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Joining the here and now

Return to Forever, the fusion supergroup of Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, is back -- after a break of 25 (or maybe 30) years.

February 17, 2008|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Chick Corea is smiling. In fact, he's beaming. Seated behind his Minimoog and his Fender Rhodes keyboards, arms and hands in motion, kicking out one brisk rhythmic phrase after another, making constant eye contact with the musicians around him -- guitarist Al Di Meola, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White -- he's obviously feeling great.

Wait a minute: Corea, Di Meola, Clarke and White? That's the classic lineup of Return to Forever, one of the groups that defined the jazz-rock fusion of the '70s. They haven't played together in 25 years, swore they'd never have a reunion.

Right. But never say never. (Look at the Eagles). Return to Forever is, well, returning. And last week, the rehearsals were already underway for the RTF reunion tour that undoubtedly will be the big jazz news of the summer.

Corea, 66, nods happily, shouts, "Great, great!" then turns back to his instruments, roving blithely across the electric keyboards, emphasizing the crisp clank of the Rhodes, tossing in wisps of slippery sound from his Minimoog. Di Meola adds shimmering electric guitar fills, while Clarke and White dig into the groove, driving the beat forward with muscular percussive textures.

A briskly articulated melodic figure from Clarke immediately attracts Corea's attention. He nods his head -- "Yeah!" -- and Clarke picks up the solo thread, responding with his characteristically fluid, mobile, acoustic bass lines.

The loose and swinging mood continues, triggering a palpable sense of joy in the room -- the eye contact and spontaneous smiles exchanged by the players visible indications of the music's rich improvisational symbiosis.

It's the real deal: Return to Forever, back again -- bringing a 21st century perspective to the visceral blend of rock energy with the improvisation and compositional structures of jazz that made the quartet a phenomenon of the '70s, competing with outfits such as Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra for the favor of both jazz and prog-rock audiences.

'Snowball in hell'

RTF's return to action took place in the Mad Hatter Studios on the Los Feliz edge of Hollywood -- a sprawling, well-equipped facility that has been the recording destination of choice for such artists as Prince, Paul McCartney and Beck. Founded by Corea in 1980, it was sold in 2003 to Golden Era Productions, the audio-visual arm of the Church of Scientology, which counts Corea among its members.

Corea was clearly delighted to be back in his old digs, which have been considerably remodeled since the studio changed hands. Earlier in the evening, there'd been some playful banter about what to call the Return to Forever tour. If the Eagles 1994 reunion was called "Hell Freezes Over," maybe this constitutes "The Snowball in Hell Tour."

Corea, the group's founder, laughingly explained that they'd probably stick with the more mundane "RTF World Tour Summer '08." And stacks of printed T-shirts, emblazoned with the RTF logo (as well as a photo, on the back, of the four members in their younger, more hirsute days) were already in boxes, ready for a pair of tours that will cover the U.S. starting in late May (including a performance at Gibson Amphitheatre) and Europe next year. (An announcement with details is slated for March 3.)

Another important item also had to be jammed into the band's busy schedule at Mad Hatter -- photographs.

And here, in an unexpected way, the "Snowball in Hell" reference resurfaced when photographer Lynn Goldsmith called for an offbeat image set-up. Garbed in heavy winter overcoats, positioned around piles of suitcases and instrument boxes, the players assumed their best band-on-the-run poses, their sunglasses registering incongruently with the winter fashion imagery.

Goldsmith, darting from one side to another, shouted instructions and encouragement, her camera clicking madly, eager to catch a spirited moment.

Most jazz musicians are notoriously uncooperative photo subjects -- when they're not playing their instruments. And the RTF guys were no exception, their lugubrious responses to Goldsmith's commands the polar opposite of the spirit in their music.

Word about the upcoming tour had begun to leak out, and the studio was anything but empty. A few people from Corea's management company, various techies adjusting the lighting, Corea's wife, Gayle Moran -- a singer in her own right, who performed in a late-'70s version of Return to Forever -- all watched the photo session closely, each offering an occasional instructive remark.

"Tell Chick to take off his glasses," Moran called out, trying to help matters along. Then, to a bystander: "He has such beautiful eyes."

Corea flashed her a wan glance.

The photo session completed, he seemed much happier taking a break for a chat with the other RTF players and a journalist eager for answers to some fundamental questions: Why this, why now?

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