Reuniting in 2008 to both rapturous fan approval and critical acclaim, the biggest and most-loved version of Return To Forever swept the globe selling out concerts and picking up awards by the fistful. However it became clear toward the end of the worldwide tour that that the group was not going to continue on for long with guitarist Al di Meola – he himself having expressed negative thoughts on both the choice of material and the perceived direction they might be taking.
Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White though had no such qualms and very quickly signed up for another tour almost immediately, this time of course as a trio - and more notably, entirely acoustic. RTF Unplugged was of course another massive success and sometime shortly after the trio reconvened in the studio, this time with additional help from original pre-di-Meola Return To Forever guitarist Bill Connors, French jazz violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty and soul diva, and sometime Corea and White associate, Chaka Khan.
‘Forever’ then is a double-disc set capturing the trio live and in full-flight on disc one, and the sextet in a studio rehearsal session before a world tour on disc two. Sadly though Connors had to pull out immediately after this rehearsal due to ill health, and immediately be replaced late in the day by Frank Gambale. There is in truth very little to connect the two discs, such is the vast difference in approach, playing, feel, and simply just the musicians and instrumentation involved. But there is much to love.
The acoustic trio is an absolute winner, with some sterling choice material, taking in choice standards, classic RTF pieces and of course iconic Corea compositions. His early ‘Windows’ gets a welcome airing and the always impressive and catchy ‘Senor Mouse’ still dazzles. A much loved tune recorded many times over, a bad one has yet to see the light of day, and the trio here more than do it justice.
Whilst known for searing muscularity in their approach, the trio compellingly get to show their more sensitive and understated sides, most notably with Bill Evans’ beautiful ‘Waltz For Debby’. Miles Davis popular favourite ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ gets a welcome renewal, and the popular Corea tribute piece ‘Bud Powell’ is exceptional. But perhaps most revelatory is Clarke’s ‘La Cancion de Sofia’ which magnificently highlights the incredible interplay between the three, and of course goes even further still to showing just how strong (and underrated) a double-bassist Clarke really is.
Were this first disc to be available as a single album in its own right, then it would stand as a highly recommended four-star recording, and another glittering jewel in the already golden catalogues of Corea, Clarke and White. Disc two however is quite a different experience. A look perhaps into an alternative universe of ‘what if?’ it has its moments and pleasures, but it also has its distinct downers too.
Hearing Bill Connors attack and tear the pieces up from his one Return album ‘Hymm Of The Seventh Galaxy’ is a great experience, if a somewhat flawed one. Some may continue to argue over who the more soulful player is between Connors and di Meola, but here it is clear that Connors is not as technically proficient as the one-time young upstart. Nor is he as comfortable with the electric Les Paul in his hands as he is with an acoustic guitar. Regardless his playing is raw and gritty, and his sound drips pure testosterone.
Corea’s arsenal of classic keyboards, such as the awesome Fender Rhodes, get a thrilling showcase here, with stunning takes on ‘Senor Mouse’ (again, but then there’s always room for another version), ‘Captain Marvel’ and some brilliant others. Jean-Luc Ponty flexes his muscles nicely too, appearing on five pieces, and sometimes blending superbly with Connors guitar.
The two Chaka Khan numbers however are destined to be unloved by anyone. ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ in particular is astoundingly bad, with a fiery full-throttle attitude from all concerned going everywhere and yet nowhere in a very long and sprawling manner. Khan’s vocals themselves are strong, and to be welcomed, but its clear here that this is a rehearsal, and not a particularly focused or winning one.
Surprisingly then the two best numbers here come as a tacked on bonus to the end of the second disc. An acoustic piano and drum duet between Corea and White lights up John Coltrane’s classic ‘Crescent’, while the early Return To Forever piece ‘500 Miles High’ is given an incredible impassioned performance by the trio from their performance at the 2009 Monterey Jazz Festival.
So, a genuine mixed bag, with a great four-star set filling out one disc, and a messy sprawl littering disc two, that contains some real duds, but at the same time gives us some absolutely sparkling moments not available anywhere else. Where Return To Forever goes now is anybody’s guess.