Concert Review: Return to Forever IV/Zappa Plays Zappa

Return to Forever IV/Zappa Plays Zappa
Greek Theatre
Tuesday, September 20, 2011

by A. Scott Galloway

The mere prospect of a concert double bill starring the latest incarnation of Chick Corea’s endlessly malleable Return to Forever (RTF) concept along with opening act Zappa Plays Zappa (ZPZ) – the ultimate tribute band to rock impresario Frank Zappa led by his honorable son Dweezil Zappa – was enough to send a music head’s mind racing back to the thrill of “school days” when such a show would blow your mind while simultaneously expanding your musical consciousness. Such was the case under the stars at Griffith Park’s beautiful Greek Theatre as these two ensembles delivered the masterful musical goods making good – no great – on the bill’s promise as the stellar chops hit of the summer.

Good omens were immediate as I lumbered up the stairs on my still-healing left leg to the intricate strains of Zappa Plays Zappa waxing SMASHING on the loopy 1973 medley “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)/Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” Dweezil Zappa was cool as a cucumber as he led his rag tag ensemble (two guitars, drums, mallet percussion, Latin percussion, bass, keys, a female saxophonist, a female background singer, and a lead singer who doubled on “horns”…from trumpet to kazoo) through the piece’s winding chaos and downshifts, including a dizzying marimba solo and a laidback Fender Rhodes solo (switched this night to saxophone). Written out, this nine-minute piece (complete with toy canned moo cow finale) would take up reams of score paper but the band nailed every nuance of it ALL from memory in an awesome display of excellence. I was beside myself.

ZPZ did a fine job of telescoping its usually much longer show into a tight hour-and-15-minute extravaganza that ran from the disco parody “Dancin’ Fool” (which Frank immortalized on a “Saturday Night Live” episode), the blues rock odyssey “Cosmic Debris” and another piece on which the band really got to stretch out titled “Big Swifty” – all senses searing and on-point. All members of the band were outstanding especially Dweezil – doing his father much justice as both a guitarist and band leader – mallets man Billy Hulting, drummer Joe Travers and lead singer Ben Thomas. With so much obvious instrumental dexterity going on, it’s easy yet unforgivable to overlook how precise a singer in Zappa’s zapatos must be to get all the lyrics to lay just right within the dense arrangements PLUS bring the proper amount of wry comic irony as well. Kudos, Ben.

The energy level flew up another notch when Chick Corea was brought out as a surprise guest to play Mini Moog on an ancient Zappa gem from the late `60s titled “King Kong.” Beaming with impish joy, Corea stood at the miniature board, played the intricate head then peeled off some duelin’ with Dweezil. One might have expected violinist Jean-Luc Ponty of RTF4 to have sat in on this one since he’s the one who recorded it with Zappa and orchestra back in the day. Having Corea play it instead foreshadowed that this would be an evening to expect the unexpected. And just what could ZPZ possibly do for a finale? They pulled out the epic and comical tale of Nanook the Eskimo instructively entitled “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”…and a jolly time was had by all.

Following an intermission during which the audience was treated to somebody’s very hip iPod mix tape that glided seamlessly from Stevie Wonder to Ella Fitzgerald and back, the men of RTF were introduced to the stage by one of Los Angeles’ celebrity jazz fan elite:
Kareem Abdul Jabaar

Before I get into the RTF set at hand, a bit of back history is required. When Corea first recorded with the band that became known the world over as Return to Forever, it was a semi-acoustic quintet in which Corea played Fender Rhodes and piano with co-founder Stanley Clarke on upright and electric bass, the late Joe Farrell on tenor sax and flute, Airto Moreira on drums and percussion, and his wife Flora Purim singing and playing percussion. After two critically acclaimed LPs, Chick changed the band to an electric Jazz-Rock Fusion quartet retaining Clarke and adding drummer Lenny White (with whom he played on sessions for Miles Davis’ seminal Bitches Brew LP in 1970) and guitarist Bill Connors. Following one album, Connors departed and was replaced by a 19 year-old guitar wiz named Al Di Meola. Between 1974 and 1976, THIS version of the RTF quartet recorded three now highly lauded albums that are held up to the cosmos as definitive of the genre. Consider them the Led Zeppelin of Jazz-Rock Fusion.  However, after three highly intensive years of recording and touring on the level of rock royalty, the band imploded. Wasting no time, Corea re-imagined the band AGAIN with Clarke but switching from electric quartet format to a kinder, gentler group with returning Joe Farrell on reeds, Gerry Brown on drums, Corea’s wife Gayle Moran as vocalist plus a horn section. Following one studio album and a 4-LP live box set recorded at Carnegie Hall, Corea “retired” the Return to Forever franchise for a spell.

Over the years there have been a handful of “Return to Forever Reunion” enterprises.” I saw three previous ones – all here in Los Angeles and all problematic. The first reunion tour of the `70s superstar incarnation took place in 1983 at the Universal Amphitheatre, but the band’s performance played out more like a battle of uncorked aggressions and one-upmanship than a brotherhood of “musicmagic.” Whatever had caused the breakup of the band clearly remained unsettled under the surface and to horrific effect. The show was so tedious that I actually walked out. It was my least favorite of a large number of concerts I attended that year, but I still have a souvenir pin I bought from the show…before the music started. The next RTF “Reunion” was a world tour that took place 25 years later in 2008, returning to the same L.A. venue only now called the Gibson Amphitheatre. This time, Corea, Clarke, Di Meola and White gave audiences a full two-part evening of music with outstanding playing all around except, unfortunately, for White who was ailing with an injured shoulder, thus  unable to play fully out which undercut the power behind the compositions significantly. Another RTF reunion took place in the summer of 2010 during a special “Unplugged” Corea concert that came through the Hollywood Bowl. Here, guitarist Bill Connors – largely off the scene for years – returned to the fold to replace Di Meola. He was sorely not up to the task, coming off uneasy and unsure of himself, thus debilitating both his improvisational skills and his overall playing. He was reading charts on stage…

