Joining the here and now

Special to The Times

Chick Corea is smiling. In fact, he's beaming. Seated behind his Minimoog and his Fender Rhodes keyboards, arms and hands in motion, kicking out one brisk rhythmic phrase after another, making constant eye contact with the musicians around him -- guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White -- he's obviously feeling great.

Wait a minute: Corea, Di Meola, Clarke and White? That's the classic lineup of Return to Forever, one of the groups that defined the jazz-rock fusion of the '70s. They haven't played together in 25 years, swore they'd never have a reunion.

Right. But never say never. (Look at the Eagles). Return to Forever is, well, returning. And last week, the rehearsals were already underway for the RTF reunion tour that undoubtedly will be the big jazz news of the summer.

Corea, 66, nods happily, shouts, "Great, great!" then turns back to his instruments, roving blithely across the electric keyboards, emphasizing the crisp clank of the Rhodes, tossing in wisps of slippery sound from his Minimoog. Di Meola adds shimmering electric guitar fills, while Clarke and White dig into the groove, driving the beat forward with muscular percussive textures.

A briskly articulated melodic figure from Clarke immediately attracts Corea's attention. He nods his head -- "Yeah!" -- and Clarke picks up the solo thread, responding with his characteristically fluid, mobile, acoustic bass lines.

The loose and swinging mood continues, triggering a palpable sense of joy in the room -- the eye contact and spontaneous smiles exchanged by the players visible indications of the music's rich improvisational symbiosis.

It's the real deal: Return to Forever, back again -- bringing a 21st century perspective to the visceral blend of rock energy with the improvisation and compositional structures of jazz that made the quartet a phenomenon of the '70s, competing with outfits such as Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra for the favor of both jazz and prog-rock audiences.

'Snowball in hell'

RTF's return to action took place in the Mad Hatter Studios on the Los Feliz edge of Hollywood -- a sprawling, well-equipped facility that has been the recording destination of choice for such artists as Prince, Paul McCartney and Beck. Founded by Corea in 1980, it was sold in 2003 to Golden Era Productions, the audio-visual arm of the Church of Scientology, which counts Corea among its members.

Corea was clearly delighted to be back in his old digs, which have been considerably remodeled since the studio changed hands. Earlier in the evening, there'd been some playful banter about what to call the Return to Forever tour. If the Eagles 1994 reunion was called "Hell Freezes Over," maybe this constitutes "The Snowball in Hell Tour."

Corea, the group's founder, laughingly explained that they'd probably stick with the more mundane "RTF World Tour Summer '08." And stacks of printed T-shirts, emblazoned with the RTF logo (as well as a photo, on the back, of the four members in their younger, more hirsute days) were already in boxes, ready for a pair of tours that will cover the U.S. starting in late May (including a performance at Gibson Amphitheatre) and Europe next year. (An announcement with details is slated for March 3.)

Another important item also had to be jammed into the band's busy schedule at Mad Hatter -- photographs.

And here, in an unexpected way, the "Snowball in Hell" reference resurfaced when photographer Lynn Goldsmith called for an offbeat image set-up. Garbed in heavy winter overcoats, positioned around piles of suitcases and instrument boxes, the players assumed their best band-on-the-run poses, their sunglasses registering incongruently with the winter fashion imagery.

Goldsmith, darting from one side to another, shouted instructions and encouragement, her camera clicking madly, eager to catch a spirited moment.

Most jazz musicians are notoriously uncooperative photo subjects -- when they're not playing their instruments. And the RTF guys were no exception, their lugubrious responses to Goldsmith's commands the polar opposite of the spirit in their music.

Word about the upcoming tour had begun to leak out, and the studio was anything but empty. A few people from Corea's management company, various techies adjusting the lighting, Corea's wife, Gayle Moran -- a singer in her own right, who performed in a late-'70s version of Return to Forever -- all watched the photo session closely, each offering an occasional instructive remark.

"Tell Chick to take off his glasses," Moran called out, trying to help matters along. Then, to a bystander: "He has such beautiful eyes."

