Return to Forever.

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.



Dhafer Youssef again…

…because I just can’t seem to get enough of this guy.

Les Ondes Orientales‘:


And check out this ensemble with that Norwegian guitarist, a beautifully brassy clarinet (to which there must be some sort of story), and a hammered dulcimer looking (but not played that way) zither instrument called a qanun, that I’ve not heard of before.

What a wonderful show this must have been.

Note to self:  do not pass up a chance to see this guy.

Rob Brown on Vinnie Colaiuta.

I don’t even recall exactly how I first came across this clip of YouTuber Rob Brown discussing what might be called a “Vinnie moment”, but it deserves a bookmark here–both for the obvious agoggery, and also for Brown’s delivery, which is truly giggle-worthy.

For those who aren’t familiar with the name, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is generally regarded as so far advanced as to be nearly an alien intelligence on the kit.  Even Zappa’s other drummers talk about him in a way that’s not unlike hearing guitarists talk about Allan Holdsworth.  To wit:  there’s good, there’s great, there’s amazing, and then there’s Vinnie.

So it’s not surprising, perhaps, that this Rob Brown might periodically look for whatever Vinnie is doing lately, to analyze and bring to his audience.  Apparently he struck a rather thick vein of gold:

So, I’m watching him do his thing, and then, all of a sudden, in the middle of this song…there’s a two-bar break, for a drum fill…

…he pulls this fill…right out of thin air.

and we cut to Vinnie, who plays something that at first glance might just seem like a smooth roll which nonetheless ends with a nice resolving flam.

Cut back to Rob, who hilariously shakes his head and goes all verklemptthis is what cements the need for a bookmark for the video as a whole.

I saw this drum fill, and I absolutely lost it.

The dude, with the calmness of somebody just sipping a coffee and reading the paper on the beach, just decides to announce that he’s Batman.

He then breaks down the fill for the aspiring drummer, and it quickly becomes apparent that this was no random drum roll.  Not hardly!  Inside two bars of 4/4, Colaiuta fits three groups of five sixteenth-note triplets, orchestrated as a first group of five that repeats itself, and then a concluding group that exits with a whole beat left over for separation.

Sounds like Vinnie.  While it’s not that nobody else could play this kind of fill, what makes him so special is that he really does just come up with things like this on the spot, all the time–fully orchestrated, thought out, appropriate to the music, and delivered with a precision and calmness that belies all The Awesome that’s really going on while you’re not looking.

Anyway, bookmarked.  Both the Rob Brown breakdown:

…and also the source material, which is indeed interesting on its own!


Herbie Hancock, on attitude.

One of my Crafty contacts shared this video, hosted on Facebook, of Herbie Hancock, talking about attitude.

The clip is a treasure.  Hancock relates a story from his Miles Davis days, in which he hears himself play a chord “…that was so wrong, I thought I had just destroyed everything, and reduced that great night to rubble.”

In short, Miles, without blinking, saved the “wrong” chord with his own playing, and it took Hancock years to figure out how that had happened.  What at first seemed like pure “magic”, he eventually sorted out this way:

Here’s what happened.

I judged what I had played.

Miles didn’t.  Miles just accepted it as something new that happened.

There’s more, but that’s the crux.  Here’s the same clip on YouTube:

Marvelous.  So marvelous I’m not sure it in any way diminishes the “magic” to realize how Miles did it.  (Actually, I’d argue that you can hear that, in Hancock’s humility, as he tells the story.)  And what a great reminder that any musician’s greatest tool is and always will be his ear.


Dhafer Youssef again: get a load of this guy!

For all its irritations and annoyances in this crazy, nascently-weaponized world of social media, YouTube remains an absolutely astonishing resource.  From Pandora I recently first heard Tunisian oud-ist (if that’s not a word, I think I should make it one) Dhafer Youssef, and was captivated by his sense of mood on his Ascetic Journey.  Today, simply on a lark, I thought I’d chase a link or two of his, on YouTube, and see where it led.

(cue sound of jaw dropping)

Holy smackers, Batman, get a load of this guy!  Let it never be said that cross-genre innovation and muttery is dead or even mildly unhealthy.  Wow!

