Kronomyth 10.0: THE FIRST PHOENIX RISES, RETURNS. There is, first of all, some heavy Rhodes work ahead of you, all of it under the bright heat of The Sun tarot, where wah-wah petals bloom and breathe, and exotic flora draws the fluted bill of hornbirds (farrell prized for their feathers), darting between tiny flecks of buzz and trill in the moving Air to which the thick kerplunk of bubblebees in silky grottoes do attend, a rich stew of ebullient bass. This sambient air buoys the second ride of the Phoenix, which has caught many a critic’s accolades in its currents. With Corea as its marvelous captain, RTF dances in the dappled sunlight of this new world, as animated exotica moves in dreamy sambanambulance and tiny eruptions of hardened jazz rumble harmlessly through the forest. 500 miles high, the Phoenix soars, light as a feather. It reappears as a dream-image in a child’s mind, carrying only the persistent tick-tock of a clock from the workaday world. It winds through the lively streets of Spain as a spirit, beckoned by the bacchanal of the living. There are the light and lithe rhythms of Airto Moreira, the airy vocals of Flora Purim, the refreshing flute and heated hornwork of Joe Farrell, and the Phoenix would soon find itself light these few original feathers. Then there is the stunning complexity of structure evident in Stanley Clarke’s electric, acoustic and bowed basswork and, greater than all that, the colossal Rhodes of Chick Corea. The captain plays the Rhodes like a lead guitar sometimes, hammering out notes in quick staccato stabs or bending the notes with his wah-wah pedal. Rarely has the instrument sounded so free and expressive, so timeless and beautiful. Light As A Feather is a different animal than the ferocious beast that RTF would later become. Here it’s all sunlight, warmth, bathed in beauty, using its superlative playing as a buttress to support an airier, lighter creation that fuses samba and electric jazz into something exciting and adventurous.
Kronomyth 1.0: SON OF THE RETURN TO FOREVER. The first solo album from Stanley Clarke is an RTF record in all but name; a Light As A Feather in his cap, if you will. It’s a transitional record, featuring vocals and flute (holdovers from the last RTF album) while looking forward to the future quartet of Clarke, Chick Corea, Lenny White and electric guitar (here provided by Pat Martino). Andy Bey and Dee Dee Bridgewater create an interesting male/female dynamic in the vocals that gives Children of Forever a unique flavor among RTF-related albums that almost feels like Frank Zappa at times (“Children of Forever,” for example, always reminds me of Frank’s “Village of the Sun.”) Children of Forever is both a collaboration between Clarke and Corea and an inversion of their previous roles, with Clarke writing all but one track, lyricist Neville Potter providing the spacey/spiritual subject matter and Corea handling the arrangements to keep everything contained within the RTF universe. The one track arranged by Clarke, “Children of the Future,” begins to fall apart in the middle and suggests that Corea was the stronger arranger of the two (the rest of the album bears that out). “Unexpected Days” shows the difference in their styles, and has a much more sophisticated and languid feel with no trace of funk. Speaking of sophistication, “Butterfly Dreams,” the only track to feature Bey without Bridgewater, could have come from the smooth-as-butter Johnny Hartman himself. On those tracks and the longer “Sea Journey,” it feels as though Corea has hijacked the session, and that may be the only complaint that Clarke fans can level against the album: it’s not a true Stanley Clarke solo album in the same sense as a School Days. As a warm run for the next iteration of RTF, however, Children of Forever is a welcome find for fusion fans and one of the better examples of Corea’s music in a song-oriented form. It’s not the bass showcase I expected, except for the brilliant “Bass Folk Song” and a wild bass fiddle solo on “Sea Journey,” nor is the guitar fully integrated into their sound yet (Pat Martino’s lone solo on “Sea Journey” is more notey than notable). All in all, it’s not quite as amazing as LAAF, Hymn or the Di Meola-era discs (in my opinion), but it’s definitely in the same family.
