Return to Forever at The Beacon Theater
Words & Photos By Karen Dugan (www.tinyrager.com)
Documenting shows like these is what influenced me to start my site. I was sick of missing performances, looking them up and finding three paragraphs about epic moments in musical history taking place in my city. Three paragraphs with no set list, no body behind the paragraphs, no feeling behind the words. When a show of such epic proportions such as Return To Forever comes around YOU - DO - NOT - MISS - IT. And if you do, that is where I come in.
I have been asked continually over the past month WHO is this group? WHY are they so important? WHY are you missing the Royal Family Affair for them? WHY aren't you going on Phish tour with your man? WHY WHY WHY?
Forget answering questions for a minute and just imagine the pain you get when someone you know explains that they don't know who Jerry Garcia is. The pain you feel when they say they have no idea who Miles Davis is or who the Red Hot Chilli Peppers are. Can you feel that pain? Right inside your chest, around your heart?
Inevitably, inside your head you are now asking the questions. How can these people not know? How can they not understand? How can they not have heard?
Return To Forever is the answer to all these questions. A powerhouse of musicians, a super group of instrumentalists, a musical institution. Return To Forever helped define a musical genre and has only graced the planet as a unit for a total of five times since 1977. Epic.
You are going to need a little background first…
What is Jazz Fusion?
In the late 1960s, jazz musicians began blurring the lines of their traditional training. Allmusic Guide states that "until around 1967, the worlds of jazz and rock were nearly completely separate". However, based on the circumstantial situation of young jazz musicians being forced to play electronic equipment, jazz began its evolution into a new musical genre called Jazz Fusion or Jazz Rock. Quite simply, Jazz Fusion is jazz that is strongly influenced by other styles of music.
Here's a more in depth definition which shows you why this music is influential to the Jam Band / Funk scene:
Jazz fusion is a musical fusion genre that developed from mixing funk and R&B rhythms and the amplification and electronic effects of rock, complex time signatures derived from non-Western music and extended, typically instrumental compositions with a jazz approach to lengthy group improvisations, often using wind and brass and displaying a high level of instrumental technique.
~ Thank you Wikipedia ~
Jazz Fusion has deep roots in the Jam Band scene. The connection is crucial and distinct. While Jazz Fusion was being created and acknowledged in the 1970s, rock artists such as Cream, Grateful Dead and The Jimi Hendrix Experience were getting a lot of publicity and fame for their lengthy improvisations based on blues, rock, psychedelia and some jazz. These rock artists had an impact on Miles Davis, the king of jazz development, who generated a ton of media attention to this new jazz-rock genre with his ground-breaking 1970 album release Bitches Brew. From there, the genre grew and exploded into numerous different directions eventually leading to the World Fusion movement of the 90s.
Allmusic lists the following jazz-rock categories:
· Singer-songwriter jazz-rock (Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and Tim Buckley)
· Jam- and improvisation-oriented rock groups (Traffic, Santana, Cream)
· Jazz-flavored R&B or pop songs with less improvisation or instrumental virtuosity (Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago, Steely Dan)
· Groups with "quirky, challenging, unpredictable compositions" (Frank Zappa, the Soft Machine)
Four major groups led the world in popular Jazz Fusion in the 1970s:
1. Weather Report
2. The Mahavishnu Orchestra
3. Herbie Hancock's HeadHunters
4. Chick Corea's Return To Forever
I will let you do your own research on the first three, which I strongly encourage you to do, and get down to the nitty gritty.
The Creation of Return To Forever
After playing on Miles Davis's groundbreaking jazz-fusion album Bitches Brew, pianist and composer Chick Corea was in a prime position to chase this growing style of music and experiment with its development. He formed a number of avant-garde jazz bands before finally forming Return to Forever in 1972.
There have only been four incarnations of Return To Forever in the past 40 years. This is a fact that makes this reunion so EXTREMELY important.
· 1972-1973: First group created and focused mainly on Latin-inspired music to include Flora Purim (vocals), her husband Airto Moreira (drums and percussion), Corea's longtime musical co-worker Joe Farrell (saxophone and flute), and the young Stanley Clarke on bass.
