Return To Forever Returns – Live At Montreux, recently issued on Blu-ray by Eagle Rock, ranks among the finest live music presentations I've seen on a home video format.
Return To Forever, a pioneering jazz fusion group that left an indelible mark on the '70s music scene, reunited in 2008 for the first time in roughly 25 years. Their classic line-up, active during '74-'76 and very briefly in '83, consists of keyboardist (and founding member) Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al DiMeola, and drummer Lenny White. These are the four musicians who rejoined forces last year. Captured July 18th, 2008 at the Montreux Jazz Festival, the nearly two hour performance featured on this disc is mind-blowing.
Fusion at its best is a very demanding form of music, requiring an investment of time and patience to appreciate. Many jazz purists have little opinion beyond general disdain for the electric, heavily amplified genre. An equal amount of rock fans don't care for the technical 'noodling' that ultra-long solos can sometimes appear to be. Return To Forever, however, is a group of masterful artists who's talent is simply too immense to be ignored. I would urge anyone unfamiliar with the group, and their highly accessible catalog, to use this release as a starting point.
As for the song line-up, it sticks with material from the group's mid-'70s heyday. The earliest track featured in the set list is the title track from 1973's Hymn Of the Seventh Galaxy. "Vulcan Worlds," from '74's Where Have I Known You Before is performed, along with "Song Of the Pharaoh Kings" from the same album. The title tracks from '75's No Mystery and '76's Romantic Warrior are also present and accounted for. While that would be an anemic set list for most rock shows, these are long pieces, all featuring intricate solo passages from the quartet.
Speaking of solo passages, the best parts of the show are the solo features from each of the four musicians. DiMeola's solo comes first, and his total command of the fretboard is more breathtaking than ever. Corea displays his dexterity on a bank of keyboards during his spot. Clarke arguably steals the entire show with "El Bayo de Negro," throwing his entire body into his bass playing. The last solo spot goes to White, who's complex, shifting percussion rhythms are less outwardly flashy but absolutely essential to anchoring the group's sound. Don't worry if your jaw goes completely slack during these solo segments, it's a normal reaction to such artistry.
As an audio/visual experience, the Blu-ray presentation leaves little to nitpick over. The stage lighting is made up of lots of sultry reds and moody blues, but a remarkable amount of detail is evident throughout. If any complaints can be lodged, they concern minor (and very infrequent) instances of soft focus. But otherwise, the 1.78:1 AVC encode is a stunner.
As for the audio, there's nothing to whine or moan about there either. It is, in a word, awesome. Heard in DTS HD Master Audio, the soundtrack is flawless. Each instrument, with all it's various nuances and subtleties, remains distinct throughout each performance. The Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 PCM stereo mixes are excellent as well, so no matter what your sound system is capable of there is a more than sufficient mix available.
As if all that wasn't enough, as a bonus feature there is about forty minutes of additional performance footage from a July 31st, 2008 concert in Florida. Most of the time is spent featuring all four members in solo spots (no complaints there), but also included is a dynamic run through of "Duel Of the Jester & the Tyrant." This footage is presented in a unique way, with an array of several smaller screens allowing for simultaneous views, each from a different angle. This could be considered distracting I suppose, but I quite enjoyed the difference in presentation from the main program.
Eagle Rock Entertainment has done right by Return To Forever and their fans, both old and new. Return To Forever Returns – Live At Montreux is nothing short of a standard-setting Blu-ray concert release and is unlikely to leave anyone disappointed.