to download. But my advice is, go buy it. Play it on a real CD player and listen to it through big, fat speakers. This music is alive.

By the way... over the weekend, a confident-ial but unim-peachable source told me that he had just received advance copies of the 2CD Return To Forever 2008 reunion tour compilation and the accompanying performance DVD. He'd been busy and said he hadn't had the chance to see/hear them, but he assured me they now exist. For real. It's only a matter of time before me and thee will have the same chance.

Merry Christmas to all!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Dark Tales of the Black Forest - Part 2

It had to happen eventually, didn't it? Return To Forever's DVD and CDs of their 2008 reunion tour were lost somewhere in the deep recesses of the Black Forest of Deception, Half-Truth and Law.

So one day an enterprizing angel of mercy at Spain's national radio and television corporation (RTVE) posted 80+ minutes of professional footage shot at the San Sebastian gig , and lo and behold! After several weeks spent languishing quietly in the RTVE archives, the link to it began to appear on the internet courtesy of a few desperately eager European RTF fans. Then in the evening of the very day that Web 2.0 (in the form of aspwin posting it on the forum) really took over, the dark clouds began to clear, and a ray of hope shone through:

Post subject: Re: From the R2F website
Posted: Mon Nov 24, 2008 9:24 pm
Joined: Thu Dec 28, 2006 2:24 pmPosts: 83
Here it is: 1. As of today it looks as though the RTF live DVD and CD may come out as planned. 2. As for my new projects: I plan on having brand new music ready for at least 1 or even 2 new CD's next year! Fingers crossed on the 2nd one! By the way these are separate from "La Melodia" Live in Milano and Diabolic Inventions! 3. Also there will be a new CD of myself and Eszter Horgas with a great Hungarian band combined with Gumbi and Peo from my "World Sinfonia" group. This should come out soon!! Thanks everyone! Al Di

Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Setting the music free, addendum

Just a quick alert to all you fans of jazz/rock's brothers-in-arms in the musical revolution, bluesion and prog rock.

Eagle Rock Entertainment, the label likely to release the elusive Return To Forever Returns 2008 DVD when it eventually does appear, has produced quite a collection of live recordings over the years. RTF's upcoming 2-CD live release is theirs, as are DVDs like Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue and Chick Corea's Remembering Bud Powell Live and Chick Corea Elektric Band: Live at Montreux 2004.

Eagle Rock's website has a great little feature on their website called Eagle Rock Radio that consists of complete tracks excerpted from their catalog.

I don't know for sure, but I suspect these tunes are posted for awhile and then replaced with sample tracks from other CDs and DVDs they want to promote. Right now there are 13 tracks in their "rotation" amounting to a couple hours of music you can stream free of charge. In my estimation, being able to hear complete tracks is a much superior approach to marketing than the 30 or 60-second sample approach. I had trouble streaming a couple of them, but several parts of the website are still under construction, so it's possible it's just growing pains.

At any rate, two of the tracks I heard were noteworthy for the quality of the performance as well as the recording, and definitely made me want to hear more of each: check out John Mayall and friends doing "The Stumble" live, and then listen to Yes do "I've Seen All Good People"... I've listened and re-listened several times now to Steve Howe's fluid jazz-influenced guitar work, and the way it inspires Chris Squire on bass and the rest of this group of masters to greater heights.

After a few minutes looking through their artist list, this is looking like a good place for a live music fanatic to shop. It isn't in the same category of free as the FREE for NOTHING websites in the last entry under this title, but it is worth looking into. Freely offered music as a means of inducing a purchase is a pretty workable idea.

And for RTF fans, this is a website to bookmark for news of that upcoming performance DVD.

In the spirit of things, here's a bonus of something free, a real gem of a performance courtesy of The person who posted it disabled the embedding function, so you'll have to click on this link... Two jazz/rock fusion giants (currently touring western Europe) playing an acoustic duet at Montreux in 1981.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Case of the Missing DVD (Dark Tales of the Black Forest)

Cold gray clouds filled the sky on this wet and stormy night. Jack O' Lanterns perched on the front steps as the smell of melting candle wax and singed pumpkin flesh filled the evening air. Desperate, sugar-crazed children roamed the streets.

There was still no DVD of the Return To Forever reunion tour of 2008.

Earlier in the week I'd received a mysterious message through an intermediary, saying: "Don't hold your breath..."

As I sat at my desk, feet up, nipping at a bottle of 12-yr.-old single malt, I Googled "return to forever 2008 dvd" and confirmed my worst suspicions. Besides some Japanese freak selling a jiggly iPhone bootleg of the July 30th show at the Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami, there was nothing. This was the toughest case I had seen in years. The scariest, too.

There was a knock at the door. "It's open," I said.

In walks this dame in a tweed suit and the longest legs I ever saw. She walks straight over to my desk, pulls a badge from her purse and holds it out for me at eye level. "Scotland Yard," she says.

"Your point?" I asked.

"Everyone who saw Return To Forever perform this summer has been anticipating the release of a DVD."

"Tell me something I didn't know," I say, feeling nervy.

"So where is it? We all saw the cameras from PCS and the stills they published on the RTF website."

"Okay...," I murmured, looking deeply into her azure eyes. "And this interests Scotland Yard because...?"

"We're not sure how high it reaches," she said, lowering her voice to a whisper, drawing me in with her fetching Oxford accent. She looked around the room with a practiced eye, searching, I assumed, for signs of hidden cameras or mics. "We really can't be too cautious. Whoever we're dealing with is slippery. They could be MI5, CIA, FDA, Mossad, FEMA, IBM, PacBell, MicroSoft, BBC, New York Times... Maybe even a presidential candidate... or vice-presidential candidate. We don't want to spook anybody, so to speak, especially on a night like tonight. Whoever it is, he or she is smart enough that they know to be in disguise. And it's just our luck that you Yanks love dressing everyone up like bizarre peasants today. "

"Do you think the Swiss is in on it?"

"The bloody bankers? And don't you mean, do I think the Swiss are in on it?" she asked.

