Keyboardist Chick Corea founded Return to Forever in the early '70s. While it's known best for its role in defining jazz fusion, Corea says the project is really defined by its stylistic versatility, and its principal players. "For me, Return to Forever in its essence is my collaboration with [electric bassist] Stanley Clarke," he said. "'Cause Stanley's been there with me through all the iterations of Return to Forever, and I don't think I would ever call a band Return to Forever without Stanley being there."
I recently asked Corea to select a five-song playlist for our Take Five series which would help illustrate the history of Return to Forever. We spoke about his picks over the phone — the slightly edited transcript of which follows.
Sketches Of Spain
(arranged by Gil Evans)
Patrick Jarenwattananon: The first thing you picked out is the piece from Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain, the "Concierto de Aranjuez." ... What do you remember about hearing this for the first time?
Chick Corea: Well ... it was on the heels of some other recordings that began with a recording called Miles Ahead, and that was the first studio recording that Miles did with Gil Evans' arrangements and the orchestra. And it was such a beautiful piece of music, and it was such a new and successful form too. It wasn't exactly a symphony orchestra, no strings, but very beautiful writing with Miles as a lyrical soloist. And it made a great impression on me as a composer, as an arranger. Of course, I'd been following and learning and loving Miles'. Everything that he did since I first came across him playing with Charlie Parker in 1947 when I was really a tot. But anyway, I thought, if I was to chose one thing from Miles that might be a nice one to play, which has Miles' great lyrical performance together with his orchestral concept, with the great Gil Evans. And plus, Miles is also where myself and Stanley [Clarke] and [drummer] Lenny White and most of the guys in Return to Forever draw their inspiration from.
PJ: Of course, you worked with Miles later on in your life. What do you remember listening to this as — I guess you must have been a teenager then? What was this impact on you? And especially with regards to the whole Spanish vibe to this recording — I know you've drawn on the music of Spain and of Latin and Iberian jazz in general.
CC: Yeah. Well, it just brought together a lot of strings of interest for me at the time because I was already really interested in working with the New York Latin musicians. In fact my first really good gig when I got to New York after high school was with Mongo Santamaria's band. We played Birdland a couple of times. And Birdland at that time on 52nd Street was a couple of bars down from the Palladium. And so on breaks from my gig with Mongo, I used to run over to the Palladium and hear Tito Puente's band, and Machito's band, and Eddie Palmieri's band. That was some hot inspiration for me. It was a great compliment to the more serious jazz that I was into with Miles and Ornette Coleman and Coltrane and so forth. So when Miles came with "Concierto de Aranjuez," it brought together both of those worlds actually. And also introduced me to another strain of Spanish music which was the actual Spanish classical music. 'Cause the great [composer Joaquín] Rodrigo was the one that composed the theme for Aranjuez.
2. John Coltrane, "Pt. 2, Resolution" from A Love Supreme
PJ: The next tune you've picked is the second movement of A Love Supreme. Classic John Coltrane recording. And as I'm looking at this list I'm sort of wondering why you picked it.
CC: Well, it's for very similar reasons why I picked the Miles piece. Which is because John Coltrane is ... a major influence and inspiration to Stanley [Clarke] and myself, and Lenny [White] too. And to us, when we listened to our own music or when we listened to Return to Forever, or when we play — when you have a mentor and a musical hero that has that much sway, and that much inspiration for you, it's something that never leaves your life, and it works its way into everything that you do. So I thought if we were making a list, I thought rather than play all Return to Forever music, I'd give the listeners an idea of where we come from.
PJ: What about it do you think that you've adopted into Return to Forever, or even any of your other work. I mean, what about this particular recording?
CC: That's really hard to put into words. It's hard to be logical about it. It's an inspiration of freedom, and freedom of expression, and the courage to try new things, and to delve into music, and to try and bring something that's real deep inside that you could say is your own very personal case in music or in art or in life, and try to bring that in some way to people who all have other kind of tastes and different tastes. And so you have to reach a communication point. I sometimes think to myself that if I were to play the music that only is within the relm of my personal tastes, probably no one would want to listen to it! But I do care about trying to get the things that I love across to people. And I think that Coltrane's music and Miles' music too have that expression of freedom that we all love.
PJ: Did you ever know Coltrane at all?
CC: Unfortunately, I was so shy when I went and was next to him in clubs. I went to hear him play a lot in the '60s in New York, and night after night listening to the great band. And I was just so shy, I never walked up to him and said how much I liked it.
(Martin Philbey Photo)
3. Chick Corea and Return to Forever, "Spain," from Light as a Feather
PJ: The next tune you picked is from the second Return to Forever record and the first as Return to Forever, the band. Take me back to 1972 a little bit. You've already been releasing records as a leader, you've worked with Miles Davis for a while now. You've worked in the band Circle. What prompted you to start this new project? What were you listening to at the time? What was the genesis of Return to Forever?
CC: Well, it was just a passion to want to pull together some aspects of music that I loved — that I felt I wanted to express. Like when I worked with Miles for the two-and-a-half years, and then with Dave Holland and Circle for like a year or two after that, I loved both of those experiences. I wouldn't trade them for anything. But what they lacked for me and what I wanted to delve into more was a groove music. A music that had a beat to it, that was in some way danceable and that you could feel and that had a sort of melodic-ness to it.
