return to Forever was a true jazz-rock fusion supergroup, one of several inspired by the great Miles Davis. Organized by keyboardist Chick Corea, RTF was a 1970s phenomenon with bass monster Stanley Clarke, guitar virtuoso Al Di Meola and versatile, funky drummer Lenny White. With albums including No Mystery and Romantic Warrior, RTF scored commercial and critical success with a sound defined by blazingly fast melodies, dazzling solos and solid grooves. Then, in 1976, the band abruptly broke up. Word was the split came over philosophical differences among Corea and Clarke, who joined the Church of Scientology, and their non-Scientology bandmates. Corea and Clarke briefly continued without the others, and a one-off reunion tour was held in 1983. Now a quarter-century later, RTF is back for a concert trek that plays Ruth Eckerd Hall on Thursday night. The highly anticipated tour coincides with a newly released two-CD retrospective, The Anthology. Corea, a Clearwater area resident since 1997, talked about the band last month during a telephone interview from San Francisco.
How did you decide to relaunch Return to Forever? It was really a group action. The idea has been in the air for years and years. Stanley, Lenny and Al and I have all been busy through the years with lots and lots of projects. The past couple of years, the talk got a little more intense. It all built up to a point where we said we better do it.
What did you want to achieve musically? I think the idea was to try to pick up that group feeling that we had that was so exciting in the '70s and the musical relationship that we had formed that was pretty strong. Stanley and I were partners all through the three versions of Return to Forever. I met Stanley in (saxophonist) Joe Henderson's band and Lenny played with Stan a lot. Stanley opened for Miles (Davis). Musically it feels like it fits real comfortably. We've started with some of the tunes that we were doing in the '70s.
What made that era so creatively exciting for you? I can remember the feeling that was happening in the early '70s and late '60s was one of experimentation and change and trying things out. Our mentors and the people we looked up to like Miles and Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins — these guys were all experimenting their heads off. Tony Williams was doing that, John McLaughlin, Herbie (Hancock). There was an expansiveness of putting music together that would attract people's attention. I was all caught up in the moment of "Wow, this is some wild stuff that's happening."
What accounted for the tremendous popularity of this version of the band? The first Return to Forever had a softer sound, a samba-based groove with melodic tunes. When we decided to add electric guitar and pump it up, it more matched the tastes of the young people who were going to concerts. More than that was the fact that everybody in this quartet likes to communicate and entertain the audience, which was not a quality that some musicians have.
The fusion movement was later attacked by many critics. Did that bother you? I ignored it, basically. Everyone has the right to their own opinion and taste.
What's the legacy of fusion? That's another question that I leave up to musicians and writers. There used to be a (satellite) station called Planet Jazz. They had a format at one point where they were playing all the fusion music of the '70s — Tony Williams, Mahavishnu, Jaco. In the '70s when I was in it myself, I wasn't listening to it that much. But listening to it now, that music still sounds really fresh.
Are you playing any new music on this tour? In '83, I had written a long suite of five different pieces that went together that we played. The audience reaction was like they were waiting for the old music. So this time we decided to stay with the '70s music.
Fusion developed a reputation as jazz played at rock volume. Does that still hold true? We're going to be blasting in there. I don't know how rock 'n' roll it will be but it will be loud.