"No, and no... of course not. The Swiss is the music producer,
Claude Nobs. He is the man who has been bringing us the Montreux Jazz Festival since 1967. I'm sure he recorded everything Return To Forever performed there last July with state-of-the-art equipment. Claude is a video technophile, too, and he's been filming or video-taping his jazzers with whatever technology was available since the early 70's. There is no doubt whatsoever that he has mind-blowing digital audio and video files of Messrs. Corea, Clarke, Luke and John... er... Corea, Clarke, White and Di Meola. No doubt at all. But why are we being tossed a bone and offered only a 2-CD live audio collection?" *

"Bloody hell, you're right! It's the official opening of the Christmas buying season. All those Return To Forever fans have been snuggling into their beds with visions of DVD box sets dancing in their wee little 'eads. Bone-rattling bass lines from Stanley, drum solos on concussion-grenade toms and sea-foam snares from Lenny, laser-like gattling gun solos from Al, and metaphysically universe-expanding Fender Rhodes solos from Chick, all accompanied by brilliantly lit and photographed high-definition visuals, taking the fan on a journey to a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind, a rocket ride blasting up the floorboards and right through the soles of your feet in epic 5.1 Surround Sound. There should be a stupendous collector's edition with a couple extra DVDs of commentaries, interviews, discographies, bonus tracks and all kinds of other sugar plums. And as a stocking stuffer, a box set of the remixed and remastered Where Have I Known You Before and No Mystery! Where is it?"

"Exactly! Where is it??!!!"

So we brought in the the best private detective in the world. We had already found a few clues littered through cyberspace like peanut M&Ms and Dots dropped by inattentive trick-or-treaters, but we just couldn't pull them together. Or more precisely, we couldn't scrape them off our shoes. We needed a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Obi-Wan Kenobi, a shape-shifting sleuth who could travel in parallel universes simultaneously, one who would know the difference between a bass clef and a bass boat. We needed a cultural psychic, and, this being an unconscionably senseless crime, we needed a detective who could look into a man's heart. In other words, one who knows if you've been bad or good. Really knows. There was one man for the job. We knew he wouldn't come cheap, especially this time of year. His agency said he had two days available.

"St. Nick," he said, extending his hand.

"Pleasure to meet you," I said, noting his good, firm handshake. "This is Scotland Yard," I continued, introducing my new partner from across the Pond.

"I'm naughty and nice at the same time," she said, taking the old man's hand and making him blush under his beard. "Please remember that on Christmas Eve."

"Hmm-m-m-m, hm-m-m," he said. "I mean, ho ho ho. Well, time's a-wasting. What can I do for you two?"

"It's a bit complicated, Santa... er... can I call you Santa?"

"Of course."

"About this time last year Return To Forever, one of the greatest jazz-rock fusion bands of all time, announced they were going to re-unite for the first time in 25 years and play dates in a bunch of cities in North America and Europe. All of us who have followed this band over the years knew that when they came off the road and the dust settled, they would have material for the most killer live performance DVD of all time. The state of digital audio and video recording has finally arrived at the point now where it is possible to create such a magnificent concert DVD that it would rival the real thing."

"A concert DVD that is as good as a live performance?"

"Okay, maybe that's overstating it a bit. But if done right, such a recording could quite literally blow your socks off. Make the earth move. On a big flat screen with good speakers it would shake the foundation of the universe. And with the incredibly high levels of musicianship these four guys would put on display, this would be the most amazing concert DVD ever. If the Beatles had had this technology, they would have been crowned as four kings and taken over the world."

"They did take over the world," St. Nick interrupted.

"But with the current technology, they'd still be kings. We'd have beautifully-rendered DVDs of the complete Shea Stadium and Tokyo concerts, Hollywood Bowl, you name it. Even the Let It Be film."

"I'm beginning to see your point. So what happened?"

"Nothing. These four Beatles of Jazz-Rock have sort of quietly announced November 17th as the release date of a double CD of live performances from the tour, in Europe. Available only as an import in the U.S. From the cover art it looks to be the work of Claude Nobs. The quality will be awesome and no doubt rock the world...

"But the DVD is nowhere in sight. For months we've been taunted with it. Budapest, Philadelphia, the first show in Austin, the big, crazy audience in Los Angeles, the last show of the tour in New York, fans have heard about all of them on the forum... But there's no DVD. That's why we called you."

"Any suspects?"

"Besides the usual lawyers, guns and money?" Scotland Yard asked. "Because that's how these music deals usually get screwed up."

"Yes, besides those. If you follow the trail it leads to something... someone, pushing the lawyers about the money with whatever kind of guns they think they can load and fire."

"You mean an inside job?"

"It almost always is. Petty criminals can't get near the big cash and the big game. Only the big players are ever in the room when the vault is open."

"Like a personal manager, or an agent?"

"Could be."

"Or one of the guys in the band?"

"You can't get any more inside than that," the jolly old elf said, sadly. "Was anyone in the band acting weird during the tour, or after the tour? Anyone make odd, non sequitur remarks about the future of the band?"

"I can't believe it."

"Believe it, son. There's this rock and roll band called the Rolling Stones. Ever heard of them?"

"Hm-m, yes, the name is familiar..." I smirked. "British, right?"

"Hail Britannia!" said Scotland Yard.

"When they plan a tour, or want to issue a DVD or yet another greatest hits album, it's all business. The rest of the year they go their separate ways and work on their own projects and don't bother each other. Mick boinks babes. Keith dopes his blood. Ron paints pictures. Charlie plays jazz. Any one of them could spoil the whole party by announcing they've had enough crap, and bail, like Bill Wyman did. But they've learned. Why screw up a good thing? When the human race wants a lift, they go out and listen to some music! If they need to file into a stadium 40,000 at a time and stand on their feet for yet another faithful rendition of "Satisfaction", and they want to shower money on you for the effort, why not get together every so often?"

"Hear, hear!" I said

"Bloody hell!" said Scotland Yard.

"In point of fact, in all my seventeen hundred plus years, I've only seen one other reason, besides money, that provides a powerful enough incentive to screw up a good thing."

"And that is...?"

"You'll have to ask Bill Wyman."

"You mean, like wounded pride?"

"Wounded, healed, surgically cosmeticized... whatever. Until a person can regain his dignity and self-worth, the funny thing is that he can feel so powerless that he believes the only way to regain the attention and admiration he deserves is to do something harmful. Thankfully, it's not a permanent state... at least, it doesn't have to be. But these are the coal-in-the-stocking crowd. I have to make a list of them every year. It's the saddest task I have."

Scotland Yard and I looked at each other in silence.

"So, back to my original question," he said. "Any of Fusion's Fab Four sound wounded recently? Or weird?"


