Saturday, June 21, 2008


There are people who can play music. Then there are people who can play music well. Above them in this hierarchy are the greats, the legends. Then there are the immortals. The members of Return To Forever, Chick Corea ('boards), Al Di Meola (guitar), Stanley Clarke (electric and acoustic bass) and Lenny White (drums), are those immortals.

My knowledge of the super group that fused jazz and rock in the early '70s is somewhat limited. I grew up listening to their vinyl album Light As A Feather, which contains "Spain" (one of my favorite songs) and "500 Miles High." So, going into the concert held last night at the Chicago Theater I had a decent knowledge of their work and virtuosity. Yet, I had never seen them play.

I've never considered myself a huge rock fan and haven't been to a rock concert. I lean more toward jazz, folk and acoustic songs.

Nevertheless, the show Return To Forever (RTF) put on was unreal. Perched in the balcony, I observed the quartet rock out for the crowd of mostly 50-somethings, who long for the days of having hair. (Note: How do you alter your show for an aging audience? Turn it to 11.) The group hit at 8:15 p.m. and played for about an hour. That hour was chock full of rock: electric guitars, electric bass, synths and all the amplifiers a kid dreams about. I wasn't familiar with the songs they played in the first set but the group was flawless. It is clear that each player is a master and that they share some sort of indescribable bond allowing them to play as one.

After the set break, the group came back and Corea announced how they would return to their original instruments. For my sensitive ears, this was a welcomed reprieve. In a more acoustic setting, the group once again displayed their prowess. Each player took their moment in the warm spotlight, starting briefly with Corea . Corea is an innovator beyond comparison. While he was playing the acoustic piano, he had a mallet which he used to strike the lower strings creating this haunting resonance. Unreal.

Di Meola followed with his solo on acoustic guitar, as the other players exited the stage. His chops are unbelievable. The speed and clarity at which he played was ridiculous. At several points the crowd rose to its feet and applauded in awe of his genius. At times, his playing was frenetic but always crisp.

After Corea and Clarke returned to the stage and played a brief bit, Clarke took his turn. His playing could have been a show unto itself. Earlier in the evening he mentioned how he always enjoys coming to Chicago and how he has a lot of good memories playing here. Clarke managed to make his upright bass take on the personalities of several instruments. At one point he played the bass like a guitar. At another, he coaxed lyrical melodies as if it were a piano or horn. Shortly after, he examined the rhythmic capabilities of the hulky instrument making it sound like a drum set. Soon after he started playing the blues and initiated a call-and-response session with the audience. The audience, at several points, stood up and cheered for his mastery.

Corea and White returned for a number. Then White took a brief solo. The group returned and played a few songs before the finale. They began the encore with "Senor Mouse" and segued into "Spain," the lone song I knew the entire evening.

It was remarkable. It could very well be the best concert I'll see in a long time.

White said succinctly during the first set, "In an age of boy bands, this is a man's band."

Below are two videos of the group:

No comments: