Saturday, October 31, 2015

Night of the Living Dead: Dark Tales of the Black Forest, Part 4

by Carl L. Hager

Is it possible?

Seven years later and all we have to show for the return of Return to Forever, the once and future kings of jazz/rock--that mighty musical organization whose infinite musical influence Sting referred to as "scorched earth" for the way they set such a star-high standard for jazz, for rock, forever--is...nothing. The kings have still not reappeared.

Return to Forever, when last seen on our fair planet Earth, had completed a world tour and capped it off with an announcement that a DVD/CD, compiled from their live performances, was imminent. Then nothing happened.

Nothing continued to happen. Being privy to some of the machinations and inner tickings and tockings of that organization, I wrote this, on October 31, 2008:

As Jon Gruber (@gruber) would say, a little bird had told me, chirpped it into my ear, that something was not right in the Black Forest of Big Music.

The king was dead.

More correctly, the kings were dead. Well, not dead exactly. Otherwise occupied probably says it. They've moved on. Saying they are dead would imply that kingmaker Chick Corea and his co-kingmaker, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist and tintinnabulist Al Di Meola, and keeper-of-the-time Lenny White, were the walking dead. That would be unfair.

It would also be unfair, and inaccurate as well, to say that no DVD was ever issued. Claude Nobs, founder and organizer of the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, has been filming or video-ing selected performances since first mounting his festival in 1967, and has documented some of the greats. There is nothing wrong with those recordings. But the performances can be uneven, and tend to be staged-looking and unimaginatively recorded. In some ways they are intended more as historical recordings than entertainment. The performance Nobs captured of the reunited Return to Forever band falls in that category for me. Even though the band tried to rev up the crowd at the end and get some excitement going, it wasn't meant to be. None of the band looks comfortable. The brewing problems with Al Di Meola, which ironed out a lot as he and the others did additional performances of the new arrangements, is evident in the tentativeness on some tunes. I saw the Montreux DVD once and had no interest in seeing it again.

So let's get real. There's been no DVD released that shows the incredible magic of what these guys were doing that summer of 2008. To do the tour justice would have required investing lots of time and energy, not to mention expense. Professional camera work at multiple locations and venues to ensure a wide selection of useable performances, plus good-quality sound and video editing in post-production, would have required a dedicated effort. And I can attest that it would have been worth every dime and minute. I saw and heard music performed that is beyond anything I'd imagined I would hear--and I was very familiar with their recorded output. This was an opportunity to record what ultimately was the last meeting of these four players, a band who were among the pioneers spawned by Miles Davis's Bitches Brew sessions. They, along with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter in Weather Report, John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams's Lifetime and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, revolutionized jazz. To say that the token effort in documenting their tour was disappointing doesn't begin to express it.

Do you know what is, hands down and far and away, the all-time, most-read item on this blog, ever? The story I published stating that the DVD was coming. For the last seven years, music fans have been searching for clues all up and down the block. People from here in the U.S. and Japan, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, England, France, Germany, Latvia, Brazil, Norway, Sweden, Chile, China (yes, I'm allowed through the firewall there) and scores of other jazz-friendly countries, have been the real living dead. Well not really, because to say that would be unfair. But all of them have made their pilgrimages and come to my blog in search of news of Return to Forever's DVD. And found nothing.

Well, here's the bad news. There is no band called Return to Forever any more. If you want to know why:

1) Read or re-read the linked article cited above, "Dark Tales of the Black Forest." That gives you your first clue.

2) Ask yourself who or what could make any of this happen. Who or what would want to make it happen? Who (okay, let's skip the "or what"... "whats" don't stop anything, "whos" do) would consider his/her/its issues with self-importance to be so overwhelming that it meant leaving Return to Forever to pass into the dark black forest of Time, there to die like highlanders twisting from a garrotte's rope in the cold wind, and in the process deny all those beautiful fans of their combustible confluence of jazz and rock?

Who, indeed.

Once you have worked that out, you can fairly dismiss the real walking dead, the lawyers. They take their pounds of flesh and eat it like caviar. They're not only incapable of killing the music, they need it and come back for more. You can also dismiss the shiftless politicians the world over who repeatedly make laws that favor those lawyers, being lawyers themselves. All the insane laws that have been designed and re-designed to make it possible for the corporate hellhounds at the Big Three/Four (new math)--Universal Music Group/Sony BMG/EMI Group (recording), Sony/ATV (publishing), and Warner Music Group--to rip off all the recording artists, are actually not materially different than they ever were, no matter how they are litigated, reinterpreted and reworded. With very few exceptions, their aim has always been to enrich those companies at the expense of the recording artists, going all the way back to Edison and RCA and the others.

What changed is the world itself.

That's the badder news. Thanks to the "free" music available on YouTube and Spotify and Pandora, you and I have stopped supporting our favorite artists by not buying their CDs/records/downloads. Worse than that, we are unwittingly aiding and abetting piracy. YouTube's policy is to remove illegal posts only when they receive a formal complaint--if the pirate poster violates the copyright and uploads it again the next day, it stays until another complaint is received. But we listeners/viewers are oblivious to all this and just keep going back for more. We have died as active participants in the marketplace, and have come back as larcenous Undead Music Fans.

We can blame the Congress of the United States for the outdated and suppressive copyright laws governing artists' rights. Why not blame them for it? We're blaming them for everything else. If that's what makes your confused little head feel better, go ahead.

But until you and I start purchasing music again, the artists' fortunes will not improve.

Remember the movie Galaxy Quest? Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman and one of the finest science fiction scripts ever?

One of the finest science fiction scripts ever? How can you say that, Carl?

Here's how. A band of badly misinformed aliens convince a bunch of cynical, coddled Hollywood actors that the silly little show Galaxy Quest has been the spiritual raison d'etre that has kept their alien race believing in themselves and moving forward. And in the process, they give the actors of Galaxy Quest a reason to live again themselves. Simple plot. It's the history of every religion and every civilization since the beginning of time. We can come back to this later, and I'll fill you in on the secret of life.

In the meantime, for anyone not following along, here's the deal. Return to Forever can be brought back from the dead. No distraught guitarist jumping off the edge of the world could ever stop it. No lawyer could sue or counter-sue often enough and fast enough to delay it. No record company could fail to distribute and promote a record so long that they could keep it from happening.

As Galaxy Quest's Captain James Nesmith (Tim Allen) said, with conviction and before it was too late, "Never give up. Never surrender."

So what the hell is it that hundreds of millions of guilty non-consuming music fans can ever do about it? How can the contrite walking dead breathe a breath of fresh air and start eating apple pie a la mode and stop consuming the flesh of their own musical heroes?

Buy or download a recording of your favorite artist today! Listen to it tonight as you distribute sugary little snacks for the trick-or-treaters!

Never give up! Never surrender!

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