"Are you people baseball fans? Do you understand the Free Agent contract-year phenomenon? The guy who's about to leave as he's putting the finishing touches on a good year? Ken Griffey, Jr.? Miguel Tejada? Adrian Beltre? Andruw Jones? Anyone in the band talking like the band needs him more than he needs the band?"

"Here's the evidence, St. Nick," I began. For starters, it isn't Lenny. Going back to the beginning of time, his position has always been that if you can do what Return To Forever is capable of doing for people, your music goes beyond notes and sounds. It can help heal the ills of the world, so it carries a responsibility. When he talks about the 1975 concert at Warnom Rink in Central Park, he practically goes into a mystical reverie and describes the thousands of fans who stormed the barricades to get in. They wanted to see RTF so much that they knocked down the fences to see them, like when the Beatles landed at Idlewild in 1964. The actor Lawrence Fishburn was there that day, and said it was a turning point in his life. Lenny knew then that playing for RTF was a higher calling. He's on record in a interview only a month ago being asked if he'd be up for another RTF tour, and he said: "Just let me know where and when, I'm there ......"

"Yes, you're right," said St. Nick as he scratched his chin under his beard. "He's certainly not our culprit."

"The other three aren't as straightforward. Chick, for example..." I started, hesitating.

"Oh, don't you start, you bloody bastard!" Scotland Yard shouted at me. "We all know about Chick's historical reluctance over the years. But you bloody well know that the reasons have been largely artistic. He went from being Miles' fair-haired boy to leading the ultimate avant-garde super-group in Circle, then scorched the landscape with RTF. But instead of scuffling a bit after RTF dissolved, his career just kept spiralling upward. Blew up bigger than ever with Elektric Band, Akoustic Band, Origin, Touchstone, a monster career. It happens, even in jazz. That's show biz. But it's not as though it just fell on him like an anvil. One needs to fill one's dance card pretty frequently to win 14 Grammys. With all that he's had going on he hasn't had much reason to look backward in time, eh wot?"

"Totally. My only point is that he founded Return To Forever. And the whole concept of 'returning to forever' was a philosophical one. It connoted a returning to a spiritual state in which time and space were playthings and not allowed to block or ensnare a person's creative nature, or the good things that come from's not as though such a person would never again get stuck in a traffic jam, or never again lose a filling or have to stay up late filing a tax return... but he wouldn't let it keep him from achieving his aims. His last comment on his website in September, after the tour was over, was 'Well, it looks like the PR phrase used to promote the tour has become a reality: Return To Forever has returned! And I'm very happy about that.' "

"Forever. Bloody hell, mate. That's beautiful."

"It's true, too."

"That leaves Stanley and Al," St. Nick intoned. "Ahem."

"Well," I said, "you could say that Stanley has had his own reluctant history and talked his own game about reuniting with RTF."

"You could say that. Sure, you could. But consider that he is the only other person besides Chick to have played in all the RTF personnel configurations. From the beginning, with Horacee Arnold on drums and Hubert Laws on flute, rehearsing in a loft and hoping for a gig, he was a part of RTF through thick and thin.... all the way to the big finish, with the smoking-hot big band version at the Palladium Theater in New York for their farewell concert on May 21, 1977, when they recorded their 4-disc album Return To Forever Live."

"Which the bloody bastards at Columbia ought to remaster and keep in print."

"And when it was time to reunite, Stanley was right there, every single step of the way. He's not a likely suspect."

"So, dear friends," St. Nick said in a very business-like tone, "in the words of Hercule Poirot, 'and then there was one.' What's he had to say for himself?"

Scotland Yard and I both laughed out loud.


"Al is a guitar player, Santa. Not only do the young women follow him around and fawn over him, so do the old women, young men, little girls, little boys, old hipsters and old rockers, grandmothers and den mothers. His website's forum gets more posts on it in a day than the other three get in a month, combined."

"Classic," Santa said. "And he likes to pop off once in awhile, right?"

"Right," I said.

"Exhibit A," Scotland Yard said. "Here's a little posting on from Al himself:"

Post subject: Re: A potential mistake by R2F...
Posted: Sun Oct 12, 2008 11:33 pm
Joined: Thu Dec 28, 2006 2:24 pmPosts: 79
Sad to say a studio recording is not going to happen with RTF and neither is a future tour it appears! We thought different but new music anyway seems more appealing to me anyway so with that news the future now of both my World Sinfonia acoustic group and Electric group project separately are looking great and new writing is in the works these next months! Thanks to all of you and the complete story on this subject can only be told off record! Al Di

"So, there's your boy," St. Nick stated flatly. "It was Al Di. He's the one who scuttled the Good Ship RTF's planned release of the DVD."

"And the studio album, future tours?"

"That seems to be the case. You've read the man's post... he may have had a little encouragement, real or imagined, but that's what happened," he said, his eyes misting. "But don't go jumping out a window. The Future is actually a collection of all our futures, and we create them all. The Future is a big place. But for now, RTF's doesn't seem to include Al."

"How can you be so sure?" I asked.

"How can I be sure? I'm St. Nick. I know whatever I want to know. It's what I do. I need to know who's been naughty and who's been nice in my business. To paraphrase what the Nike commercial says, I just know it."

"Bloody hell. We should have called you sooner," Scotland said, her eyes glowing. "You can just know something."

"Mm-hm. Yes. I must tell you, it is very useful to be able to recognize the truth when you see it. It saves a lot of messing around, a lot of time and energy."

"In a way, you have 'returned to forever'," I said.

"Yes, you could say that. And for you fans of deductive reasoning, the telltale line in Al's post on the fan forum is the one where he says the complete story would need to be told off the record. When he said that, he effectively confessed his culpability and spared you from having to hear the details. I'm sure there were all sorts of extenuating circumstances. The blow-by-blow description would likely be fascinating as can be, for at least 5 minutes..."

Scotland Yard and I sat in stunned silence for a few minutes.

"Why?" I asked. "How wounded could a great guitar player like Al Di Meola be?"

"The size of the wound..." the old elf sighed, his voice trailing off. "The size of the hurt is always comparable to the love between the wounder and wounded. It could be the smallest thing. But it is magnified through the lens of the relationship. Whatever it is, he'll likely get over it someday..." As St. Nick stood up and stretched, he looked at his watch. "Well, look at that. It's nearly 7:00 pm. But let's say we ended at 5:00 pm, and I'll just charge you for a single day."

"What do we owe you?" I asked, pulling out my checkbook.

