Judge Bill Gibron once fused punk with calypso. No one cared.
Classic soft jazz given a more fusion facelift, '70s style.
There's a scene in This is Spinal Tap that always sends audiences into fits of '70s fusion hysterics. After Nigel Tufnel leaves the band, taking with him several of the songs that made the fictitious group heavy metal superstars, remaining members David St. Hubbins and Derek Smalls run over a potential set list for an upcoming matinee performance. After deciding that they don't have enough material for an entire concert, they resort to an old standby idea—a full blown free form jazz "experience." Labeling themselves "Spinal Tap Mach II," they proceed to play an atonal blast of improvised noise, the crowd reacting with boredom and downturned thumbs. While the joke may be lost on those who prefer America's purist musical artform to other types of sound, the connection between the genres has always been humorously tenuous. Fusion has always been the last creative gasp of artists who should know better. Few bands can successfully bridge the gap between such hard and soft sonic sentiments, especially in light of the reputation both types have.
But not Return to Forever. With original members Chick Corea (keyboards) and Stanley Clarke (bass) joined by seminal components Al Di Meola (guitar) and Lenny White (drums), the quartet easily won over the hearts and ears of Me Decade crowds, their unique blend of instrumentation and invention offering as much aural aptitude as a bevy of able axe men. While their tenure was brief, their impact was great, and so it's no surprise that a recent reunion featuring the four "classic" members was a rousing success—so much so that a Blu-ray of their Montreux performance is being released by Eagle Eye Entertainment. The over two hour set contains some of the finest playing you will ever hear, and spans the groups formative time as a chart-topping critical success. For those interested in the material covered, here is the set list:
As part of the Blu-ray's bonus features, "Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant" from the 1976 album Romantic Warrior is also offered.
While it might seem sacrilegious to say it (sorry jazz purists), Return to Forever is the best prog rock outfit that never name-checked J.R.R. Tolkien as a lyrical reference or employed Roger Dean for their album cover art. They are reminiscent of Todd Rundgren's first version of Utopia, a close-knit combo taking singular ideas and funky riffs and turning them into extended sonic experiments. This is music for people who like to see musicians actually "playing," to visually understand that compelling sound doesn't always come from a computer chip. Sure, Corea employs a lot of contemporary synths and keyboards among his bank, but he is most exciting on a standard electronic piano, or a basic baby grand. Toward the end of the concert, Clarke pulls out the stand up and Di Meola dons an acoustic, and the whole language of the experience changes.
Sure, the solos seem long winded and rather indulgent, and there are times when Return to Forever drops the stadium stance to go overboard with dissonance and discord. But overall, Return to Forever Returns is a remarkable experience. It widens windows of aural perception in your head, arguing that all fusion doesn't have to be dull like Weather Report or complicated like The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Indeed, Corea and the gang extend a annotated olive branch to those who would never be caught listening to "jazz," avoiding pomp while playing directly into the desire to stay solidly within their Miles Davis-trained disciplines.
Of course, the bigger question here revolves around the Blu-ray release and its technical specifications. Visually, there are a couple of issues that will make fans of the format wary. The AVC encoded 1.78:1 1080i image is overly soft and occasionally lacking focus. Part of the problem is the lighting utilized. The band is often bathed in indirect color gels that purposefully eliminate the details. Similarly, director Christine Strand chooses unusual shots where one player will be out of range while we see a clear view of another. Instead of maintaining the depth of field, she fiddles with the dimension, rendering some of what Blu-ray does moot.
On the sound side, things are much, much better. The options are as follows—LPCM Stereo (decent), Dolby Digital 5.1 (good), and DTS HD Master Audio (amazing!)—and all three are stunning. The last mix is reference quality in its clarity and in-concert ambience. The overall approach is to recreate the stage setting, and you really feel the space and logistical aspects of the band dynamic. As for extras, Eagle Eye adds in five tracks from the US version of the Return to Forever Returns Tour, with the best bit being the aforementioned "Duel." Even more intriguing, these numbers are presented in a split screen arrangement that allows for multiple angles and far more personal access to the musicians.
As a souvenir of a once in a lifetime event (instead of pushing on, the band has announced a final leg of this tour, and then another parting of the ways) Return to Forever Returns is a great aural compendium. If you imagine yourself among the protesting participants of said Spinal Tap "experiment," disagreeing with the direction and approach of the music, do yourself a favor and give this fusion quartet a try. Here's thinking you'll be throwing more hand signs than a mere "thumbs down" once it's all over.
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