When the Return to Forever reunion tour came to the Paramount Theatre three years ago, one was struck by the dual emotions shown by the band’s devotees. You saw elation that the fusion powerhouse group, formed and piloted by keyboardist Chick Corea in 1972, had managed to stage the original group (Corea, guitarist Al DiMeola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White) again after more than 30 years, and there was also lingering skepticism as to whether the group could sustain viability in today’s market and overcome the usual artistic ambivalence about returning to the glories of yesteryear.
And sure enough, after a U.S. and European tour, DiMeola dropped out. He was replaced by his original RTF predecessor, Bill Connors, for a handful of dates, but it nonetheless suggested to the casual observer that the band had probably reached a coda.
But despite the mileage and seemingly impossible odds, RTF is working it three years later, this time in a configuration dubbed Return to Forever IV, with longtime Corea collaborator Frank Gambale on guitar and fusion violin legend Jean Luc Ponty, who first came to stateside prominence in Frank Zappa’s bands of the early 1970s before embarking on a successful solo career of his own.
We caught up with drummer White recently and asked if he was initially disappointed that the “classic” quartet didn’t last a little longer.
“At the beginning,” White says, “I was disappointed. To be honest, that situation created itself. It happened that he had a different perspective on what the band was and his position in the band. So, it got to the point where he felt as though he should do something else.
“And to a certain degree, it was a disappointment because of the fact that it could have gone on. I mean, I consider Return to Forever the ‘Rolling Stones’ of jazz, because we are the last band standing. Whether there are personnel changes, the core of the group — Stanley, Chick and myself — are still there.”
The addition to the lineup of Ponty and Gambale, for anyone who knows their fusion history, is a stroke of genius.
“It’s so weird,” White says of them both, “because there’s a lot of history between Jean Luc and members of the band. Jean Luc’s first tour, and my first
tour, were co-billed together, in 1977. And Frank played in one of Jean Luc’s bands. And then Jean-Luc recorded My Spanish Heart with Chick, and then he had a band [The Rite of Strings] with Stanley and DiMeola in the ’90s. This is my first time playing with Frank, and I’m having a good time playing with him. He’s a real good musician.”
The post-DiMeola years, in fact, have been productive for the core trio. Their recently released Forever two- CD set captures Corea, Clarke and White in live acoustic trio settings from late 2009, touching and deft treatment of standards like “On Green Dolphin Street” and Corea originals like “Windows,” along with unexpected acoustic renderings of RTF numbers like “No Mystery” and “Señor Mouse.”
“This is what the three of us started out doing together,” White reminds us. “This is where the band came from 40 years ago.”
The second disc features a number of re-recorded RTF staples, some improvisational stuff and a couple of numbers featuring Chaka Khan. The CD is released under the Corea/Clarke/ White name — not exactly an RTF release, but a resonance of the band’s acoustic-trio origins, a re-consideration of some of the electric RTF standards and a relaxed retrospective of four decades of collaboration between the three principals.
The bottom line is that if this band is going to exist in 2011, it doesn’t need to be a museum piece. But defying the clock is not without its costs. White, for his part, has been battling a shoulder ailment. We’d heard before the 2008 gig that he had undergone rotator cuff surgery, but that understated it.
“Oh, boy, I wish it were just that. I have a condition where my nerves are being pinched in my spine, and I lost all the muscles in my right shoulder and right bicep. So I have no right bicep and deltoid muscle, and it’s very difficult to play without those muscles. But I’ve been able to do it.
“It’s interesting, because I’ve been telling my father about it since it happened in 2007. And when he saw me play in 2008, everyone had bated breath, like ‘Oh, I hope he can make it through the show’, and everyone was asking, ‘How’s the shoulder, how’s the shoulder?’ So when he saw me play last night [the band had just done a NYC gig the night before our interview], he leaned over to my wife and said, ‘I think he’s puttin’ us on; there’s nothin’ wrong with that shoulder.’”
[ On the Bill: Return to Forever IV plays the Paramount Theatre on Saturday, Aug. 27. Show starts at 8 p.m. Zappa Plays Zappa opens. Tickets start at $62.50. 1621 Glenarm Place, Denver, 303-623-0106 x4. ]