"Owe me?" he asked. "That's not how it's done, young man. Strictly speaking, you don't owe me a thing. North Pole Rules."

"Come again...?"

"North Pole Rules. I'm St. Nick. Santa Claus. The jolly old elf. I have billions upon billions. My taxes support half the federal government budgets in the world, but no worries, I still have everything I could ever want. I'm your basic success story. I have a wife who loves me, work that I love, all the fine food I could ever eat, including several million or so cookies and glasses of milk a year, and on those cold Arctic nights, all the schnapps and hot chocolate I could ever drink. I wear these beautifully-tailored red suits and a hat that keeps my ears warm even at the pole. I drive a hot-rodded sleigh with a custom Rolls Royce engine that screams along on any fuel I can squeeze into the tank. I run a hugely successful business with hundreds of faithful and hard-working employees who produce an enormous volume of high-quality toys and goodies... I don't personally need or want anything. In my career and life, there's not nearly as much fun in receiving gifts as there is in seeing other people get what they want. Hence, the North Pole Rules."

"Which are?"

"Well, the rule that applies here is the one covering my compensation package. To compensate me adequately for what I just did for you, you need to figure out how to make someone else, or a lot of someone elses, that much happier. That's the rule. It just needs to be commensurate with what you've gotten, or expect to get," he said, flashing me a wink. "It's not measured in dollars -- that's all foolishness. You've got a bill in your hand for a full day at my premium holiday-season rate. That implies big-time consideration. And don't forget to work out how you might help cheer up Al Di as part of the deal. He's not all bad... down deep he's a pretty good guy, actually. I'm sure he would like to have a copy of the DVD in his stocking at Christmas, too."

"I suppose. Well, that's EXACTLY what I'd like to do, for all those Return To Forever fans. I'd like to get them all a DVD of the RTF 2008 reunion tour to put in their Christmas stockings."

"Then you'd best get busy, son," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "Ho ho ho, you'd best get busy."


* Return To Forever Live at Montreux 2008 will undoubtedly be a killer recording when it is released -- November 17th in Europe for £11.99, November 18th in the U.S. as an import, for $29.49:

Disc: 1

1. Opening Prayer

2. Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy

3. Vulcan Worlds

4. Sorceress

5. Song To The Pharaoh Kings

Disc: 2

1. No Mystery

2. Romantic Warrior

3. Duel Of The Jester And The Tyrant

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Setting the Music Free

Miles Davis - photo © 1983 by Paul Natkin

Tony Williams Lifetime - photographer unknown

Headhunters - photo by Beth Herzhaft

Weather Report - photographer unknown

Mahavishnu Orchestra - photographer unknown

Return to Forever - photographer unknown

In constructing the Mount Rushmore of Jazz-Rock Fusion, this photograph might seem redundant in some ways, or unnecessarily obscure in others. It is included here for two reasons: 1) the shot, likely taken in July of 1972 at Moldejazz, a large international festival held annually in Molde, Norway, includes four of the five people who in October would go into London's I.B.C. Studios on two successive Sundays to record Light As A Feather (Polydor 1972/ Verve 1998), regarded now as among the half dozen truly seminal recordings of the genre; and 2) the photo includes Airto Moreira, whose impact in shaping the formative sound of this band cannot be overstated. His face isn't carved into the history of jazz-rock like Tony Williams, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin or Miles Davis, but like scores of other musicians whose faces should be immortalized, he is missing only because of the limitations of the dangerously fickle worlds of engineering celebrity and sculpting mountains with dynamite.

In the beginning stages of creating his band Chick had been employing Horacee Arnold as his drummer. Arnold was no slouch, but at the time he was more interested in straight ahead and free jazz than the band's Latin-flavored fusion. One day Chick asked his singer, Flora Purim, to bring her husband along to a rehearsal for an upcoming gig at the Village Vanguard (the two had played together in Miles Davis' band, so they were already somewhat familiar with each other). When Airto sat in with them it was immediately apparent that his samba rhythms were exactly what the band needed. The influence he had in creating the wide open spaces and sunny, relaxed atmospherics of the early editions of Return to Forever is immeasurable.

Also pictured in the photo between Airto and Stanley Clarke is Billy Tragesser, whose vocal talents were temporarily being employed in the absence of the fifth member of the band who was busy giving birth to her and Airto's daughter, Diana. Standing on Chick's right is one of his oldest friends from the early scuffling days in New York, Joe Farrell, the multi-reedman (all saxes, flutes, even double reeds) who had fortuitously taken the place of flautist Hubert Laws and whose extraordinary talents ultimately did as much as Wayne Shorter's in defining the uplifting positivity and emotional high that was created by early Jazz-Rock. This exact configuration of musicians, consisting of (l. to r.) Farrell, Corea, Clarke, Tragesser and Moreira, did a taping for the television program Reelin' In The Years which showed them playing their current book of material. In seeing and hearing it live the real woof and warp of the music, the real spirit of it, is conveyed in all its glory. Unbelievable as that sounds... because certainly, anyone familiar with the Polydor recording knows Flora's nearly six-octave range and incredible vocal gymnastics are an integral part of it. But Tragesser is a good vocalist and does fine by the material. The unfortunate irony is that this is the only available video of that stellar band in performance. It is strangely absent from the RITY catalog ( so until they work out how to release it as a DVD, it exists only as a very hard-to-find VHS bootleg,

The only audio recording I've ever heard of this band performing live is also, unfortunately, a bootleg. This bothers me on a number of levels. As a fan, I always want to hear good recordings. Listening to scratchy, low-fidelity crap hasn't ever been my idea of a good time, so I really don't mind paying a fair price for a well-made professional recording. I actually like to support the artists involved, too, and thus have never felt a strong urge to "rip" commercial recordings. I know that if I enjoy hearing a particular musician's music, I need to make sure he has money to pay the bills and keep making music -- not many jazzers are in a rock-and-roll income bracket. But when musicians and/or their record companies can't manage to release recordings, especially of live performance, then bootlegs are what we fans are left with.

