The further out a band gets from the original catalogue on which they made their name, (and, lest we forget, that’s getting on for 40 years in the case of Return To Forever), a tendency to pad a show out with extended gratuitous solo spots often creeps in. Sometimes it stems from members insisting on a contractually obligated sojourn in the spotlight, a kind of karmic payback to make up for having to stand on the sidelines back in the day. Though not without a certain gladiatorial frisson, the resulting showboating is often as vulgar as it is tiresome.
Thankfully, with RTF, those kinds of crass displays are avoided, thanks largely to a factor often overlooked by many jazz-rock practitioners operating today: the presence of real tunes. While RTF undoubtedly always had killer chops at their disposal, killer writing made the difference, and much of it is showcased across these two in-concert discs taken from their 2011 tour.
There was a famous falling-out with Al Di Meola when the quartet reunited in 2008, and the subsequent recruitment of guitarist Frank Gambale and veteran fiddle fusioneer Jean-Luc Ponty provides this latest incarnation with a lithe muscularity that adds significant value. A gorgeously sinuous reading of Ponty’s Renaissance sees Stanley Clarke’s acoustic bass and the fleet-fingered violinist match each other’s rhapsodic flurries note for note. Here, as throughout the set, Clarke is a towering presence.
True, with some tracks there’s evidence of a little slowing down; not too much of a surprise given that the principal trio of founders are all in their 60s. Nor should it he held against them when the playing remains as supple and precise as this. White especially has lost none of the incisive propulsive edge with which he accentuates After The Cosmic Rain and the shape-shifting bravado of Captain Señor Mouse.
Like many keyboard players from the 70s jazz-rock boom in thrall to the new sonic possibilities synthesisers offered, Corea peppered his soloing with roller-coaster pitch-bending. Thankfully it’s a habit he’s left behind without sacrificing his trademark freewheeling expressiveness.
On the accompanying DVD (containing two grandly panoramic 5.1 mixes), all three old stagers reminisce about their life and times in an hour-long documentary, gently laughing at their respective idiosyncrasies. The bond of affection and mutual respect comes across loud and clear. With Corea’s compositional powers undiminished, an album of new RTF material will hopefully be the Mothership’s next port of call.