Close your eyes for a second and pretend punk never happened. As its most celebrated practitioners would probably tell you, it was only ever a means to an end anyway. And while the possibilities for which it opened the door certainly justified its Year Zero disavowal of all that had come before, there are a few things it pulled from favor that could have stood a little more shelf life. One of them is the freakish ability to play one’s instrument like a 12-fingered Martian virtuoso who spent the last several centuries in an isolation tank soaking up the complete works of everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Oscar Peterson. Fortunately, ’70s jazz-rock supergroup Return to Forever reunited just in time to remind us of the thrillingly unearthly pleasures to be derived from such phenomena.
In their mid-’70s heyday, Return to Forever’s classic lineup of keyboard wizard Chick Corea, guitar demon Al DiMeola, bass titan Stanley Clarke, and drum god Lenny White made some of the most jaw-dropping instrumental music of any genre, and the 2008 reunion tour captured on Returns finds them revisiting those glory days, playing together for the first time in decades. But this is no dusting-off-the-cobwebs historical excercise; these four men remain among the most intense, gifted musicians on the planet, and the electricity that leaps through the air when they clang their sonic swords together is a sort that’s long been missing from the modern-day world even if we didn’t know it.
If anything, the players are more skilled than before, as they seem to have gained some seasoning without losing any of their vital spark. Tackling songs from classic albums like Romantic Warrior, No Mystery, and Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, the band comes out with all guns blazing, capable of switching dynamics from nuclear firestorm to pastoral simplicity in a heartbeat. Clarke’s funk-bottomed electric work and lyrical acoustic lines, DiMeola’s sabre-toothed-tiger-on-amphetamines solos, Corea’s Bill Evans-in-outer-space keyboard cosmology, and Lenny White’s wide array of percussive colors all collide to make a sound unlike anything else. It was an unpredictable miracle for these guys to ever have come together the way they did in the first place, and even more so for them to come together again all these years later. Thank God somebody plugged in a recorder when they did.