Over the past few days these ruminations have taken on an almost mystical quality for me as I've pondered the carefree expression on Airto's face in the photo, recalling something he said to me in an interview we did three years ago. As he reminisced and compared those early days in the Village in New York to the atmosphere in music today, he said, "Music became a commodity, a big commodity, you know, that people buy and they sell." With nostalgia in his voice, he described being afforded the opportunity to hang out and play with the likes of Elvin and Thad Jones, Billy Higgins, Jimmy Garrison, Billy Hart, Mel Lewis, Jerry Dodgion, Walter Booker and Jan Hammer, during a time when "music kind of represented a fraternity in the world, because we played for everybody and we played with each other, for no reason... no money, you know, we wanted to jam. . . I remember, sometimes we used to go, you know, just take the subway, going up and down, and we used to go to three different places in one night, jamming. . . Now, instead of sharing music, it's a lot of competition, actually. Competition replaced sharing. But since then... Of course, there's still sharing. Sharing is going to be in the world forever. But it's very different now."

As long as there are people like Airto, I believe he's right: there will always be sharing in the world, and it will inspire performances like this improvised homage he did for Miles in the 2004 documentary, Miles Electric: A Different Kind of Blue (Eagle Rock Entertainment).

That spirit of sharing has me intrigued. It is the opposite sentiment from the one engulfing the Free World at the moment. After a steady diet of bad and worse economic news in recent months, people have backed fearfully into their corners, the Haves barricading themselves and secreting their wealth while the Have Nots try to force them at bayonet-point to share it. Sort of a silent French Revolution. How stupid. It is the very ethical short-sightedness and political selfishness of one and all that precipitated these awful economic problems in the first place.

The music industry's own variation on the problematic economy is in free fall as well. Through monopolization and price gouging they have helped produce poor sales and a whole segment of the population that sneaks into clubs and "shares" digital files. Once again, how stupid.

In the spirit of the moment, I want to promote a few websites that openly share their musical bounty. These sites are particularly near and dear to my heart because they contain recordings of live performances. In the case of National Public Radio's World Cafe, you've already helped support them with your tax dollars. Wolfgang's Vault (The State of the Art and Wolfgang's Vault ) will gladly sell you 256K MP3 CDs of their massive collection of performances. In JazzFusion.TV's case you aren't going to be able to spend money on Rich Rivkin very easily. With all three you can stream the audio of untold thousands of incredible live performances. These people are in the business of setting the music free.

WOLFGANG'S VAULT ( has tons of classic 70's performances by Miles Davis, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jeff Beck, Mahavishnu Orchestra (a staggering collection of 25 shows recorded in that beautiful year, 1973). The owners of the site say they pay appropriate royalties to all involved.

JAZZFUSION.TV's videos are not the attraction, the audio files are. Many of these are privately recorded, so the quality is sometimes poor, but usually it's acceptable. Distinguishing features include a half dozen recordings of the under-recorded Tony Williams Lifetime, a few minutes of a rare Lenny White performance from 1977, Airto and Flora and a veritable trainload of Return to Forever (including one of the few decent captures of their 1983 reunion tour), Bill Bruford, Jeff Beck, Gary Burton, Larry Coryell, etc. The site is unique in that its proprietor does not sell his recordings, and makes them available on the basis that visitors to his site do not, either.

NPR's WORLD CAFE is unique in the respect that it is comprised of live in-studio performances digitally recorded at Philadelphia's WXPN studios since 1991. You can hear high-fidelity recordings of all manner of musical performers, including jazzers like Pat Metheny, Bela Fleck, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Herbie Hancock.

And you can stream the audio from all these sites for FREE. If you want to even up the kharmic exchange, make what comes around go around, you can buy the artist's CDs.

Yes, buy their CDs, and go see them perform live. Experience the music with all your perceptions and participatory might. Have some fun and give that kharmic wheel a good shove at the same time! It is worth noting: Flora told me that while she and Airto were playing in Return to Forever, they were lucky to make fifty bucks a week after expenses, but they didn't really care as long as they were able to help create that great music. Then she smiled and pointed out that when Verve did the 2-CD box re-issue of Light As A Feather in 1998, Chick sent them "a couple big checks".

Monday, September 8, 2008

RTF Reunion Tour DVD coming soon

photo by Wharfie of RTF's opening night at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas

Here's a newsflash for you: members of Return To Forever were in Los Angeles last week at Mad Hatter Studios, Chick's recording home for the last three decades, mixing the long-awaited live performance DVD of their recently concluded tour. Stanley had a gig in Las Vegas with Marcus Miller and Vic Wooten on Saturday the 30th, so they pushed right up to the Labor Day weekend.

If you were lucky enough to see them play during their 50-date tour, you know what good news this is. If you got to see a couple of those performances it just doubles the anticipation. But unless you were in the band, you didn't get to hear or see every performance. The live DVD should fill that void.

Not only that, when you see a live performance it goes bing-bang-boom and then it's over. No matter how good your recollection, your own mental "home movie" fades quickly. Re-living it is SO much easier if you have a DVD to prompt the memories.

Of course, if you wanted to see them live but weren't able to, here's your chance. I don't know who is doing the video post-production, but be assured that the guys in RTF are insisting on putting out work of the highest quality.

Oh yes. Bernie Kirsh did the recording, so the sound should be PHENOMENAL. Make sure your sound systems are ready...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Return To Forever Live in Los Angeles, Part 2 -- the Return of Music Magic

Photo by Paid PCS

Kareem stepped offstage as quietly as a giant in the land of L.A.-putians can. Like he'd said, he was there for the music. Chick walked forward into the lights to whistles and shouts and thunderclaps of applause, and, as they passed each other, pantomimed to Kareem (and to the crowd) that despite being a Bostonian he was a Laker fan, too. The noise and distraction died quickly and the musicians took their places.

After the first note of "Hymn of the 7th Galaxy" was struck the immediate focal point was the off-kilter beat Lenny established while he opened things up with an entirely new introduction to their famous tune. Reminiscent of one of those Bitches Brew sessions, he was creating an atmosphere of mystery like the current in a river that had been flowing for eons. He stretched it a little as Chick was adjusting knobs on his Yamaha, furrowing his brow as he went... bringing to mind those days with Miles Davis' "Lost"(i.e., unrecorded, but later found and released by Columbia) Quintet -- Miles plus Chick, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette -- when he and his bandmates were first beginning to play with electronics, and each night's gig would begin with discovering what the rented Rhodes piano for that show was going to sound like. He owns all his own pianos now, but controlling musical electrons can still be an adventure. Meanwhile, Stanley was plucking a few notes to abet Lenny's mysterious intro.

