Fusion remains one of the most outsider forms of music in existence, derided by the masses but clung to feverishly by a hardcore collective of fans, most of whom also play instruments. Return to Forever have been one of its prime movers since the early seventies, with two of the guys who actually played on Bitches Brew, the seminal text in the Fusion canon. RTF’s own compositions more frequently resemble progressive rock than Miles Davis’ sketchy compositions, with a lot of notes placed in deliberately difficult locations, played very precisely with a lot of flourish. But the solo segments retain that gauzy, pulsating quality of Davis’ early electric band, the drums coming and going like the wind, electric piano boop-bleeping along like the metronome on a Wurlitzer organ. It’s sure not music for the hit singles market, but its own fearless thing that doesn’t give a damn about vocals, or choruses, or hummable tunes, and exists only to people who are really into that kind of music. In its total lack of appeal to the public, there lies a certain integrity: nobody would go to the considerable effort of learning to play this stuff if they didn’t really mean it, man.
It has to be admitted, as a musician, there is a certain pleasure to be taken in watching anyone who can play their favorite instrument real, real well. RTF’s sold-out house in a hard market reflected that demand remains high for guys who can play well, even according to old-school standards of what good playing is. And if it was dudes playing well that the people came to see, I’d dare say they got their money’s worth. Pianist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White put on a display of virtuosity that ranks with any I’ve ever seen.
Interestingly, with the addition of guitarist Frank Gambale and renowned violinist Jean Luc-Ponty in place of the reticent Al DiMeola, some of the beauty of that technique is now expressed through restraint. Gambale’s guitar work at time reminded me of Jay Graydon’s playing on Steely Dan’s “Peg” – simple, tasteful and consistently joyous, rarely exploding into fireworks. Those were reserved for Ponty, who often grabbed DiMeola’s lead lines and ran with them, giving familiar songs a new flavor, and introducing his composition “Renaissance” into the group’s repertoire. The track proved to be one of the set’s highlights, along with a smoldering take on Corea’s “Romantic Warrior” and a playful romp on “School Days” for an encore, for which Dweezil Zappa joined the crew and incited a roundabout of shredding that left the crowd howling.
There were inevitably a few moments where the over-the-top lickety-split fingering became distracting, mostly from Clarke – slapping 64th notes on an upright is the not the kind of thing that wins points for understatement. But I was kind of afraid the whole show would be like that – and it was clear from the response those moments got from the crowd that lots of people would have been thrilled to see just that. Instead, it was a momentary diversion, perhaps worth it just to see the look on the faces of all the bass players in the audience every time it happened.
Zappa’s opening set was designed for Fusion friendliness. Much of it was devoted to the instrumentals “Big Swifty” and “King Kong,” the latter featuring Chick Corea engaging in epic battle with Dweezil for control of the solo. They’re predictably a pleasure, and played what I think was a 100% different set of songs than the one I saw at the Wiltern a few years ago; always nice to see a tribute band that can mix it up. But then “tribute band” might be a tad harsh… an orchestra playing Beethoven today isn’t paying tribute to an orchestra from the 1800s. They’re performing a composer’s work, which has the effect of keeping it alive. Is that a worthy aspiration for someone, to keep a bad joke with tricky arrangements like “Nanook Rubs It” alive for the new generation? By God, I hope so.