The Story Of Return To Forever (1972 – 1978)

Born on June 12, 1941 pianist and composer Chick Corea was a prolific presence on the jazz scene from 1962 until his death in February 2021. A complex musician he was at home in styles from free jazz, Latin jazz, post-bop jazz, progressive rock and classical music.

In the late sixties he recorded several important albums as leader for Atlantic and Blue Note Records Tones For Joan’s Bones (Atlantic 1966) and Now He Sing, Now He Sobs (Blue Note 1968). A year later he was working with Miles Davis and playing electric piano and contributed to Davis’s jazz rock albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

While he was to remain in Miles’s group for a while longer Corea, like some of the other musicians who had played on these ground-breaking albums were looking to form their own bands and investigate for themselves the possibilities that fusion (as it had become named) could offer.

Important groups that would spring forth from within the inner circle of Miles’s bands would include the Mahavishnu Orchestra led by guitarist John McLaughlin, from Herbie Hancock came the Mwandishi Sextet followed by The Headhunters, while saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboards maestro and composer Josef Zawinul formed Weather Report.

All took something very different away from their tenure with Miles, and each of the above bands had their own very unique and influential take on this exciting new genre jazz rock or fusion, as did Chick Corea with his band Return To Forever.

Return To Forever – 1972 – 1973

The first time Corea used the name Return To Forever was on the title of an album recorded for ECM records in February 1972. Credited as Return To Forever by Chick Corea, Return To Forever was soon adopted as the group’s name.

This first version of the RTF band included Corea playing electric piano, Stanley Clarke on electric and double bass (Clarke incidentally is the only constant throughout the lifetime of the group), Joe Farrell on soprano saxophone and flute, vocalist Flora Purim and drummer/percussionist Airto Moreira.

The ECM album was notable for the lightness of the sound, the Latin flavour in the music and Corea’s outstanding compositions such as ‘La Fiesta’ and ‘Crystal Silence’.

Both compositions would be recorded again before the year was out. The latter with vibraphone player Gary Burton on duet album recorded in November with Corea’s tune as the title track and ‘La Fiesta’ would appear on the Captain Marvel album recorded in March 1972 (but not released until 1974) by Stan Getz.

Corea had been working with the tenor saxophonist for some time and played on the Sweet Rain album of 1967, also contributing a couple of pieces. For the Captain Marvel sessions took along Stanley Clarke and Airto Moreira and wrote all but one of the tunes.

Of Corea’s compositions to be recorded were ‘La Fiesta’ and the title track would also be heard on the second RTF album, Light As A Feather. If Getz did not always favour change, Corea was the ideal partner for him at this stage with Sweet Rain and Captain Marvel being among his best album of the time.

From the pianist’s point of view the opportunity to further test the waters with the electric piano on Captain Marvel, as well as recording again with Clarke and Moreira would confirm his choice of musicians and judgement for RTF moving forward.

The group’s second album, Light As A Feather (released on Poydor Records) follows a similar path to the debut. Much is made of Flora Purim’s vocals, although some of the tunes are more song based with the addition of lyrics.

More successful is Purim’s wordless vocalising on the excellent version of ‘Captain Marvel’ with Joe Farrell wisely eschewing tenor saxophone is favour of flute and delivering an excellent solo in the process.

The lyrics written by Neville Potter fair better on Corea’s classic ‘500 Miles High’ with some fine tenor playing from Farrell. Corea’s accompaniment to the tenor solo is phenomenal as his solo that follows.

The pianist now has a firm grasp of the electric instruments capabilities and establishing himself as unique and readily identifiable voice on the Fender Rhodes piano.

Other notable highlights of the album are Corea’s ‘Spain’, another composition that has become a standard and taking its introduction from the Concierto de Aranjuez written by the Spanish composer, Joaquín Rodrigo.

We also treated to ‘Children’s Song’ which the pianist would go on to develop as a series of miniatures depicting the innocence and playfulness of childhood over the following years, and eventually recorded as a suite for the ECM label.

Forays into Jazz & Rock – 1973 – 1976

After the release of Light As A Feather, and wishing to start bands of their own, Plora Purim, Airto and Joe Farrell left the group. Their replacements would be guitarist Bill Connors and drummer Lenny White.

The drummer Steve Gadd and percussionist Mingo Lewis were initially hired, but Gadd was unwilling to commit to touring and turn down lucrative work as a session and studio drummer. His replace, White had played with Corea in Miles Davis’s band and took the on the role of drummer and percussionist and steeped in both jazz and rock idioms was the perfect choice for RTF and the new direction that the music would take.

The third album from RTF, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy was recorded in August 1973 and released a few months later. A very different proposition from the earlier albums, the emphasis from the quartet was on the use of electric instruments with Connors’s guitar and Corea using the Fender Rhodes electric piano and Yamaha organ.

The sound was denser, the rhythms driving and definitely heading into rock territory. Although most of the compositions were written by the pianist, along one by Clarke there are no compositions that would become standards.

The music however did not dull the appeal of the group but did broaden it appealing to fans of jazz-rock as pioneered by Weather Report and especially the Mahavishnu Orchestra, along with followers of progressive rock.

Prior to the RTF quartet recording a follow up album to 7th Galaxy, Bill Connors left the group. Wanting to concentrate on his solo acoustic career and unhappy with the amount of touring demanded by the band he was replaced with the nineteen year old prodigy Al Di Meola.

