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.


Bob said...

Awesome man -- makes me feel like I was there. Great stuff.

Carl Hager said...

Thank you, Bob. By the way, RTF's website is promoting that they're going to release a DVD of live performances from this tour. That ought to be good!