Chick Corea - Fender Rhodes piano; Stanley Clarke - bass; Bill Connors - guitar; Lenny White - drums
When Chick Corea moved on from his tenure with Miles Davis, like John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Joe Zawinul, and Wayne Shorter, he created a new band that could pursue his vision of blending diverse musical elements, but unlike the others, he didn't dive into electric instrumentation right away. The initial Return to Forever band was an acoustic unit with a fairly straightforward Latin-flavored jazz approach. The music was complex and adventurous to be sure, but it was coming from a significantly different place than Mahavishnu Orchestra or Weather Report, the other profoundly influential bands of the early jazz/rock fusion scene. Their first two albums were piano dominated and fueled with airy Brazilian jazz-samba sensibilities. However, in August of 1973, when Return to Forever released Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy things had significantly changed and Corea was again playing his electric Fender Rhodes, often processed through a ring modulator. Bassist Stanley Clarke was just returning to electric bass as well and these two instruments would significantly change the sound and direction of the group, adding in heavier rock and funk elements and more orchestrated ensemble playing. Corea and Clarke also brought in two new members to the group, who infinitely added to the group's sound and textures. Guitarist Bill Connors combined facets of John Coltrane with Cream-era Eric Clapton, and for a brief period, Return to Forever now had a guitarist who achieved the perfect balance between emotionally charged playing and technical virtuosity. Lenny White combined the finesse and feel of a great jazz drummer, the pummeling power of a rock drummer and the funkiness of James Brown's drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, into one person, and along with Clarke, created one of the most intriguing rhythm sections on the planet. This particular lineup wouldn't last long, but for a brief time they were the most popular and commercially successful of the fusion prototype groups, creating music that was both wondrous and technically astonishing.
Which brings us to this remarkable performance from September of 1973, when Return to Forever opened a bill with Weather Report at Lenox's Music Inn shortly after the release of the groundbreaking Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy album. The recording begins appropriately enough, with the title track space-rock anthem off their new album, which then segues into the funky Parlaimemt-Funkadelic influenced, "Theme to The Mothership." The set continues with Stanley Clarke's "Bass Folk Song." This bubbling composition features Clarke playing heavy electric fuzz bass over a fast paced propulsive groove. Now sporting a Gibson EB3, Clarke's soloing has the timbre of rock bassists like Jack Bruce, but with a funkier feel. Corea and Connors both get opportunities to stretch out and their solos are technically brilliant and filled with nuance and soulfulness. This is textbook early jazz/fusion at its finest and the chemistry between Corea, Clarke, Connors and White is undeniable.
One of the true gems of the Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy album is up next with "Space Circus." Beginning with the delightfully light and airy piano/bass duet of "Children's Song #1," this segues directly into "Space Circus" proper, featuring outstanding performances from all involved. Lenny White's drumming is propulsive, Corea gets playful with his ring modulator piano effects, and Connor's delivers fiery, coherent lead and unison lines seething with energy.
Dipping back to the previous album, they continue with its most famous composition, "Spain." Beginning as an electric piano showcase for Corea, this soon develops into a ferocious jam. This is a prime example of the band's new approach. The music was still relatively melodic, relying on strong themes, but the traditional jazz feel has been replaced with a rock approach, accentuated by improvised solos in a call-and-response style.
Following "Spain," an unplanned intermission occurs. The local police stop the performance and an announcement is made that a bomb threat must be addressed. Apparently, local neighbors were upset by the noise level of the Lou Reed concert from the previous night and someone called in a phony bomb scare in an effort to stop this night's performance. The entire audience was evacuated to the parking lot, allowing the Berkshire Sheriffs to sweep the field with bomb sniffing dogs. Confident that the venue was indeed safe and bomb-free, the audience was ushered back in and following apologies to the audience and band, Return to Forever continue their set with an extended improvisation on the humorously titled "Captain Senor Mouse," a faster paced reworking of Corea's older original, "Senor Mouse." Those wishing to hear this lineup of the group at their most intriguing, look no further. This vacillates between the catchy melodic theme periodically reinforced by Corea and frenzied soloing flights. Corea displays incredible dexterity and inventiveness on piano, but it's the thick, slicing guitar work of Connors that truly stands out. Subsequent guitarist Al Di Meola may have been a superior technician, but Connors has a raw emotional quality and passionate abandon that is far more compelling.
The audience demands an encore and the band obliges with another track off the new album, The Game Maker. Beginning with a contemplative piano intro from Corea, this piece builds up to a ferocious intensity. Clark and White anchor things while Corea and Connors lock horns and this exciting exchange features lengthy call-and-response playing from both. Connor's is simply blazing here, at times recalling John McLaughlin, but his haunting and provocative tone is uniquely his own.
This recording captures Return to Forever at perhaps their most intriguing. With Connors and White on board, this was a new band flexing its musical muscles and breaking new ground. They were far less explosive than the Mahavishnu Orchestra and avoided becoming too heavy for any extended length of time, but their more subtle, constantly flowing approach was profoundly influential. Their 1973 album would come to define a common starting point for countless fusion fans and remains a cornerstone of the early jazz/rock fusion movement. Much like that album, this is tightly played fusion at its boldest, rawest, and most uncompromising for it's time.