Kronomyth 14.0: VULCAN AMAZING. There are some days–let’s call them sumdays for the sake of a lovely argument—when the whole English language is a slippery squid. Words dart, half-glimpsed, in the murky ruins of an Atlantean ampitheatre, furtive ghosts that serve roe-eyed monsters, and I move as in the amniosis* of a dream. (*Not a word, see?) Jazz does this to me. For a gooey handful of sumdays now, I’ve built and torn down monuments to Where Have I Known You Before, all in an effort to capture something that is the very essence of elusion*. The group’s earlier effort, Hymn To The Seventh Galaxy, marked the maiden voyage of the U.S.S. Artieff into space jazz/rock fusion. That album, clever as it was, could be contained in dry prose without suffering too deeply the infirmities of air. WHIKYB is more exotic, almost extraterrestrial, and quickly shrivels up when hauled onto the dry deck of my imagination for examination. At best, I can tell you what I’ve seen in those glimpses: Al DiMeola, the fleet-fingered recruit from the starmaker academy, careening around the opening corner of “Vulcan Worlds” with guns blazing; the surface eruptions of a red sun silhouette against a Lo moon of cool indigo; the alien chatter of sentient matter communicated in popping, bubbling, boiling bass notes; and Captain Chick split into two persons, two worlds, two times and still holding it together. This album is its own monument to a meeting of galactic consequence. The future adventures of the Artieff’s crew would be more amazing still as Al DiMeola, like a certain newt, got better, but even here the young guitarist’s greenness is one more color in a technicolor trip beyond the seventh galaxy.
As a man grows older, he grows brittle. The magic seeps from his bones, and he makes a dry, creaking sound as he moves about the world, a kind of interminable tsk that secretly guards what little youth he has left by assessing everything around him as unoriginal, automatic, another tooth in the grinding gears of time. Critics discover this internal defect earlier, I suspect, as new works elicit the same old words. I point this out as a forward apology, since I don’t expect to say anything new about Stanley Clarke’s second album and, honestly, it deserves new language. Unlike his first album, which patterned itself after the early voyages of RTF (and even brought Captain Corea along for the ride), the self-titled second album is a true solo journey. Clarke assembled an all-star crew—Mahavishnu’s Jan Hammer, Tony Williams, Bill Connors—arranged the material himself and put his bass front and center in the music. The pieces are decidedly more funky this time and often use a funk riff of bass and drums to move the music along, which suggests that Clarke still needed to grow as an arranger, but the bass playing itself is unimpeachably smart. Highlights include the joyful “Lopsy Lu” (which segues nicely from the album’s only vocal piece, “Yesterday Princess”) and the two extended pieces on side two, “Spanish Phases” (featuring the acoustic bass) and the RTF-like “Life Suite.” Normally, I’d be writing a paragraph just about Tony Williams (my favorite drummer), but he’s merely excellent (versus, say, supernatural) on this session. Jan Hammer, on the other hand, really impresses me here with his Moog work which, although a bit dated (not his fault), is the album’s second main ingredient. Most of the time, Bill Connors isn’t any more audible here than on Hymn, so it must be a stylistic thing, although he does light it up for “Power” and the closing of “Life Suite.” In comparing this with his first record, I would tell you that Stanley Clarke is the better bass showcase, Children the better bet to please RTF fans. The second album also sets a template for future works, which would highlight Clarke’s bass in various settings of funk, fusion and classical jazz.
As humor and ignorance go hand in hand, I’ll let the former lead the latter in a little poke at jazz-wise folk… No Mystery plumbs the paradigmatical prog fusion cum Latin jazz that RTF is acronymically known for (noting that in fact it’s not an acronym at all). Paralytic rhythms overtake the funky aspirations of side one, proffered most profusely on Lenny White’s darkly funny “Sofistifunk” and in a suffusion of profusity on the seven-minute “Flight of the Newborn” (with a brief layover in Axesaw and the Keys of Reed). If they don’t get your foot tappin’, try on the metatarsal modalities of Stanley Clarke’s bass on “Dayride” or steeling yourself against the humor of “Excerpt From The First Movement of Heavy Metal.” Oblations to the great funk nation, the first half of No Mystery is a piece of prog fusion history worth preserving. Side two slips into the matador’s suit of My Spanish Heart, a part and yet apart from Mystery’s space spelunking start. The title track is patronymic parlor jazz with a forest scorpion’s sting (having earlier resided underwood in ruth), the two-part “Celebration Suite” a cause for celebration if you enjoyed My Spanish Heart. The seriality of songs is less important than it was on Romantic Warrior, the ability to transhumanize jazz remains as keen. What occurs is a consubtantiation of creative forces, revealing the mysteries of the universe through sound. Ironically, it was L.Ron Hubbard who pointed out that we as human beings let our attention slip out the open window of a large and foreign word, but jazz critics insist on slippin’ ‘em in anyway. No Mystery earned them a Grammy in 1975 for Best Jazz Performance by a Group. Far from vindicating the Grammy selection process, I’ll simply note that even a blind man can pick the right nutshell in an honest game every third time.