First, check out Dhafer Youssef the vocalist, fully as impressive there as he is with the oud heroics, in “Delightfully Odd“:

Aside from that marvelous voice, the ensemble strikes me a whole lot like the small groups of Israeli bass wizard Avishai Cohen and fellow Tunisian Anouar Brahem–which is to say, for me at least, gloriously alive, engaging, and unapologetically athwart easy categorization.  A great group, captivating music, exquisite sound…and Youssef himself is infectiously engaging.

Next, I ran across “Winds and Shadows”, which…oh hell, just watch it:

Magnificent.  What a marvelous blend of traditions!

And as I hear more, I’m becoming even more impressed by his touch and dynamics, to achieve simply massive amounts of space within these pieces and groups.  Check out this trio, with the same Norwegian guitarist from the Winds and Shadows clip, along with trumpet and flugelhorn, in this medley:

Man…now I’m a huge fan of Miles’ interpretation of Aranjuez on the Gil Evans collaboration Sketches of Spain–“huge” as in, I hold up Miles’ absolutely heart-stopping “the softer you play it, the stronger it gets” solo in that piece as one of the finest musical moments I have ever heard, anywhere–and with that context for where the bar is set, I really like this arrangement and delivery.

So, I needed the bookmarks, if just for me!   🙂


Dhafer Youssef, ‘Ascetic Journey’.

Apparently it’s oud on the Pandora channel this morning, and I’m not complaining!  This lovely piece has come up a few times now and continues to get my attention.  I love the mood, the space, the insistence, and of course the eleven.

Looks like there’s at least one live clip out there as well.

Interesting, I think how this live clip demonstrates how tough it must be to pull off such a piece live.  The sound capture is not flattering, for starters–presumably it sounded much better in the room. As well, it strikes me that the ensemble takes a few minutes to find its legs, trying to deliver all that space…together.  (It seems to me that by the end, they’re there.)  But there it is, still identifiable and insistent, and it makes me want to hear more.

Does this question make my pocket protector look big?

So today, on my way to work, while stopped and waiting for the pilot car (the five Alaska seasons being fall, winter, breakup, spring, and road construction), a question popped into my head:  in the famous Paul Desmond piece “Take Five“, would it be more appropriate to view the descending turnaround as belonging to the song’s root (minor) tonic, or to its relative major as a temporary replacement tonic?  This is just an attempt to better understand how to think about the written sequence of chords.  I think I talked it out of myself at the time, but I’d love the opinion of those more formally versed in theory than I am.

(Yes, I think geeky things at weird times.  It just seems to be the way I’m made.)

Okay, so I’ve studied the piece a bit before, even going so far as to score it up as an arrangement for Guitar Circle Colorado, transposed up a half step into the more convenient E minor.  (What follows is based on that Em arrangement.)

The vamp is written as Em – Bm7, which is a natural minor thing, written with one sharp on the staff.  The turnaround is written as:

Cmaj7 – Am6 – Bm7 – Em7 – Am7 – D7 – Gmaj7
Cmaj7 – Am6 – Bm7 – Em7 – Am7 – D7 – F#m7 – B7

It occurred to me that one way to think of this turnaround sequence would be within the context of the Em as the tonic chord, in which case I’d think of the chords like this:

VI maj7 – IV m6 – V m7 – I m7 – IV m7 – VII 7 – III maj7
VI maj7 – IV m6 – V m7 – I m7 – IV m7 – VII 7 – II m7 – V 7

Hm.  That somehow doesn’t seem right–more like a shoehorn than a natural fit.  But what if I looked at the turnaround as belonging to the key of G–which would be, after all, the relative major of E minor?  Then I’d think of the chords like this:

IV maj7 – VII m6 – III m7 – VI m7 – II m7 – V 7 – I maj7
IV maj7 – VII m6 – III m7 – VI m7 – II m7 – V 7 – VII m7b5 – III 7

Well, that seems to clean up a lot, doesn’t it?  4-7-3-6-2-5-1 would seem to be rather precisely descending in fifths, and the idea of the last four chords being a two-five on G followed by a two-five on Em…finally sold me on the idea.

Okay, so that’s what occurred.  And the question to those more formally schooled in functional theory than I:  am I thinking properly here, or am I missing something obvious?