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Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am

Science fiction is a preoccupation of Chick Corea's. Possibly this is a byproduct of his allegiance to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology - or perhaps the other way around.

No surprise then that in the tradition of titles such as Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy and Theme to the Mothership the title of the first CD by the fourth incarnation of Return to Forever is The Mothership Returns.

In his liner note, Corea likens the jazz-fusion band - which he started 40 years ago with bassist Stanley Clarke - to a spaceship from which 'solo ships' depart and to which they periodically return.

'In The Mothership Returns we've logged in some of our recent experience with our fourth version of the crew of the Mothership - three of us old hands ... and two old friends new to the Mothership. We've returned to Port NYC [New York City] ... awaiting the next mission orders,' he says.

One way of putting it. To come more down to earth, the three 'old hands' - Corea, Clarke and drummer Lenny White - have revived a brand. The trio are three quarters of what is generally regarded as the 'classic' line-up of the band which lasted from 1974 to 1976 and recorded the albums Where Have I Known You Before, No Mystery and Romantic Warrior.

In 1977 Corea fired White and guitarist Al Di Meola, and after one more studio album and a live document of the final line-up, laid Return to Forever to rest.

Thanks to disputes over various matters - including Scientology - no reunion of the classic configuration was expected, but in 2008 Corea, Clarke, White and Di Meola reconvened for a tour, DVD and live album, all of which turned out a lot better than many commentators had anticipated. At the end of that tour, the band broke up again.

Corea, Clarke and White seem to have regained their enthusiasm, and have reformed to tour with Frank Gambale replacing Di Meola on guitar, and adding Jean Luc Ponty on violin.

The Mothership Returns is a two-CD plus 'bonus' DVD document of their last tour, and includes several of the best known tracks associated with the 1970s version of the band.

Corea's Spain comes from 1972's Return to Forever; Clarke's After the Cosmic Rain from 1973's Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy; and from 1976's Romantic Warrior there is White's Sorceress, Corea's Medieval Overture and the title track.

Corea's Senor Mouse and Clarke's School Days are signature tunes from their solo careers, but fit in well with the group repertoire, and violinist Ponty also gets a composer's credit with Renaissance from his 1976 album, Aurora.

Ponty collaborated with Clarke and Di Meola in 1995 in a band called Rite of Strings, and during Return to Forever's heyday the violinist was in one of the biggest rival jazz fusion bands: John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra.

Gambale has performed regularly with the Chick Corea Elektric Band since 1987, and although on his own he doesn't quite fill Di Meola's shoes as a soloist - particularly in the acoustic interludes - his supportive playing is spot on throughout. With the bonus of Ponty's violin work this is a line-up that packs much of the punch of the old quartet.

Notwithstanding an endorsement in the CD booklet from Metallica bass guitarist Robert Trujillo, who describes Return to Forever as 'musical bridge' between jazz and heavy metal, the arrangements are less heavy handed than of old, with all the musicians - apart from White, who plays acoustically throughout - alternating between electric/electronic and acoustic instruments.

Much of the most memorable playing comes from Ponty, whose violin allows Corea to focus on his acoustic and electric pianos more than the synthesizers so often used as lead voices on old Return to Forever recordings.

The DVD - which includes extensive documentary as well as performance footage - will probably appeal mostly to diehard fans, but for those with a serious interest in the band this is engaging viewing. A trailer for a forthcoming documentary telling the story of the group is also included.

Take Three

Three albums featuring members of the current Return to Forever line-up.

Captain Marvel (Verve, 1972): a proto Return to Forever featuring Corea, Clarke, percussionist Airto Moreira and Tony Williams on drums, backing saxophonist Stan Getz on a strong set of Corea originals including La Fiesta and Five Hundred Miles High, plus Billy Strayhorn's Lush Life.

Apocalypse (Columbia, 1974): Ponty replaces Jerry Goodman in the Mahavishnu Orchestra on an album overseen by Beatles producer George Martin, which also features the London Symphony Orchestra. The allusions to Eastern mysticism have dated somewhat, but the music still stands up.

The Manhattan Project (Blue Note, 1990): an all-star band formed by White for one album, comprising Clarke on bass, Gil Goldstein and Pete Levin on keyboards, the late Michel Petrucciani on piano, and Wayne Shorter on saxophones. Original compositions by the participants, and jazz standards ranging from Summertime to Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, get a funky reworking, with synthesizers prominently featured in the arrangements.

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