A reunion of fusion pioneers

Boston Globe, May 18, 2008

A ritual of summer takes on a jazz flavoring this year, as perhaps the season’s most anticipated reunion tour is the one featuring the classic lineup of Return to Forever, one of the most iconic jazz units of the ’70s.

The four-man electric band led by pianist Chick Corea was responsible for some of the best-regarded, and in many ways still remarkably fresh, statements of the jazz-rock fusion popular at the time, earning a Grammy in 1975 for the album “No Mystery,” and a following among a broad swath of the baby boom generation that remains unabated.

It’s mostly that audience that figures to fill the midsize venues on the band’s extensive reunion journey, which begins later this month in Austin, Texas, and continues across North America and Europe into August, including a penultimate stop in Boston at Bank of America Pavilion Aug. 6.

But the reconvening of Corea with bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Lenny White, and guitarist Al Di Meola offers new listeners the chance to encounter on its most sophisticated level a musical movement that today is often relegated to the critical scrap heap. Fusion’s seen, at best, as a period piece; at worst, as self-indulgent adulteration of jazz authenticity.

Those reductions sidestep the fact that fusion drew its impulsion from no artist more than Miles Davis, whose “Bitches Brew” and “In a Silent Way” sessions incorporated as sidemen many of those who went on to form essential fusion outfits, from Corea to guitarist John McLaughlin of Mahavishnu Orchestra, not to mention Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, who formed Weather Report.

And in the trajectory of Return to Forever, which began in a substantially different lineup before settling into shape as an electric quartet, one can sense straight-ahead, Latin, funk, rock, and other influences, not so much collapsing into a primordial soup as nimbly interacting in the production of finely textured soundscapes.

It’s a throwback to a time when the economics and culture of the music industry hadn’t yet subdivided the scene into aggressively policed genres among which crossover meant transgression.

As he prepares for the new tour, however, Corea says he dwells little on the past.

“The ’70s is like ancient history,” he says. “It’s a long time ago in my perception. And you can conjure it, you can analyze it socially and musically, but that’s done so often that I tend not to.”

Instead, he says, the group’s focus is on the joy of gathering old friends and re-encountering, in preparing a forthcoming anthology record, the music they made together on four albums from 1973 to 1976: “Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy” (with Bill Connors, not Di Meola, on guitar), “Where Have I Known You Before,” “No Mystery,” and “Romantic Warrior.”

Those records share, generally speaking, the propulsive rhythmic energy and the soaring, pyrotechnic guitar and keyboards usually identified with fusion; they do so without stinting on melodicism or complexity. Each record is its own emotional journey.

Corea says the plan on this tour is to play the music of these four albums. But don’t expect exact replicas: “In the short time that we’ve rehearsed I can already see that the arrangements are going to be different,” Corea says, adding, “I’d like to sprinkle the set with new material. I’m working on some songs and I know the other guys are, too.”

Corea says the idea of reuniting, among musicians who have traveled different creative paths but were never estranged, had been hovering for some time.

“It was a moment,” he says simply of the first time the four gathered, earlier this year, in a Los Angeles studio to start rehearsing. “The four of us hadn’t been together in the same space since [the ’70s]. But when we get into the throes of playing, it’s right back to that zone. It feels pretty fresh.”

Now, it’s full steam ahead into a rock-star summer with all the trappings: nightly gigs, movement from city to city, as much of it as possible via tour bus.

“The real experience is that wonderful rush of touring and playing night after night,” Corea says. “That concentrated energy is what I’m looking forward to.”