Their approach to the tune is a very jazz thing to do, a teaser designed for a seasoned audience as a little "name that tune" game to see if the more astute listeners can hear the deconstructed rhythms and harmonies as the musicians weave the opening to a familiar standard. But as the band moved into the tune it was apparent that this wasn't the only departure from the recorded version of 35 years ago. This approach was tighter, in both the good and bad senses of that word. Tight as in nicely arranged and well-performed, really, really good. But tight as in not loose, also. Which is probably inevitable on the early dates of a tour for a band that has reunited after a 25-year-layout, performing newly arranged and quickly rehearsed versions of material they've played a thousand times (but not since their children were young).

Habit patterns form and are seemingly never forgotten. The originally improvised phrases turned into licks and grooves long ago. In trying to play a "hit" the way the fans remember it from way back when, it would be impossible for Return To Forever to avoid. But as jazzers they will always have a strong urge to give the tunes a new twist. De-construct and re-construct them. The result is that an updated version of a jazz number is usually quite different than the last time you heard it. But there is the inescapable fact that a new rendition of a hit will always be compared to the first definitive time you heard it. Having a hit is an unusual problem for a jazzer.

In the case of "Hymn of the 7th Galaxy", the original was powered by the loose, unrestrained improvisational genius of Bill Connors. Aside from the brilliant recorded version, one can also hear that early incarnation's raw, less rehearsed sound on

If there's anything RTF would not want to do, it would be to lose that looseness and lack of restraint. The smooth, sanded-down-and-buffed-to-a-mirror-finish production values common in modern recording and concert sound can make you forget what rough or un-rehearsed sound might even have to do with it. But it is at the heart of the matter. As the concert opened, loose and un-restrained they were not. But all the long term Return To Forever fans knew they would get there.

And they did.

Recently my wife and I were watching a PBS re-broadcast from four years ago of Daniel Barenboim performing five Beethoven piano sonatas. During one of the interview segments interspersed between performances Barenboim commented that despite his fingers having played these notes for fifty-four years, he was still discovering new aspects to them -- and not because he was looking for anything new, he said, but simply because he was "able to play them." This is an astonishing statement. The virtuoso pianist seems to be making the point that there is a kind of hightened perception and/or realization that can result at this level of mastery, in the actual act of playing the great German's compositions -- a synchronicity between the composer and the performer. And of course, it would be reasonable to assume that after one arrives at these new understandings, subsequent performances would continue to reach new heights. These sonatas are deceptively difficult. Barenboim's statement is even more astonishing when one considers that at age seven he was professionally playing these same compositions which had once inspired Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt to call their composer Ludwig van Beethoven a "devil". For fifty-four years the Argentine/Israeli pianist had spent hours upon hours of repeated playing and practice of those notes. Yet after all that performance at such a masterful level of capability, and after sustaining this for much of a lifetime, he could still wake up one morning and find something new about them.

How do you rehearse and play the same tune a thousand times and still find something new in it? How do you not rehearse the life out of the music? It's not an easy feat. But doing it is vital to the success of musical performance. In a blues or jazz performance, in which looseness -- that essential component in making a performance "swing" -- is so highly prized, it is critical. As I listened to Barenboim play I was entranced by his total involvement in each note, how alive and "new" they sounded. The ability to make the notes do this comes from being able to see and hear newly. See with fresh eyes in the here and now. Hear with fresh ears. And then perform it as something unique, new, crafted in the present moment.

It is how a great performer is able to invest real emotion in a piece and create an impact on his audience. Lack of the ability in a performer is also why, despite great technical facility, the result is flat and lifeless.

Chick Corea's long and successful career is due in large part to his great ability to do this. As the years roll by he has seemingly reversed the effects of time: instead of his music becoming "older", i.e., more reliant on established habits or patterns, it is becoming less so. Similar to Barenboim's views, his comment in an interview for John Novello's book The Contemporary Keyboardist (Hal Leonard, 2000) was that in addition to relying on studied technique, he discovers and develops new techniques as they are needful while in the act of creation, right there in the immediate moment at hand as he performs a piece. A few years ago I heard him perform solo at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara. Aside from a surprise appearance by his wife Gayle Moran for a soaring duet rendition of "You're Everything", the highlight of the evening was a bravura performance of "Children's Song No. 6", one of twenty tunes he began writing in 1971 for his children Liana and Thad. Chick's later arrangement of No. 6 as "Song to the Pharaoh Kings" is the best-known version, the anthemic show-stopper that RTF fans would always clamor for back in the day. So in some ways it was surprising when he announced from the stage that this particular Children's Song would be his next piece. On this intimate evening when he had the freedom to do anything he pleased for an audience who would have been thrilled with whatever he wanted to play, he chose to select something he had played a thousand times. My familiarity with the composition's performance history intensified my curiosity as I watched him unfold the sheet music and lay it out across the top of the piano to study, as if it were new. There on that warm summer evening on the California coast, he decided to do something new. As he sat down he immediately began to strike the keys with an emotional ferocity of a Lisztian demon, playing the tune that clocks in at 2:38 on ECM's Children's Songs (ECM, 1984) for the next ten minutes with the movement and dynamics of a concerto. The creative force and vigor he poured into the performance enthralled the audience and as the last sustained notes floated out above their heads, left them speechless. After a split-second of silence for the capacity crowd to inhale a deep breath, the room exploded with shouts of pleasure and applause.

Over the years Chick had been able to achieve this level of creative vitality with the variatious incarnations of RTF. His ability to position himself at the center of the artistic moment, in the eye of the creative hurricane, was becoming evident early on in the way he extended it through his leadership in attracting players who had the same ability. With Stanley, Joe Farrell, Airto and Flora he not only gathered talent on top of talent, he had players around him who could climb right into the hurricane with him and play. A year later when he gerrymandered the personnel for the purposes of creating a more electric jazz by plugging in Clarke and adding Bill Connors, Mingo Lewis and Steve Gadd, he had a jazz-rock band to rival Mahavishnu Orchestra. But Chick wanted to break new ground, play avant-garde jazz-rock. Enter Lenny White, an incredibly rare combination of rock power and jazz finesse, and finally Al Di Meola. As a leader he wanted a band with monster chops. He was increasingly able to coordinate big talents of different players and imbue them with the life force that allows them to approach a piece right now, now, and not as a continuation of previous performances.