Another bass tour de force from Stanley Clarke, this time featuring an all-star lineup that looks like a jazz readers’ poll for the year’s best artists: Jeff Beck, Chick Corea, George Duke, Steve Gadd, John McLaughlin, David Sancious, Lenny White. Journey To Love basically returns to the same approach as his last album: throw down some contagious funk, slip in a smooth-as-satin vocal song, add some old school jazz and class things up with a modern classical composition. The new wrinkle here is the addition of Duke and Beck. Clarke found a sympathetic partner in Duke, the two meshing like finely tuned and funky gears on the opening “Silly Putty” and “Hello Jeff,” the latter turbocharged with the electric guitar of Jeff Beck. David Sancious and Steve Gadd are also inspired choices, with Sancious playing lead and rhythm with equal aplomb. Maybe it was the presence of Duke, but Clarke takes on more complex arrangements on this album. “Concerto for Jazz/Rock Orchestra,” for example, features a full brass section that recalls Frank Zappa’s horny exploits (e.g., The Grand Wazoo) and stiches together several different parts with precision and skill. Compared to the concerto, the Corea-Clarke collaboration, “Song to John” (dedicated to John Coltrane), is a snooze. I get where the first part sounds like the shimmering and slowly unfolding sound of John’s later music, but the second part just sounds like Chick noodling around, and John McLaughlin’s acoustic guitar is a wet match that never lights. Still, it’s a minor complaint against a major work. Journey To Love continues to fill a special need for bass-driven jazz/rock. So few musicians were making (or were capable of making) music like this, and it’s easy to hear why many considered Clarke the instrument’s greatest champion. Together with his last and next albums, this represents a triumphant trio of jazz/rock that every bass aficionado (and plenty of pure music lovers) should own.
Kronomyth 1.0: VENUS TRAP FLIGHT. Out of all the RTF solo albums, this is the one that surprised me the most. Venusian Summer is a fantastic fusion of funk and prog, featuring a top-flight band of familiar faces (Doug Rauch, Doug Rodrigues, Larry Young, Larry Coryell, David Sancious, Raymond Gomez, Al Di Meola). Although I enjoyed Lenny’s compositional contributions to RTF so far (“The Shadow of Lo,” “Sofistifunk”), they didn’t prepare me for the far-out and amazing journey of Venusian Summer. The album also turned me on to Doug Rauch, an incredibly talented bass player who died too soon. Given the fact that it took Stanley Clarke a few albums to get it all together, I expected that White’s first solo album would be more tentative or derivative. It’s neither of those things. Instead, it’s a confident vision of fusion presented through the conceptual lens of science fiction and fantasy, which for me was always the best part of RTF. Although the album is uniformly excellent, highlights include the 10-minute title suite and the two closing tracks, “Mating Drive” and “Prince of the Sea,” which showcase the superlative soloing of Raymond Gomez and Al DiMeola, respectively. The first two tracks, “Chicken Fried Steak” and “Away Go Troubles Down The Drain,” are funkier entries where Rauch nearly steals the spotlight. In my opinion, Venusian Summer concedes nothing to the RTF albums from this period. Prog fans with fusion inclinations should sign on for this and the even spacier Adventures of Astral Pirates. It’s a shame White didn’t stick with the science fiction format longer, but at least he left us two minor classics in the sci-fi/fusion canon.
Let me share with you my secret paramour in the field of fusion: Romantic Warrior. Loosely based on a medieval theme, this is the final installment in a very fruitful collaboration between Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Al DiMeola and Lenny White. Each of the four contributes at least one track to the proceedings, with the ever-fertile imagination of Corea assuming the lion’s share at three compositions. Opening up the songwriting leads to the kind of variegated musical vision most often encountered with Weather Report, only better. Heresy, you say? Not having heard this record, you might think that. But listening to Romantic Warrior will lead to a change of heart. As much as fusion bleeds into the progressive landscape, it rarely takes root. This time is different, as RTF blends the two on tracks like “Medieval Overture” (casting the silhouette of no less a titan than Gentle Giant) and “Majestic Dance” (Frank Zappa this time). As happens with most composers, Chick tends to fall into idiosyncratic tendencies. The two-part “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant,” for example, could just as easily have turned up on My Spanish Heart (where “El Bozo” can claim some kinship with the Jester). But there it would have lacked the grace, the sinew, the inventiveness that the rest of RTF brings to the table. The band doesn’t simply explore progressive rock sounds, they embrace them. That opens the discussion to include wider implications than composition; instead of cramming as many little black notes onto the paper as they can, RTF seems to understand that melody isn’t the enemy. The music that follows is complex but accessible, Protean while serving an aggregate good, sliding between fusion and prog as though it belonged to both worlds. And so you can have a sultry “Sorceress” painted from Lenny White’s perspective, “The Romantic Warrior” ambling on stilts of semi-classical structure, and “The Magician” steeped in mystery as exhibits in the same supernatural gallery. Prog rock fans who fancy themselves amenable to fusion (e.g., anyone with albums by Soft Machine, Bruford, and Brand X in their collection) would do well to take up the standard of Romantic Warrior. The 1990 digital remaster from Columbia/Legacy sounds excellent and features illuminating liner notes from John Swenson.