· 1973-1976: Farrell, Purim and Moreira leave the group to form their own band. Bill Connors (guitarist), Steve Gadd (drummer) and Mingo Lewis (percussionist) were added. Stanley Clarke is still the bassist. A replacement on vocals was not hired and all the songs were now instrumentals. Shortly before 1975, Lenny White would take over for Gadd and Lewis due to touring and career conflicts. As well, 19-year-old prodigy Al Di Meola would step in to cement himself as guitarist. The group had finally taken shape having now completely changed into the jazz-rock style and found themselves at the on the U.S. pop album charts.
· 1977: Corea shocked Clarke by deciding to change the lineup of the group and to not include either White or Di Meola. The final incarnation of Return to Forever featured a four piece horn section and Corea's wife Gayle singing vocals. After the last studio album, Musicmagic, Chick Corea officially disbanded the group and so began the feuds within the group.
Musical Gossip: It is believed to be an issue over Scientology that caused the rift between Clarke, Corea and the other musicians.
· 1983: Return to Forever regroups for a short tour but no albums are recorded.
· 2008 Reunion: The classic Return to Forever line-up of Corea, Clarke, White, and Di Meola reunited for a tour of the United States. No new music is recorded.
· 2011 Reunion: A new, amazing line-up is created for a US tour. The rift between Al Di Meola and Chick Corea ensures Di Meola's absence in the line-up. Mahavishnu Orchestra alum and violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale have taken his spot while Lenny White and Stanley Clarke were welcomed back into the line-up.
Now here we are three days after the show and I can't stop typing my heart out. A friend of mine happens to be good friends with Lenny White. Because of this friendship, I was granted access to the entire band and two nights of musical creativity that has cemented itself as one of my top 10 Most Exciting Musical Adventures ever.
Let the show begin...
Return To Forever IV - The Return
Chick Corea - Keys
Stanley Clarke - Bass
Lenny White - Drums
Frank Gambale ~ Guitar
Jean-Luc Ponty ~ Violin
I entered the Beacon Theater all alone. My man was out west touring with Phish and the rest of my musical crew were either at The Royal Family Affair in Vermont or at The Brooklyn Bowl seeing Bustle in Your Hedgerow for a nice cheap price. All were musical options that I wish I could have been a part of. However, no matter how much I thought of checking out of NYC for the weekend there was no way I was missing Return to Forever, not to mention the amazing bonus opener, Zappa Plays Zappa, performing only 40 blocks away from my apartment for two nights. This was too much of a treat to resist.
So, there are some of the answers to the "WHY?" questions. I adore my Royal Family and I love Phish tour but those groups are mere peasants in music compared to the kings I got to see on stage.
Upon entering the Beacon both nights I went to the box office and picked up my comped ticket and my Back Stage pass from the generous Lenny White! I took to my Row "E" Orchestra seat and just took in the energy around me. Again, I was alone, so in my excitement I engaged the MULTIPLE men around me. Why men, because there were no women, hardly anywhere. It was quite nice. One obvious perk became clear when I used the restroom. The line for the men's room was a mile long while I literally walked right in and out of the stall within a span of 2 minutes. Absolutely no line.
In a packed hall, 5% of the audience might have been women. Needless to say, I got some strange looks and eventually, I had men of all ages coming up to me asking me why I was there. I couldn't believe their blatant gender discrimination but I understood why some people just couldn't resist asking why a young (30 years young is young to this crew) pretty female was there all alone to see these old man bands. I proudly explained I was there mainly for Return to Forever but I was equally excited for the Zappa Plays Zappa performance having seen them multiple times before and knowing that Dweezil and his friends would shred our faces.
Zappa Plays Zappa Opens
Zappa Plays Zappa opened up both nights for Return to Forever. Led by the jazz/rock legend’s son, Dweezil Zappa, on guitar, Zappa Plays Zappa continues to breathe life into the work of the late Frank Zappa. Joining Dweezil is a rotating cast of musicians, some of who played with Frank before his passing.
Both nights the set list was the same with a few variations in delivery:
· "Po-jama People" ~
· "Fifty Fifty" ~ Opening the first night with this song, Jean-Luc Ponty came out the second night and played this song with the band. It was a wonderful thing to behold as Jean-Luc was privileged enough to play with Frank Zappa when Dweezil Zappa was only 4 years old.