This is the factor that made all the different versions of RTF so exciting. And it is certainly what made this powered-up version of Return To Forever so formidable. Changes? These guys could start and stop time signatures on a dime, switch keys like a Ferrari shifting gears, double and do unison runs that would stand the hair up on the back of your neck. And then cut it all loose and fly solo, free as a bird. Corea's compositions demanded it, yes. But this was a band of musicians who demanded it for themselves. Eventually, with their leader's encouragement, the other band members would write for the band, too. What drove it all was the music's vitality.

Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974) was the most alive-sounding studio album I'd ever heard. But within a year and half the invigorating pulse and high-energy positivity they created had begun to wane. Ironically, RTF's last studio album, Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976) despite its sophisticated compositions and high-level musicianship, and despite its great popularity (it garnered a gold record, a rare accomplishment in jazz), was oddly lifeless in some ways. That living lightning at the moment of creation had begun to flicker and fade. What was left was a meticulously performed and recorded studio album that arguably came up short in this most crucial respect, which likely had as much to do with the band's demise as any other factor. Even while performing the material live and playing streams of 32nd notes for the long, classically nuanced "Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant" for the filming of the Old Grey Whistle Test, they managed to sound bored at times.

Thirty-two years later, as RTF opened with "Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy" at the beginning of the June 13th Los Angeles show, all but Lenny seemed to be sort of hanging back, but in fact the new intro was arranged as the emphatic drumbeat of this "new" band. Lenny had his hands on the controls and soon his skillful guidance was weaving his special musical magic that somehow loosens the harmonic reins even as it tightens the pocket. When it came time for Al Di Meola to do his version of the guitar solo that had made Bill Connors famous, he started out stiffly, but sixteen bars into his workmanlike rendition his fingers started warming up and he began grabbing the attention of his loyal L.A. followers. The crowd was there to see him after all, not Connors. As the guitarist's admirers in the crowd began responding enthusiastically to his first few phrases, he couldn't have helped feeling the mojo. In his trademark cowboy boots he looked a little like Wild Bill Hickock being wakened from a nap by a crowd who had long since acknowledged him as the champion gunslinger of jazz-rock, ready to watch him start shooting the eyes out of the eagles on twenty-dollar gold pieces. Stanley seemed somewhat detached as he played in a thoughtful, almost dreamlike way while Chick alternated between testing keys and working through some obviously unexpected last-minute keyboard adjustments.

Then they ripped into a concert for all times.

The set list for the evening, despite the natter and nonsense from fans in a few of the venues later on their tour as they moved eastward, was pretty close to what the band published on Apparently some nights as they headed for the east coast they would drop tunes from the play list in favor of others. But frankly, who cares? Lenny would remark later in the show that on this particular night at the Gibson Amphitheater they were feeling like they were among a knowledgeable-enough group of aficionados that they could even dispense with introducing the song titles for the audience. What was important to me, at least, was that I was getting to hear live performances of "Song to the Pharaoh Kings", "Sorceress" and "Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant" by a fired-up Return To Forever.

Set lists? Set lists? We don't need no stinking set lists!

In many ways, what these guys did for their 2008 reunion by sticking to a collection of their greatest hits was more difficult than what they had attempted during their 1983 reunion. The idea informing their choice of including some new tunes back then was probably that after disbanding Return To Forever their four careers had all continued, with widely colorful and divergent variations, in fairly traditional jazz trajectories. The assumption was that their followers knew this, that they were fans who appreciated the sometimes difficult aspect of life which, not coincidentally, is a fundamental ingredient in jazz -- change -- and that they would like to experience a journey into the unknown. They believed it was time for a new phase of RTF. Their careers had moved on. But the assumption seems to have been incorrect. It appears the record-buying and concert-going public wanted the hits from yesteryear. So it goes with popular art forms.

For the last two days I've been listening to a Russian bootleg of a set at the Albuquerque, New Mexico stop on that first reunion tour and marveling at the ambitious avant-gardism of the jazz-rock these guys were playing. Lenny is definitely the engine of the band, as usual, mixing it up with an assortment of poly-rhythms in a deft interplay with the other three. Stanley is playing the upright more in the manner of his straight-ahead jazz sound from 1972 and displaying everything from his jaw-dropping pizzicato to his wonderful chording. Di Meola is the biggest surprise: his frenetic pinball wizardry in the upper registers of the fretboard gets flashed on occasion, with the usual swoons from the crowd, but in the main he is playing it as low and loose as his goose ever flew, churning out growling, bluesy solo runs and nicely-chorded fills, really comping effectively with the others. Chick is playing with some new keyboard effects that sound like the early, funkier exploratory stages of those colorful early-80's synthesized sounds he was trying to move into at the time and that soon led to the early, less rehearsed Elektric Band sound, evident on tunes like "Malaguena" on the gem Chick Corea Elektric Band Live from Elario's (the first gig) (Stretch, 1996). A big part of what was keeping them loose and fresh was that a batch of new compositions had been thrown into the mix. Along with "No Mystery" and "Romantic Warrior" on the bootlegged set is an ambitious one called "Tris the Phantom" which, of course, incorporates a few bars of Chick's sense of humor in the form of a nice Phantom of the Opera pipe-organ effect on his synthesizer.

Listening to this 1983 recording it occurred to me that the newly-composed material washed over the older material and exerted a nice influence on how they played it, making it easier for the boys to loosen up. The arrangements were more open and allowed a bit more improvisation so that they played around with the original tunes, instead of simply playing them. The jazzer in me loved it.

But what the fans wanted on that reunion was Return To Forever's greatest hits. So I understand why there might have been some reluctance to do this reunion if RTF thought it meant dusting off a set of tunes that had been assigned to the archivists and royalty accountants, and finding something new in them while at the same time hewing closely to the originals. In the 1970's Return To Forever was a band totally committed to the magic in music. When the magicians could no longer conjure it up, Chick, Stanley Lenny and Al all moved on to separate careers. But the experience is different for the fans: they weren't ready to move on. They missed the magic and wanted it to return.

So return it did.