So it was with tremendous trepidation yet high hopes for my high school band room heroes that I faithfully came out to see what Corea has now dubbed Return to Forever IV. This quintet consists of Chick Corea on acoustic piano and synthesizers, Stanley Clarke on electric and acoustic basses, Lenny White on drums, Frank Gambale (formerly of Corea’s Elektric Band of the `80s and `90s) on electric and acoustic guitars, and a most welcome addition on electric and acoustic violins, Jean-Luc Ponty, every bit the band’s peer as a player and composer, and who proved a godsend of a delight in his guest role with Corea at the 2008 Hollywood Bowl concert. When these five gentlemen took the Greek Theatre stage, they received a standing ovation before playing a note. Icon status has its privileges.

RTF4 opened with “Medieval Overture” from its best-selling 1976 masterwork Romantic Warrior, conservatively sticking close to the original arrangement and as if they were largely setting sound levels during the piece. The ending was a little rough in that they didn’t all reach it at precisely the same time. However, from the next number on, RTF4 served the Greek Theatre audience a concentrated concert of greatness it won’t soon forget.

The group next whisked us on a bright excursion through Corea’s festive “Captain Senor Mouse” from 1973’s Hymn of the 7th Galaxy album. Beyond witnessing the entire group instantly warm up to the task, it was in this piece that we discovered how Gambale would play his hand coming behind Connors (in his prime when he recorded the original) and Di Meola who took it down furious Spanish highways during his tenure. Not attempting to recreate either’s fire, Gambale brought a bluesier rock feel with brief judicious flashes of fretwork fury. That piece was followed by an engaging moody interlude for violin and Fender Rhodes that ushered us into White’s funk-fortified masterpiece “Sorceress” from Romantic Warrior. The piece began as longtime fans remember it but quickly evolved into a totally new arrangement of fresh twists and turns, including a slower, meatier mid-section, all serving to remind us once again to expect the unexpected.

Corea welcomed the audience to the venue then gave a lovely personal introduction to violinist Jean-Luc Ponty as the group led into the Frenchman’s most renowned composition, “Renaissance.”  Though Ponty first recorded the song on his 1975 album Aurora, he has also performed and recorded it with Clarke and Al Di Meola in the trio The Rite of Strings and with everyone on stage except Gambale at Corea’s Hollywood Bowl show. It is amazing how much life and legs the evocative piece holds. White gave it a new pulse underneath and solos were given all around on acoustic instruments. Predictably, it was Clarke switching to upright who stole the thunder on this one with resonantly melodic leads that warmed you to your core. Similarly, enough can’t be said of how the addition of Ponty to this ensemble broadens the tonal palette of its sound. As time goes on, it will be thrilling to see how the group integrates him on new compositions penned with him in mind as well as hopefully reaching back to rework some of his other previous suites and compositions in their own way.

Next up it was time for Clarke’s galactic rumination “After The Cosmic Rain” which again was given an overhauled arrangement with Corea swinging his solo, Ponty digging in for violin rock supremacy, and a front-and-center stage Clarke dazzling with an electric bass solo filled with salvo after salvo of his patented runs, licks and tricks. Props must be given here and throughout the show to White who was magnificent in his uncanny ability to support and accompany all with taste and fire while also doling out explosions of double bass drum bombs and punchy unorthodox snare-cymbal accents that ignited the players and the audience. In full recovery from his arm injury and further inspired by his own return to heavy rock on his most recent CD, Anomaly, White rumbled forth reinvigorated with a vengeance!

The final two selections showcased different sides of now-70 year-old Corea’s compositional excellence. First was “Romantic Warrior,” the title track of the group’s biggest album and the third piece played from it this evening. This is one of Corea’s multi-directional suite pieces – a tale told in music that offers a full range of dynamics in styles, rhythms and amplitudes. It was not for nothing that a Rasta gentleman sitting next to me uttered, to no one in particular, with his eyes closed intently, “I forgot how amazing this music is…”  Just when you think you remember the piece, another section arrives that takes you by surprise with a delicious shiver of déjà vu. The sweet surprise was Corea inserting several choruses of Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” into the mix. The closing song of the night was, of course, Corea’s most famous composition “Spain” (including the solo piano intro of Joaquin Rodrigo’s classic “Concierto de Aranjuez,” made famous on Miles Davis & Gil Evans’ 1960 classic Sketches of Spain). This turned into one of those beautiful unforgettable moments under the stars that happen at the Greek when Corea playfully challenged the audience with a pitch-testing/ear-training sing-a-long and received the equivalent of a civic chorus’ response.   And with what did Return to Forever IV follow that for an encore? They turned it over to Stanley Clarke for his rock-n-soul war horse “School Days”…with Dweezil Zappa joining him and Gambale on the frontline for a thrilling throw down.

My faith blissfully restored, I now greatly anticipate my next evening with RTF in whatever incarnation it might take, though I strongly believe this line-up (though perhaps with Di Meola back if they will have him) has 500 miles higher to climb in cosmic realms of unexpected possibility. Class dismissed.

– A. Scott Galloway
  Music Editor
  The Urban Music Scene

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