Kronomyth 1.0: A WIZARD ARRIVES PRECISELY WHEN HE MEANS TO. If you want to know what made Return To Forever the greatest fusion group of its time, don’t listen to their records. Listen to the solo albums they made in between those records: My Spanish Heart, School Days, Venusian Summer, Land of the Midnight Sun. They’re breathtakingly inventive albums that stand with the best progressive fusion of their day, which is to say, Return To Forever. DiMeola was only 22 years old when he released his debut album, but 40 years later it still stands as one of the more amazing guitar fusion albums of all time. In a sense, DiMeola burst into the music scene with RTF, and he certainly bursts out on the opening track, “The Wizard.” Written by Mingo Lewis, who provides the propulsive percussion behind the music, DiMeola unleashes a fiery performance that mixes tango, rock and fusion and throws it at the listener at the speed of thought. The title track, featuring Lenny White on drums, is slower but equally flawless in execution; DiMeola’s mastery of his instrument at such a young age is one of those musical paradoxes. His technical proficiency is only part of the story, though. Equally baffling is his ability to balance his technical proficiency with constantly inventive arrangements. There are no missteps on Land of the Midnight Sun; even when DiMeola takes to singing on “Love Theme,” the results are excellent. The second side of music is split between the multipart “Suite – Golden Dawn,” which shifts from tempest to calm to cool funk/rock and features (fittingly) Weather Report’s Jaco Pastorius and Alphonse Mouzon, and a duet with Chick Corea on “Short Tales of the Black Forest.” Land of the Midnight Sun is designed to be a showcase for DiMeola, and it is, both in terms of technical ability and the maturity of DiMeola’s compositional skills. His next few albums would follow much the same pattern with slightly more or less success, but it’s here that the genius of Al DiMeola is truly unleashed for the first time, and it remains a fan favorite for that reason.
So what exactly constitutes a Return To Forever album anyway? Musicmagic blurs the line between RTF and Chick’s solo recordings, since the same basic lineup (Farrell, Moran et al) was employed on Secret Agent and The Mad Hatter. Far from the stellar fusion of Romantic Warrior, Musicmagic is a song-oriented album. It’s some of the most commercial music that Corea has recorded (e.g., Clarke’s “So Long Mickey Mouse”), but not some of his best. Corea conjures the usual keyboard wizardry, Clarke takes a bow to his bass, and the rest of the band kicks something into the kitty, so there’s fire behind the RTF smokescreen, just not enough of it. Blame the high bar on earlier incarnations; of the RTF albums I own, this is the lamest and it’s still a pretty good record. Gayle Moran’s voice is expressive, warm and occasionally captivating. It’s on Musicmagic that she becomes, in the words of Beavis, “a full-fledged member,” playing keyboards and writing the graceful “Do You Ever.” The horn section also gives the band a different flavor, evoking memories of Frank Zappa’s The Grand Wazoo. Of Corea’s compositions, “The Endless Night” and “Musicmagic” have their mind candy moments where the mustachioed magician coaxes an armoire of sounds from his speaker cabinets. Stanley Clarke, who also sings on this album, adds the popular “So Long Mickey Mouse,” which is la-la-lovely in spots. Surprisingly, more than half of this album turned up on The Best of Return To Forever. If you bought that compilation, you were robbed. The selections on Musicmagic are simply too timid when RTF’s toils are taken in toto to testify in such a trial. If your tastes skip toward smooth jazz, then Musicmagic might be the safest entry into deep waters, but you can’t stand in the shallow end forever.