The first album, that is. Before it was a group name.
For all my interest in the experimental/avant-garde/fusion/prog, I must shamefully confess that I have never understood the widespread opinion that Return To Forever ever actually improved on that record.
In my world, it’s a true masterpiece. Oh, it has its flaws, for sure, but it is really the only RTF record which for me truly comes alive. For all the virtuosity which followed, none of it was as raw, as urgent, as insistent, as this.
I suppose this is where I appear to join the “fusion” critics who say that as the music got louder and flashier, it also got less and less interesting. It’s a fair conclusion to draw.
It does strike me as a at least a bit weird, though. I mean, I love Al Di Meola’s fireworks on his own records, and his later work also does a good job of showing how lyrical he can be when he slows down a bit. Stanley Clarke may be a bit hit-or-miss for me as a composer, but when he does connect it’s stunning, and one cannot fail to notice his nearly superhuman playing skills. (My favorite Clarke is his small-group work with Bela Fleck, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Al Di Meola…simply breathtaking.) I never really made a connection with “classic lineup” drummer Lenny White, which probably isn’t fair since he arrived with the changes I didn’t identify with, and I don’t have another context to view him in like I do with the other band members. I suppose there’s the implicit compliment that I never really noticed him one way or the other, so he must be a perfectly good drummer, but that’s always been a bit unsatisfying, as an impression, for an active listener.
And Corea himself…is just an enigma for me. Ultimately, in RTF, I can say with confidence he flat loses me with the wanky keyboard sounds that are and have always been like nails-on-chalkboard for me. I absolutely love his acoustic piano improvisations records, and there is no doubt about his compositional skills and playing virtuosity…but really, other than solo improv piano, and the first RTF record, I need to have Corea playing with someone else–as a peer rather than as a bandleader–to really get into him.
For those who don’t know, there was a second RTF record with the same lineup as the first. That one did have some great moments, most notably on the last two pieces–which sound to my ears like they are from the same creative session that produced the first record–but in general it doesn’t have the same spark of life, or the wonderful hooks. The singing on Light as a Feather, for me, went too much further down the path of lyrical cheese; the 1972 record hinted at that in a couple of places, but there, the underlying musical hooks and movement just plain overpowered it. (And singer Flora Purim’s voice was put to magnificent effect without words, as well.)
As an overall effort, I think that first record had it all. You can hear all the playing brilliance you want, clearly–at those moments which serve the music rather than smothering it. There is space to breathe. Joe Farrell’s use of reeds, especially flute, is masterful. Clarke’s bass tone is both rough and palpably alive, both on electric and acoustic instruments. And although it does sound inevitably a bit dated, Corea’s electric piano tone adds, if not outright creates, the album’s mood, and it sounds wonderful. And I think Airto Moreira, for all his subsequent fame as a supplemental percussionist, is underappreciated as a kit drummer; his grooves here are infectious, and the pitch on his snare is just sizzling.
Anyway, this needed a bookmark. The first RTF record comes out every once in a while, for me, and every time it does I marvel at how well it holds up.