· “St. Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast”
· ""Don't You Ever Wash That Thing" ~ The first night, Ben Thomas (vocals) dropped the mic during the climax of the song and picked it up at such a time that the lyrics exploded and the entire band laughed along with the audience.
· "What's the Ugliest Part of Your Body?" ~ A funny tune with Doo-Whoop styling.
· "Big Swifty" ~ Released the band a little more and ended the set.
Return to Forever couldn't have picked a better band to open for them. They couldn't find a better fit to open our sense to jazz fusion and prepare us for the experience we were about to be delivered both nights.
The beauty behind anything involving Frank Zappa, aside from the amazing shredding compositions he created, is the fan base. THEY ARE DIEHARDS! Very often, people pass up the opening band. However, at the 8 PM start, the venue was moderately packed with diehard fans of Zappa. Lucky for me, I was in the Return to Forever friends and family section so most of the people were in the back hanging with the band and I had rows of seats open in front of me. I loved this.
The Zappa fans truly energized the audience. After every song there was a standing ovation. During every song there was someone who was screaming at the stage. Dweezil Zappa ripped the guitar open numerous times and the band followed Frank's cockiness to deliver a stunning 35 minute opener.
Return To Forever Returns
The Beacon filled up during the course of the Zappa Plays Zappa Set. but it wasn't until the lights went down for the men of the hour that all the seats around me filled up. Both nights, just like Zappa Plays Zappa, were similar but with a few variations in delivery.
The first night, Return to Forever members simply came onstage without any introduction. We were in a standing ovation from the start. These gods of fusion stood at the edge of the stage in a line, bowed, wave and blew kisses. The audience ate it up and it wasn't until they began playing their instruments that the audience quieted. From this point, we couldn't miss a note. The second night, Lawrence Fishborne, looking pleasantly plumper then I have ever seen him, came out to introduce the super group. Sadly, I only saw the end of this introduction because I was coming back from the restroom.
The audience during the first night was electric. As the music played, I recognized that I had never heard The Beacon more quiet then I was experiencing right then. Every single pair of eyes was fixated on the stage. Every single person's interest was on that stage. Why?? Because that is how utterly amazing and respected these men are as musicians.
And then the music began....
SET LIST: Both Nights
After the Cosmic Rain
Encore: Captain Senor Mouse
Encore: School days
Upon taking to their instruments, they immediately flew into "Medieval Overture". The first song off their sixth album, Corea immediately led the stage in the songs beautiful melody. After the gorgeous opening, it was Stanley Clarke's turn at the microphone. He spoke of how happy he was to finally hook up with Corea in NYC all those years ago. He spoke to the different versions of the band and how happy he was. But most importantly, he wanted to thank US. He wanted to thank his audience, his avid followers, for supporting this venture and this group for 40 years.
We got some funky flare with "Sorceress" as Corea and Ponty led the song through Lenny's chunky funky drumming. Corea continually reared his melodic imagination and rhythmic energy. It was then time for Chick Corea to pick up the microphone. He spent some time speaking to his beloved audience.
"The members of this band are from all around the United States. Ponty is from Texas, Corea jokes.” Laughter erupts. "But this [NYC] is our musical home. Where were you born Lenny?" Laughter erupts again. "'RIGHT HERE," screams Lenny White!
Corea introduced each member of the band. When it came time to introduce Jean-Luc, there was a standing ovation. I have honestly never experienced so many standing ovations in one night. Chick described Ponty as the guy who has inspired every single person on the planet in his instrument. And then, I experienced what could possibly be one of the longest standing ovations I have ever witnessed and it was so well deserved. The emotions in me swelled for Ponty. At that point, I wish I had more of my musical friends around me, experiencing this magic with me. Just the sheer respect being shown to these musicians was special enough.
And into Jean-Luc Ponty's "Renaissance" they went, paying homage to the master that had joined this version of the group. Ponty, 69, added class and extra lyricism to the mix. One of the beautiful things about these two nights is that the group recognized each other fully. There was a little portion of the show dedicated to the showcasing of each artist. The first few songs were Corea's and White's, next Ponty, then Stanley and then back to Corea. It was wonderful.
