Return to Forever at Britt

After seeing Ahmad Jamal and Regina Carter perform at last year’s Britt Festival and seeing past lineups featuring important jazz artists, I was eager for the release of this year’s schedule of concerts. When I saw that Return to Forever was performing, I was amazed and excited. After 25 years, the fusion jazz quartet of Chick Corea, Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White would be reuniting for a tour and Jacksonville, Oregon, would be one of 30 or so stops through the U.S. and Europe.

Mother nature must be a jazz fan. The skies were clear and the weather was warmer than it has been in some time (although it was a bit chilly after sunset).

Unlike other jazz concerts I’ve been to, even getting to the site two hours early was not enough to avoid standing in line. Fortunately, we got one of the last little plots in front of the stage and after some sandwiches and a few glass of wine (awesome that Britt still allows B.Y.O.B.), the concert began. Although these were figures among the pantheon of contemporary jazz artists, they immediately set the crowd at ease. It was obvious from the very start that these guys were having a great time and that they wanted the audience to have fun, too. Chomping vigorously on chewing gum, virtuosic keyboardist Chick Corea started the first set on Fender Rhodes and the music was on. These musicians have not lost their chops. The highlights of the electric set were the call and response interplay of Corea and DiMeola while White and Clarke drove the pulse. The highlight of the first half of the concert was their performance of   ‘Song to the Pharaoh Kings,’ which started with Al DiMeola sitting out in the crowd duetting with Corea.

After a brief intermission, we were surprised with a nice treat: the band played on acoustic instruments. Al DiMeola initiated the second half of the set with a rousing acoustic guitar solo of awe-inspiring speed and precision, reminiscent of his work with John McLaughlin and Paco de Lucia on the classic Friday Night in San Francisco album. That was followed by a modernistic solo improvisation on piano (and direct playing on piano strings) by Chick Corea, one of the great masters of the past 40 years. It was quite interesting to see Stanley Clarke playing an acoustic upright. I do have a new respect for him, although I think that 10 minutes was too long a solo for him; he seemed to run out of ideas or enthusiasm after about six or seven minutes. He is certainly no Dave Holland. Clarke’s solo was followed by about eight minutes of unaccompanied drum playing by Lenny White. Unimpressive. While he is fabulous at performing his role at driving the group in a rock-jazz setting, his solo would only be exciting to those who have never heard virtuosic jazz drumming.

After performing three or four acoustic pieces, including a wonderful version of ‘No Mystery,’ the performance ended with an encore in which the musicians returned to their electronic instruments. Once again, Corea was on fire and it was refreshing to see Stanley Clarke return to the instrument on which he is a master, the electric bass. I was close enough to the stage to get to shake Chick Corea’s hand. It was an important moment for me. When I first immersed myself in jazz about nine years ago, a one-dollar clearance-rack Chick Corea cassette was my first acquisition. Little did I know then what an important figure he is in the jazz world. Scores of CDs and ‘finally’ a concert later, I feel privileged to see him live and had five seconds of his time.