So that led me into writing. Actually I wrote some of the songs from the first record like "Sometime Ago" and "La Fiesta" — I wrote those songs while I was preforming with Circle. Actually Circle has some performances of "Sometime Ago." We used to play "Sometime Ago" with Circle. It was like a transition thing for me. So then when I came to New York and hooked up with Stanley, who we met playing with the Joe Henderson band. Stanley and I shared those kinds of tastes for groove and for melody, and for that kind of thing. And I also wanted to have a vocalist in my band. So all of those elements came together as we developed that first Return to Forever.
PJ: You've said before that you've wanted to communicate more with audiences in that music and I guess that's what you mean by having a groove?
CC: Absolutely! Sure! You put a beat to music, and people can understand it. I think it's a simple thing to observe. That a listener gets into a rhythmic rapport with a piece of music, and the message comes across a lot more fluently, it seems.
PJ: I'm wondering, a tune like "Spain" was so growing and eposodic, do you feel that the Sketches of Spain album or even just the Concierto had any influence on this piece?
CC: Well, not only an influence but it became a part of the piece. ... There's three movements to [Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez]. And the second movement is the movement that's arranged into the Sketches of Spain. And it was the movement that, that melody that I began to experiment with. Out of my experimentation with that melody came the rest of the arrangement which became the song "Spain." So when we would perform it live, I would always play that theme, that Aranjuez theme as an introduction to "Spain," and they became locked together as a performance. I still do it, when people ask for "Spain" in concert I play [hums opening salvo of "Concierto de Aranjuez"] and people know what's coming up.
PJ: The next tune you've picked is from, I guess, what is the last Return to Forever album, it's called Musicmagic and it's a tune called "The Endless Night." And listening to it, this is, what, five years after the first Return to Forever recordings. This band has changed a lot.
CC: Oh yeah, It was a brand new ensemble. It was like a whole new idea that Stanley and I had been thinking about. Both of us were becoming more and more interested in orchestration, and I had already made the recording, The Leprechaun, which was with strings and brass and so forth. So this was our attempt to put our compositions in an orchestral setting. I thought "The Endless Night" was a good choice because it not only has the orchestration in it so you can hear the band, but its got some nice little sections with Stanley and Gayle [Moran, Corea's wife] singing the melody together.
PJ: You know, what I hear when I listen to this tune is the sort of influence of progressive rock, if that was anything that you were listening to at the time — this very organized, heavily orchestrated, lush, long ...
CC: Yea. You know, I didn't until way later start to listen to bands like Yes and so forth who preformed that way. Emerson, Lake and Palmer and so forth made some great music. Actually even, you know who I'd put in that category also was the Beatles with their orchestrations and so forth. No, this kind of orchestration came more from the end of classical music I would say. Bach and Mozart and Debussy and Bartok kind of having a traffic incident with Sly and the Family Stone and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.
PJ: And so that brings us to Mahavishnu John McLaughlin. You picked a tune from the album Apocalypse — it's called "Smile of the Beyond."
CC: The reason why I put Mahavishnu in there and John especially — if we had had more tracks, I would have added something by Herbie Hancock, I would have added something by Weather Report to kind of see the way all of my friends, and what directions they were going with their writing in the '70s — but this is just one instance of where a bunch of forces come together that is on the line of what we're doing these days.
First of all, the producer of this recording is George Martin. And Gayle [Moran] is my wife — she's singing on this track — so she's told me many times what the experience of recording this track was, in the studio in London, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and John McLaughlin. Now, in the John McLaughlin group was Jean-Luc Ponty at that time, who's now playing with us, and also Michael Narada Walden, who I just saw play with Jeff Beck the other night and he played the drums like a god. He was incredible. And also all of the things that Narada has done since playing drums with John McLaughlin, he went ahead and produced some of the best pop music ever. Plus my wife Gayle who has this georgeous voice.
And all of these elements came together on this piece called "Smile of the Beyond." It's got this georgeous beautiful composition of John's, one of my favorites of John McLaughlin's melodies. Of course, John and the Mahavishnu orchestra particularly were a real catalyst to Stanley and I back in the '70s in making our transition from Return to Forever I to Return to Forever II, which was the electric version of Return to Forever. I know it was [for] me, John's influence and the way he took the electric guitar and was the first time I had ever heard it played that way, and it was very inspiring. So I thought it was apropos we put a track of Mahavishnu in here.
PJ: Return to Forever was together for a fairly brief time, say, five or so years. What lead to the breakup to that band at the time, and why are you guys getting back together?
CC: I think we had taken it to a point where everyone's solo ideas were just at the forefronts of everyone's minds. Stanley had already made several of his own records, Lenny and Al [di Meola] as well. And me, I was making Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart, and we had more musical terrain that we wanted to experiment with. At that time anyway, the musical terrain of Return to Forever seemed limiting to us, to me anyway. It seemed like it didn't have enough variety in it for me to explore the things that I wanted to do. So we went ahead and did all of those things that we wanted to do. It just took a few decades to get back together again.
PJ: Why bring it back now? What inspired you to put it all together?
CC: A lot of the prompting actually came from the consistency of fans out on the roads, mentioning and requesting Return to Forever. When I go out and play, when Stanley goes out and plays, when Lenny goes out and plays, the band's name comes up a lot, and in that way it keeps it fresh in our minds. And we talk about it when we speak and so forth, and it helps us think about it and review it and see that this possibly could bring some pleasure to the fans of Return to Forever ... That was a major reason actually for bringing Return to Forever back together again.
And then that framework, of course, that we planned with one another, we could create practically anything. We're going to play some of the "hits" from all of the Return to Forever repertoire, as well as from our individual solo repetoires. For instance, we're doing "School Days," which is Stanley's tune. We're writing new music and were going to play some acoustic songs on the tour as well, so it should be a great pleasure.