The sound world inhabited by the new group is similar to that of the previous album however Corea was now increasingly drawn to the using synthesizers as well as electric and acoustic piano and organ. His use of the ARP Odyssey and Minimoog synthesizers is heard to startling effect on the opening ‘Vulcan Worlds’.

Written by bassist Stanley Clarke the composition that contains motif and rhythmic figures that would feature on Clarke’s debut album later the same year. Clarke’s playing was now a tour de force and he was rapidly developing a reputation as the premier electric bassist of the era, and over his rock solid and inventive bass lines Corea would improvises fleet right hand improvisions using the ARP and Minimoog synths.

Not to be left on the sidelines, Di Meola was also capable of producing searing guitar solos that would ride above the turbulent rock driven rhythms from bass and drums and able to cut through the electric keyboards.

Corea was able to see just what was possible with the new technology at his disposal on the long composition ‘Song To Pharoah Kings’ that would feature recurring Eastern tinged themes and motifs over which each of the four musicians take extensive solos.

With a by now steady personnel, RTF were not only establishing a group sound and identity, each member of the band was also contributing material. With their fifth album, No Mystery recorded in January 1975 the band shifted emphasis slightly away from the heavy rock driven playing of the previous two sets and returned to a lighter sound that allowed for a more melody driven aspect to the music.

In a set that employed a judicious use of funk, and some catchy melodic hooks the band sound less self-consciously ‘of their time’ producing music that does not sound dated and more in kinship with the songlike aspirations of the first RTF line up. This trait continues throughout the second side of the original LP release that is entirely composed by Corea with a superbly orchestrated set of pieces that seamlessly incorporate electric and acoustic instruments.

Careful listening to ‘Celebration Suite Pt.1 ‘and ‘Pt.2’ will give an indication of Corea’s thoughts on evolving this concept further and the results of his thinking are brought to fruition on the groups third and final recording as with Corea/Clarke/Di Meola/White with the bestselling Romantic Warrior album.

The culmination of the work of the RTF quartet can be heard in Romantic Warrior. The use of acoustic and electric instruments is used sparingly and when required and the emphasis is very much on the use of keyboards and synthesizers to create texture, mood and melodies.

An overt rock feels, leaning towards prog-rock and although none of the composition are over long or indulgent there is a feeling that the album and compositions be conceived as a suite.

Romantic Warrior is a truly collaborative album with all four musicians contributing compositions and taking production credits. Interestingly it is also the first of the groups albums not to be credited as ‘Return to Forever featuring Chick Corea but credited solely to the group as collective.

This collective identity and acknowledgement of group sound is heard to fine effect on Di Meola’s composition ‘Majestic Dance’ and in the space of just five minutes shows the strength of each member along with a ‘cameo’ or glimpse of each of their playing styles on their respective instruments and where each were headed musically.

Clarke’s bass line draws on his phenomenal playing on his Schooldays album released in 1976, and from the same year Di Meiola’s solo album as leader Land Of The Midnight Sun is echoed in the piece; and some of the synthesizer and keyboard sounds used by Corea can be heard in his album The Leprechaun.

The album as a whole sums up everything that the RTF group had stood for from 1973 onwards and is a fitting end to this version of epitaph for this line up of the group.

The Final Chapter – 1977

After the success of Romantic Warrior few could have predicted the turn of events that would follow. In a surprise shift in direction Corea decided to change the personnel of the band, and out were Di Meola and Lenny White.

Stanley Clarke was to remain, and saxophonist/flautist returned from the first incarnation of the group but the last studio album from the RTF band was very different from anything that had gone before.

The album to be called Musicmagic was heavily orchestrated with acoustic instruments filling out the sound of Corea’s piano and keyboards, and vocals were back for the first time since the Light As A Feather album featuring Stanley Clarke and Gayle Moran who was Corea’s wife.

The album’s arrangements sound thin and unsubstantial, and the vocals are very lightweight bordering on the soporific. The energy and vitality of former RTF groups seems to be drained from the music and it is difficult to see quite where the music is going or the audience it is to be directed at.

The music falls somewhere between easy listening pop music and smooth jazz. A disappointing release and Columbia Records who signed RTF prior to the release of Romantic Warrior must have wondered whether they had made the right decision.

The End of an Era

The final album from RTF was Live and recorded in concert on 20 and 21 May, 1977 at the Palladium in New York City. Part of a tour to promote the Musicmagic release. Featuring many of the tracks from the studio album, the band comprised of Corea, Clarke, Joe Farrell and Gaye Moran supported by a six piece horn section.

Originally released a single LP, the music has subsequently been issued as a four LP set Return to Forever Live: The Complete Concert. A further 5 CD box set has also been released by Columbia Records as Return to Forever, The Complete Columbia Albums Collection which incorporates the complete concert from the Palladium with the two studio albums, Romantic Warrior and Musicmagic.

Chick Corea officially disband RTF in 1978, but since then there have been several reunions for recording sessions and periodic live concerts. In 2008 the RTF line up of Corea/Clarke/Di Meola/White reconvened for a tour of Europe and the United States.

To coincide with the tour some of the groups tracks from the albums Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery, and Romantic Warrior were digitally remixed and remastered for a commemorative boxset to coincide with the tour.

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