How were the musicians able to do it? They did it by falling in love with their music all over again, by playing their "hits" as faithfully as they could, but in the here and now. I'm sure the version of "Sorceress" I heard on June 13th in L.A. was different than the one they heard later in New York, and I'm sure the set lists were different, too. They were playing. They were having fun. How were they able to do it? How were they able to play them as they had never played them before? Stanley did it by playing a kitchen-sink solo on his big upright bass that started with a quotation of the tune "Silly Putty" from his solo album Journey to Love (SBME, 2008) moved through some gut-bucket Chicago blues and two-fisted fret drumming, and ended with windmilling his arm like Pete Townsend in one of the most amazing acts of earthquake preparedness and crowd-pleasing showmanship I've ever seen. Al opened the second set with a nice flamenco that felt like a cool ocean breeze after an hour of burning, when he had picked so fast that he was splitting 32nd notes into 64th notes and parting the C's. Lenny, well, Lenny was the dynamo at the center of everything musical that night. He played with both hands and both feet as he re-invented every tune they played to make damn certain it all stayed fresh, giving a performance that would surely make his mentor Tony Williams proud. And at the end, when the musicians were leaving the stage soaked in sweat after the second encore, Chick saw the exuberant crowd on its feet demanding a third encore and dashed after them to bring them back. All those archived compositional gemstones had been re-born. Whenever he had taken solos that night they were mind-blowing journeys into other musical worlds, created in the immediacy of the present moment, and his comping was heard but not seen, done with his usual superlative sensitivity to the other artists. So what did he choose to end the show with? He strapped on his guitar-shaped Yamaha KX and joined the two guitar players at the front of the stage for a roof-raising rendition of his best-known, most over-played tune of all, "Spain" -- the song that "has helped me and haunted me for 30 years" he wrote in the liner for Chick Corea Solo Piano: Originals (Stretch, 2000) -- and turned the old workhorse, the greatest of his greatest hits, into a showcase for four supremely accomplished musicians as they soloed and kicked it out over the slickest groove in the history of jazz-rock, turned it inside out and on its head, created something loose and free and new, and had the 6,000 in attendance singing accompaniment.

It was music magic.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Some thoughts on RTF's new 2-CD anthology and the inevitable live recording for this tour

This photo of Lenny White on the kit was taken two nights ago at Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, Oregon, and was published on the website with a credit saying it is by Paid PCS. The shot caught by eye because of the hinged plexiglass (or whatever it is) baffle Lenny has set up around the drumstand. I'm not a sound engineer, so I won't pretend to speak with authority here.

But here are a few facts:

A few years ago I had a conversation with Bernie Kirsh, Chick Corea's first-choice recording engineer for over 30 years, during which I asked him if he had recorded any of that evening's proceedings -- the Elektric Band had just concluded a set of adroit, stretched-out renditions of a half dozen tunes from their recent To the Stars (Stretch Records, 2004). His response was "We record everything now." He said that with digital technology, the relative ease of setting up a live recording makes it possible to record every performance as they please. This gives them a running archive of every performance and a means of reviewing each one, technically, as well as musically. Imagine a musician not having to remember the nuances of a lick or groove from the night before, but instead being able to just play it back. Even more so, for an arranger on Corea's level who creates compositions with as much room for improvisation as he does, for his sidemen as well as for himself, these daily archives allow for quick incorporations of his players' musical ingenuity into constantly evolving arrangements. Chick probably began this practice decades ago when he played with Miles and would make his private recordings on a small portable cassette recorder, but now digital recorders make it nearly effortless. Not that a review recording is needed for this approach to composing -- after all, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were doing the same by mentally making their own "private recordings". But in the hands of an accomplished composer this is quite a tool.

The really important thing about these nightly captures is that they are done at Bernie Kirsh's level of quality. Bernie has what are referred to as "golden ears". He hears subtleties and details in a musical recording beyond what an amateur might hear, so when he records Chick and other musicians of his caliber he is able to make the musical instruments sound utterly natural when you and I listen to them on a CD. Just like a good photographer is able to produce a photograph that makes an apple look like an apple instead of a reddish-orange blob, a recording engineer like Rudy Van Gelder was able to create his famous recordings for Blue Note Records that made him the most sought-after jazz engineer of his era, and in the current era Bernie is able to really make a recorded piano sound like a piano, and a bass sound like a bass. Instead of drums sounding like thrashed and bashed tubs and cans, he makes sure you hear the tonality and timbre of a brushed cymbal or vibrating snare.

And what this means is that the recordings he is doing each night of Chick, Stanley, Al and Lenny as Return To Forever Returns are going to be incredible. When RTF last re-united 25 years ago, they did it without the advantages of this technology. They didn't issue a live recording from the tour. The fact that they were working out with a lot of new material may have played a role in the difficulties of releasing a record, but it's likely they just could not find soundboard material they considered good enough to be worth the effort of mixing and mastering.

That won't be a problem this time.

The good news doesn't stop there. Earlier today I put on headphones and listened to the 60-second samples on for all 20 of the tunes selected for the Return To Forever: The Anthology (Concord Records, 2008) 2-CD set released last week. My first observation is that these are good MP3 files, probably 256k, but whatever they are... they sound awfully damn good. In an earlier blog article I made some skeptical comments regarding the possible value remixing and remastering these tracks might have, but forget that. If these samples are any indication, we are in for a treat. For one thing, the included tracks from their masterwork Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974) are an answer to a crying need. Arguably the finest studio recording from the Chick-Stanley-Al-Lenny era of RTF, the CD issue of that recording suffers from the early-technology digital flatness and low-fi muddiness that earned early CDs their well-deserved reputation for inferiority to the original analog/vinyl recordings. Streaming samples of these anthologized tunes may not be the fairest way to assess the new recordings, but it isn't bad if you consider that any improvement you hear in this medium is going to be even more impressive on a decent CD playback system. On top of that, the promo on the anthology says it includes a fat booklet full of rare photos and notes written by Bob Belden, the man behind all those Columbia/Legacy Miles Davis box sets like the complete Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way sessions, a man who knows a couple things about jazz/rock fusion.

The next question is, do you suppose Chick, Stanley, Al and Lenny employed Grammy-winning engineer Mick Guzauski to do just the 20 tunes included on this anthology? Do you suppose Mick hauled out all those analog tapes and then stopped and started the machine as he remixed/remastered only the selections requested for the The Anthology? Not on your life. If newly done versions of every Return To Forever recording aren't already in the can, they soon will be. Look for a gloriously packaged box set of re-mixed/mastered recordings of the entire RTF catalog, at least the post-ECM issues (Manfred Eicher may not be interested in redoing Return To Forever, but it doesn't really need it, does it?) in time for Christmas.

And the last question is: Is this the end of the line for Return To Forever? Will they issue a DVD/CD package as part of a PBS fundraiser and then go back to their lives?

Stay tuned.