Return to Forever: United Palace Theatre, New York, NY 8/7/08

Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Al Dimeola and Lenny White could do no wrong for the near capacity crowd populating The United Palace Theatre August 7th. This may explain why the quartet known as Return to Forever, acknowledged the roar of acclamation from the audience by immediately striding to the front of the stage, as performers usually do at the end of their show.

In contrast to their self-referential soliloquies to the attendees, RTF mitigated this tacit expression of ego, at least to a degree, with the pre-recorded strains of Miles Davis that heralded their appearance. Yet it might’ve been more appropriate still for the group to play a tribute to the man with the horn during the course of their show rather than just pipe it in: it was, after all, Miles who first conceived jazz-rock fusion and Return to Forever who helped bring it to the mainstream.

Corea, Clarke, DiMeola and White rendered a prodigious display of virtuosity this first hour plus of the evening. The interval was a near continuous exhibition of tremendous technical skill – as individuals and as a group – made all the more admirable given the fact the foursome have been together this summer for their first sustained work together in over a quarter century (this was the next to last date of the tour, an extra NY show added after this initial one sold out).

But technique as an end in itself is only so awe-inspiring, less so when the improvisational quotient of the playing doesn’t equal the instrumental ability at hand. Most of the jamming, at least early on, was limited to two-way call and response, first between the bassist and the keyboardist, and later on the guitarist and keyboardist. Drummer White and Clarke were almost continuously locked in and generated consistently detailed, imaginative rhythm patterns, but the four men played as an ensemble only infrequently and then only to state and restate themes of well-know material such as “Song of the Pharaoh Kings.” Yet those moments of visceral atmosphere captured the sound of fusion—in more ways than one.

Dramatic and impressive as that was, especially when the band flawlessly navigated quick turnarounds and stop time intervals, the reticence of these men to play with abandon beyond the confines of familiar material begs the question of their future as Return to Forever. Brave as it was to collaborate again, it’d be all the more courageous still for Corea/Clarke/DiMeola/White to commit to regular roadwork during which time they would prefer new original material that would continue to stretch them as musicians and a unit.

For instance, Corea’s work on synthesizers remains gimmicky, as he opens up as a spontaneous thinker only when turning to the acoustic piano (a decidedly less constricted approach he adopted in Circle with Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton and Barry Altshul). Clarke was alone in radiating a sense of play in handling his instrument, while, in contrast, when DiMeola wasn’t engaged in a volcanic solo, he was virtually inaudible, seemingly uninterested in playing rhythm guitar.

Not that either the sound or the sight of Return to Forever was anything less than a resounding epiphany for the observers within the United Palace this Thursday night; whether or not they were cloaked in their favorite prog artist t-shirt (Zappa/Rush/Crimson) or not, to share such rarefied air with their heroes was an experience in itself.

SETLIST

SET 1
Opening Prayer
Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy
Vulcan Worlds
The Sorceress
Song To The Pharoah Kings

SET 2
No Mystery
Summer Night
The Romantic Warrior

Encores
Duel Of The Jester And The Tyrant

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