Corea flashed her a wan glance.

The photo session completed, he seemed much happier taking a break for a chat with the other RTF players and a journalist eager for answers to some fundamental questions: Why this, why now?

Responses came quickly. Looking relaxed and not hesitating to be gregarious, they sprawled across a couch and a love seat, often responding with the same quick-witted interplay they had brought to the music.

"I made the decision a couple of years ago," Corea said, "to just turn the heat all the way up on live performance. I started resisting going on the road, like you do when you get older -- stop traveling, stay home. But no, man. If I had pursued that way, it was the way downhill to death. No. 1, performing is my bread and butter. But more than that, it's the thing I love doing most."

Di Meola noted that there had been a previous attempt at a reunion in 1982. He referred to it, disparagingly, as a "blip."

"The reunion lasted a month," he added. "So I like to make it more interesting by saying it's been 30-something years since the last time Return to Forever was together."

During those years -- which actually date to the summer of 1974, when Di Meola, then 19, joined Corea, Clarke and White in RTF -- each of the players had moved on with their individual careers.

Corea, always overflowing with creative ideas, led his Elektric Band, Akoustic Band and the groups Touchstone and Origin; created dozens of new compositions; recorded Mozart; and occasionally paired up with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Bela Fleck and Gary Burton.

The other members were following their own muses. A reunion seemed less and less likely as the years passed. Di Meola focused on his busy solo career, leading his own groups and partnering with others -- guitarists John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell and Bireli Lagrene, and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty among them.

Clarke, 56, jokingly noted that "I was actually so busy I didn't even remember I played with Return to Forever." Met with derisive laughter from the other group members, he added, "Hey, man, there were a lot of years when I came off the road and just did movie scores, sometimes two or three movies a year, plus television shows."

"But," he added with a grin, "I wasn't considering dropping the bass completely."

Nor was White, 58, thinking of abandoning his drums while he was working as a producer. He did, however, have his doubts that a reunion would ever take place.

"We had gone through so many questions," he said, "of people asking, 'When is it going to happen?' and it would get to a certain point and it wouldn't go any further. Then things began to change, and people started listening to different kinds of music -- to the point where I just said, 'Man, I just don't think it is going to happen.' But then we started talking. And I felt that maybe the time had finally become right musically for something like this to happen."

Adding some twists

Back in the studio, White's speculative feeling came to life with a rehearsal virtually guaranteeing that the "time had finally come" for RTF to return.

They'll be returning without new material, but audiences won't be simply hearing the same old songs. Corea had insisted earlier that he planned "to take the songs from the albums we made in the '70s and just play them like they've never been played before." Which is exactly what they did in their rehearsal of "500 Miles High," a tune recorded by an earlier installment of RTF, before Di Meola joined.

The goal was to integrate Di Meola's guitar into the steaming pocket that the rhythm section had created, while adding his cutting edge, guitar-god wail and fiery, rocket-propelled, fusion-driven lines. It took a couple of passes before the piece began to come together, the big room reverberating with the visceral power of the sound and the infectious body-moving influence of the rhythm.

Other pieces followed, a mixture of technical rehearsing and the reestablishment of their former cohesiveness: Corea propelling it all forward with enthusiasm; Clarke, ripping off a fast-fingered riff, pausing in dissatisfaction before trying it all over again; Di Meola carving out his role in the music, allowing it to evolve with each successive try; White, the spark plug, embracing the love affair between rock and jazz rhythms.

As the music unfolded, Corea's summing up of what had really brought these players back together -- taking a break from their busy individual careers to revive an elusive musical ghost -- came to mind.

"For me," he said, "what made me want to do it was just recalling how great the feeling was playing with these guys. Just the experience of playing, when I thought, 'Wow, yeah, that was an amazing period -- fun, creative, exciting.' And then, when we finally sat down for the first time the other day and started touching the instruments -- boom!" He snapped his fingers. "There it was. All the talk went away, and we were back into the music, back into RTF, right where we belonged."

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