“Since all the guys in the band are such good composers, I wanted to have everyone’s compositions add to the new RTF IV vibe. So we all agreed: let’s open it up – which is the way we like it, and I think the way the fans like it too.” ~ Chick Corea stated in a press release.
Ponty took the mic next. Walking to the front of the stage, he spoke in length about playing with Frank Zappa, how Dweezil was only 5 years old at the time and how very proud he is of Dweezil for continuing his father's legacy in music. There was another round of applause for Zappa Plays Zappa. Then Jean-Luc spoke of three bands that defined the jazz-fusion genre. I listed them earlier in the article. With the exception of HeadHunters, Ponty has had the distinct pleasure of playing in all three groups and thanked us all for allowing him to play for us. He then introduces Stanley Clarke and that is when things got completely showboating amazing.
Stanley Clarke's "After the Cosmic Rain", a gospel-infused song, brought Stanley Clarke to the forefront and he thumped and plucked the living hell out of the strings. Imposing a flamenco-style bass virtuosity upon us, he was absolutely on fire while he literally shredded his electric bass. When he got up in Lenny White's face, I can't believe that he didn't break multiple strings with the strength of his playing. "Day Ride" followed and Stanley continued to be the focus on the stage. Out of the whole group, he was making his presence known in a vivid way.
"Romantic Warrior" showcased Gambale and Clarke, who captivated the audience. Gambale, an Australian, did not labor in the shadow of Di Meola. If anything, he's a more flowing, tasteful, melodic player and he shone during the samba-like stretch of "Romantic Warrior". Di Meola fans who disagree should note that Corea introduced Gambale as his “favorite guitarist.” I agree, his melody is just more friendly.
They ended the set with Corea's much loved song "Spain". However, the group did not play the stuffing out of it. Instead, there were short, single-chorus solos from Ponty, Gambale and Corea before White bashed out a solo. The tune's real treat came when Corea conducted a duet of sorts with his fans, exhorting it to sing back his short, snappy melodies, which they did. This was actually quite hilarious as Corea hit higher on the scales and faster in rhythm.
At the end of the set, the musicians came to the end of the stage to a roaring applause and a standing ovation. I was so wrapped up in the fact that it was over that I forgot that there would be an encore and got very sad yet invigorated about what I had just witnessed.
After only a few seconds of clapping, the super group came out to end the night with Clarke's fun clap-along jam tune "School Days". Gambale was absolutely wonderful as he utilized sweep picking like no one I have ever seen. Ponty unleashed flurries of notes before sparring and holding his own with Clarke, proving once more that they belong in the Return to Forever family.
The Meet and Greet
After the show, I met my friend by the backstage door and was let into the private meet and greet backstage. This wasn't the Meet and Greet that VIP paid a couple hundred bucks for...nope. This was a PRE-PRIVATE Meet and Greet.
It was there that I and 20 other people got up close and personal with these amazing musicians. Again, I was asked how I had come to fall for this style of music. It blew their minds as the room was full of die hard male fans and their clueless wives. I was lost with my jaw on the ground, I was shocked, I was speechless and couldn't quite form words at times… but I was the happiest that I had ever been meeting a group.
I watched the grown men around me shaking and just melting in front of their idols in music. Ponty was quiet and seemed shy but I was able to get a smile out of him as we spoke of his time with Frank Zappa and Weather Report.
Frank and I connected on our colorful clothing while Chick Corea's wife and I bonded over the diet that has helped her lose 90 pounds while Chick has lost 70. The entire shown I had wondered why he looked so frail.
Stanley and I spoke about the various experiences I have had with my favorite bass players this year and how meeting him was just the icing on the cake. Having danced on stage with Larry Graham and getting a giant hug from Bootsy Collins in Switzerland, having spent a few minutes enjoying Marcus Miller and now this… the meetings of my bass heroes would be complete if only Les Claypool would have dinner with me!
** Editor's Note: Please excuse the poor quality of the pictures. I never saw a single professional camera in the venue either night. As well, Chick Corea's professional photographer even had his finger shaken at him when trying to sneak a few pictures. The Beacon is crazy about it so I was forced to use my Droid phone.
Also, I'd like to specially thank Andy Kahan for giving me the opportunity to experience this epic adventure and allow me to help bridge the gap in music.