One of the most celebrated fusion bands of all time, Return to Forever, is back with a new quintet lineup and a three disc (two CDs, one DVD) set called The Mothership Returns. The self-dubbed Return to Forever IV embarked on a world tour in 2011, highlights from which were culled for the collection’s two CDs. In addition to the core lineup of keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, and drummer Lenny White, the band now includes guitarist Frank Gambale and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty (hence the Roman numeral to denote the new incarnation).
The newest members acquit themselves rather nicely throughout the live set. Gambale fits right in with RTF, having spent years playing with Corea in the Chick Corea Electrik Band, touring and recording going all the way back to that band’s second album, Light Years (1987). Gambale is also a veteran of the fusion band Vital Information.
Ponty’s recording career stretches back to 1964 and includes many albums, as well as a years-long collaboration with Frank Zappa. His RTF connections include recording as a trio with bassist Clarke and former Return to Forever guitarist Al Di Meola. Ponty comes fairly close to dominating The Mothership Returns with his varied and distinctive violin solos.
The first disc features Ponty’s “Renaissance,” first recorded on his 1976 album Aurora but revisited by the aforementioned trio of he, Clarke, and Di Meola for The Rite of Strings (1995). His dazzling virtuosity is on full display here, but the rest of the band is definitely up to the challenge. Corea’s solo is especially inventive. Two of drummer Lenny White’s originals are combined for a medley, “The Shadow of Lo/Sorceress.” Again, the exciting interplay among these musicians is nothing short of staggering. White and Clarke play off each other so well, and this medley as good a place as any to hear it.
Among the five tracks on the second disc, the best is a killer take on “School Days,” the title track of Clarke’s 1976 album. This enduring tune features jaw-dropping playing by Ponty on violin. Another great moment occurs with the call-and-response between Corea and the audience during “Spain,” from 1972’s Light as a Feather. Other showpieces include Clarke’s “After the Cosmic Rain” (originally from 1973’s Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy) and Corea’s “The Romantic Warrior,” taken from RTF’s 1976 album of the same name.
The DVD is a treasure trove of terrific material for RTF fans. “Return to Forever: Inside the Music” is a 65 minute documentary that intersperses performance footage from the 2011 tour with interviews. The interviews mostly feature Corea, Clarke, and White, seated together. Among the cool anecdotes is the fact that White’s composition “The Shadow of Lo” began life as “The Shadow of Io” (as in Jupiter’s moon), but was misprinted, forever known by the incorrect name.
Also included on the DVD is a 16 minute performance of “After the Cosmic Rain,” with a mind-blowing bass solo by Clarke. A 22 minute live video of “The Romantic Warrior” allows for everyone to have some nice moments, but newcomers Gambale and Ponty stand out with excellent solos. An extended trailer for the upcoming documentary The Story of Return to Forever adds some additional interview clips to the mix.
On top of all that audio and video material , The Mothership Returns includes a lengthy booklet loaded with pictures and thoughts from each of the band members. The quad-fold digipak is a compact way to house all the material. There’s no doubting that this release stands as a testament to the on-going legacy of Return to Forever. Ponty, with so much prominently featured violin work, makes a special impact in particular, adding a new and exciting voice to the band.