As a rock fan first and foremost, I’ve always had a problem getting into certain types of jazz. What bothers me most is the way some of jazz’s best musicians approach their own instruments.
As hard as a friend of mine once tried to turn me on to John Coltrane for example, there was something about those side-long improvisations that always left me kind of cold. Sure the guy could play his ass off. The problem for me was I could never figure out where exactly it was that he was going.
Likewise, I could never get how some of the musician types I knew way back when, drooled all over guys like George Benson and Bob James. Again, where I understood what “fine players” these guys were, albums like Breezin’ just sounded like elevator music to me. And don’t even get me started on Kenny G…
I guess what I’ve always wanted to say to musicians like these, is “yes, we get it. we know you can play.” What I’ve always wanted to hear from them on the other hand, is the sound of them actually playing like they mean it.
Which is why when it comes to jazz, I’ve always gravitated towards the fusion bands like Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, and for my money, the best of the lot — Return To Forever.
RTF began in the seventies as an improvisational jazz vehicle for keyboard virtuoso (and Miles Davis alum) Chick Corea. The group’s early incarnations also featured a revolving lineup that at times included the likes of people like Flora Purim and Airto.
But by the mid-seventies, RTF settled into a fusion sound and a permanent lineup that featured what were arguably the best musicians in the world at their individual instruments. Although this was clearly still Corea’s band, guitarist Al DiMeola, bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Lenny White were each so good that they often overshadowed the leader.
With that much talent collectively gathered under one roof, it was also inevitable the band would eventually split, which they did not long after they achieved superstar status with the Columbia Records released Romantic Warrior album. Clarke and DiMeola in particular would each go on to enjoy very successful careers as solo artists in their own right.
So when RTF announced their first tour together in 25 years, the news was met with both genuine excitement as well as some healthy skepticism. Could these four virtuosos still peacefully co-exist as a unit after all these years? And if so, would those original creative sparks still fly the same way they once did?
Live At Montreux 2008 puts to rest any of those lingering doubts once and for all. Recorded at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival during last year’s Return To Forever Returns world tour, this DVD (also available on Blu-ray and audio CD) captures RTF in a great performance, which proves the band is still at the top of their game.
The audio and video here are first rate, thanks to the always reliable folks at Eagle Rock. The camera work in particular captures all the right angles — especially in the way it gets all those great close up shots. Here, you get an up-close insider’s look at the technique of each of these virtuoso musicians.
You get to see those gigantic thumbs of Stanley Clarke plucking and popping the living crap out of those bass strings. Likewise, watching Al DiMeola’s fingers flying up and down the fretboard is a marvel to behold. DiMeola always was one of the fastest guns in the west, and he hasn’t lost a single step here.
RTF is however still Corea’s band. Although he isn’t nearly as flashy as Clarke or DiMeola, Corea’s keyboard flourishes remain the glue which holds this unit together.
On the epic track “Song To The Pharoah Kings” from RTF’s very under-appreciated album Where Have I Known You Before, Corea switches gears between the (sadly-missed) Fender Rhodes, and a synthesizer where he recreates sounds ranging from drums to more conventional instruments.
Once again, the camera captures all of this by zeroing in on Corea’s dexterous fingers. Clarke and DiMeola also get their own lengthy solos here, as the song moves through its various sections and intricate changes. Drummer Lenny White never gets his own solo (at least not until the appearance of bonus tracks from another RTF show in Florida), but is still given quite a workout, particularly when he locks into those funk grooves with Clarke.
Playing a setlist that focuses evenly on tracks like “No Mystery” and “The Romantic Warrior” drawn from all of RTF’s albums, and with a running time of over two hours, Live At Montreux 2008 is worth every bit of the 25 year wait for a Return To Forever live document.
The guys are still playing at the top of their game after all these years, and are clearly having a great time doing it. Most importantly, they play like they still mean it here.