Sunday, February 24, 2008

Return To Forever Redux - LIVE!

The last Friday before Christmas I went to see Chick Corea and his Elektric Band play at Catalina's in Hollywood. It was a good show that featured, even for Chick, a uniquely different musical approach. The traditional solo instruments - Chick's pianos, Gambale's guitars and Marienthal's saxes - transformed as the night progressed into playing support for the rhythm section. I couldn't really tell if the reversed roles were planned or even anticipated. It looked to me as though the musicians had yielded to the hot hand when the improvisational hot spots began to take on a life of their own. They did a number of old Elektric Band standards, including "Silver Temple" (dedicated to pianist Roger Williams, seated at a guest table with Gayle Moran Corea) originally recorded live at one of the very first Elektric Band gigs, at Elario's in La Jolla, California. But the room finally exploded with the standout performance of a fired-up Dave Weckl, who put on a drum clinic worthy of Max Roach at the beginning of the tune "Johnny's Landing" (which Chick introduced wryly as "Dave's Landing") from the CD To the Stars (Stretch, 2004).

After the show, my friend Dave S. and I stood out in the unseasonably cold December night on Sunset Blvd. and reviewed the evening's highlights. He opened with a comment that he had been a bit stunned upon hearing the drummer's impressive solo, because despite all the recordings of the musician's work that he had heard, he never would have suspected that Weckl, known for his distinctive rock-and-roll attack, could play with the dynamic range he had just displayed.

Which made me smile. I remembered experiencing similar amazement when I first heard the Elektric Band live, even remarking once to Chick's long-time production manager that early on I didn't particularly care for the Elektric Band, at which point she'd grinned and gently interrupted me, finishing my sentence by saying: "...until you heard them live. Right?" Exactly. Any quibble I ever had with their studio work has long since been vaporized by the blazing, hotter-than-hot shows I've gotten to see them do. And that evening at Catalina's was no exception. Surprise and invention, the elements I find so intoxicating in jazz, began to be served up like buckets hurled out of a steaming cauldron when funkmeister and guest bassist Vic Wooten finally got his fingers warmed up and started contributing his brand of world-music craziness to the proceedings, taking full advantage of Weckl's hot sticks. When the two timekeepers finally got the whole volcanic confluence boiling along nicely with their killer back-up musicians tearing along with them, we were all treated to the 4/4, 5/4, 6/4 and 7/4 times of our lives.

Live music. You never know what you're going to hear. My friend Bob W. was just telling me last night about a Clapton performance he once saw, during which the guitar wizard had improvised a slowed-down acoustic version of "Crossroads", a la his swinging shuffle version of "Layla" or the Beatles' "Revolution 1". Bob said that as he listened to EC's re-constructed rendition of the old Cream tune that night, he kept thinking: "Oh my God, I hope they're recording this, because it's probably the only time he'll ever do it."

Live music is alive!

As I listened to Chick's endlessly creative work on his array of keyboards that night, the most noteworthy thing for me was hearing him re-working some of his trademark Return To Forever licks. It was quite apparent he is looking forward to the upcoming reunion tour... I could hear it in the way he was affectionately incorporating and rehearsing a small handful of the scores of compositional modules (like the various Children's Songs) that he's been writing and re-writing and re-inventing since the mid-60's, those melodic and harmonic matrices he began improvising, composing, refining in his days before and during his stint with Miles, modifying them as the occasion called for on his early solo piano improvisations, the harmonically ascendant Fender Rhodes riffs and ecstatic synthesizer peals on tunes like "Song to the Pharoah Kings" on Return To Forever's album Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974), and so many of the hard-bopping, post-bopping, Spanish-hearted concertos, psalms, tangos, ditties and songs-of-singing that have followed.

Return To Forever is returning (with a promise to do their hits). Chick Corea on the world's most elaborate collection of pianos (rumor has it he just bought another vintage Rhodes), synths and other assorted keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, Lenny White on drums and Al DiMeola on guitar. This is the jazz Fab Four from back in the day. In my mind they were the undisputed heavyweight champions of jazz-rock/fusion/prog rock, the mind-blowing band of virtuosi that set the scene on fire. In fairness, they shared the stage with a few other heavyweight contenders that weren't too bad, either -- Chick's friends and ex-bandmates John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra), Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul (Weather Report) and Herbie Hancock (Headhunters). What a time that was. Miles was in the middle of a 5-yr. hiatus to do some boxing and cook some fish. He almost had to lay out after starting all that trouble when his proteges began picking up the gauntlet and slapping sense into the jazz world's auditory nerves. Nothing before or since rivals the phenomenon that occurred, so if you didn't experience the spiritual vibe of thousands upon thousands of fans filling a skating rink in Central Park to hear jazz... it might be hard to imagine.

It is going to happen again this summer. No domestic or European or Asian tour dates have been announced yet. Not even Chick's booking agency has a date scheduled after May, a highly unusual development for a guy accustomed to booking gigs two years in advance.

Stay tuned.

1 comment:

mtnman said...

Man, you oughta write a book. This is some good stuff.