Return To Forever’s Neverending Journey

Pollstar talks with Return To Forever’s Chick Corea about the band’s fascinating journey through four decades of music.

Although a veritable all-star collection of jazz musicians have played in Return To Forever since the band began in 1972, the core of the group has always been founding member Corea and bassist extraordinaire Stanley Clarke. Past members include Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, Earl Klugh, Steve Gadd and Al Di Meola.

Along with Corea and Clarke, the band’s current lineup, dubbed Return To Forever IV, includes drummer Lenny White, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale.

In a recent conversation with Pollstar, Corea talked about the band’s legacy and how the joy of making music is as intense today as it was when the group began almost four decades ago.

Photo: C. Taylor Crothers

Considering the number of musicians that have been in Return To Forever, do you see the group as a band or a continuing work in progress?

We refer to it in different ways. Because there’s been so many versions, we decided to give it a version number this time. The big changes in Return To Forever have happened several times.

I see Return To Forever mainly as kind of a partnership between me and Stanley Clarke. Without Stanley Clarke, in my mind, it wouldn’t be Return To Forever. I wouldn’t try and bring out a band without Stanley and call it Return To Forever. He’s been here with me through all of the versions of it. Lenny {Lenny White} has been there a good while, too. With Lenny and Stanley, the heart and the spirit of the band is still there.

What prompted the latest formation?

There were a series of events. We had a project in summer ’09. We were invited to do a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Stanley, Lenny and I put together some old mates. We got Billy Connors to come play with us, whose guitar playing we loved from the Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy period. Then an old friend, Jean-Luc Ponty, who has played with Stanley a lot and recorded on my Spanish Hot record years ago, his contribution is really big from the music of the 1970s, playing with Mahavishnu Orchestra and John McLaughlin. And we invited Chaka Khan to come and join us. That was the Hollywood Bowl performance. We rehearsed at Mad Hatter Studios and recorded the rehearsal. One of the CDs from the release called Forever is that group from the rehearsal.

Then after that, the rest of ’09 Stanley, Lenny and myself went out on an acoustic trio tour and played some of the music. We kind of jammed the whole tour. It was a lot of fun. We hadn’t explored that acoustic trio setting of ours in a long time. That lead to talking about putting a new “Return To Forever” tour together. And here we are with Jean-Luc playing the violin magnificently. Frank Gambale, who’s an old buddy from the electric band filling in the guitar chair. We’re having a blast on the road.

Are you improvising on the tour or are you following a rigid set list?

Every song is pretty much newly rendered every night with solos and improvisations. We are using the repertoire from the 1970s a lot. There are a few songs of Stanley’s and Jean-Luc’s that we’re playing as well. So the repertoire is a combination of material.

What excites you today about playing in Return To Forever?

The basic joy of making music. That’s never changed. The thing about this particular tour is getting together with old friends and old, wonderful, deep, musical relationships that we’ve had for years. We’re traveling in a bus for the most part, hanging out, playing every night, trying to improve our sound and our music. I love it. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

You’ve worked with Stanley Clarke for so many years. Is the relationship similar to a marriage where a couple can read each other’s thoughts or end each other’s sentences?

We’re always challenging one another to try some stuff out. There’s always the challenge of trying to get across our idea to a new audience every night. We discuss that a lot. It’s a joy being out on the road together.

What have the fans’ reactions been like?

There’s a lot of white-hairs out there with T-shirts. It’s wild to see. They bring their families. A lot of young people are there. There’s a pretty wide range of people [and] the audience’s enthusiasm is really infectious. It keeps us going. It really makes the band play and dig in and want to continue to deliver that. There’s nothing in life that feels better than making someone else feel good or to bring another person some pleasure. People are smiling and having a good time. I go to sleep every night feeling pretty good because of that.

Are you attracting a lot of new fans?

I’m hoping so. It looks like it. There are young people out there and they’re digging the music. The culture keeps… culturizing.

From the standpoint of a music veteran with decades of shows under your belt, what changes, if any, stand out in your mind when it comes to performing?

I see generations change. I see old fans come in and who know the music. They meet us backstage with tons of LPs to sign from the 1970s. Also CDs. The fans will always say, “I remember seeing you in 19… whatever,” and they relate some pleasure moment they’ve had, which is always nice.

But then, I see young people. A lot of young musicians come to our shows. The 40, 50 and 60-year-olds bring their families and I get to meet them. And sometimes really young kids come along. The parents tend to bring young boys and girls who are already interested in music. They bring them to the show, we get to meet them, they have a look at the band. I see the changing of generations. But the lovely thing is it’s all about that same subject: making music for people.

What are you listening to these days?

My past weeks have been devoted to mainly mixing and editing my piano concerto. I wrote this piece of music in 2006 and a few months ago I came to New York and put together a hand-picked chamber music orchestra of 30 musicians plus a jazz quintet. We recorded the piece nicely.

I’ve also been working on the music of Horace Silver. He’s one of my mentors and heroes. So I’ve been working on his music, listening to some of his records from the ’50s and ’60s and making some new arrangements. I’d like to make a recording of Horace’s music at some point. I have a whole bunch of stuff on my iPod, but my attention has been pretty focused on this record for the past weeks.

Photo: Martin Philbey
“Any song or any composition that we take is always getting recreated and redefined, almost every night.”

You said Silver was a mentor. Have you mentored musicians?

I guess so. You’d have to ask them. I guess you become a mentor by someone else choosing it. That’s how Horace became a mentor to me.

I’ll tell you a really cool thing I just remembered about Horace. In 1959 or 1960, right around when I graduated high school, I went to the jazz club Storyville. It was George Wein’s first jazz presentation venue in Boston. I went there early in the afternoon because Horace’s band was playing that evening. I walked in with my friend at four in the afternoon. The club was dark except for light at the piano and Horace was sitting at the piano composing a tune. So we got real quiet, tucked ourselves in the back of the club, and watched Horace compose a song for the next hour-and-a-half. He was playing the piano and writing notes down. It was a lesson, a university lesson. Mentors get chosen.

Speaking of composing, how do Return To Forever songs come about? It is strictly one person coming up with a song and then introducing it to the other members, or is more like a group project from the beginning, with all members contributing to form a greater whole?

It’s a really beautiful process. I realized years ago that ideas, musical compositions, are individually generated. People don’t think together. They work together, trade ideas and communicate. We write our compositions on our own. I bring my composition in and then at the rehearsal when we try to bring the music out, the spirit of the way I like to present my compositions is to invite the musicians to interpret the idea their own way. That gives it personality, character and richness. I’ll bring my tune in and play it on the piano for Stanley and the guys, write some notes down for them. Then they start to grab on to it. They get the idea and they’ll interpret what I present in their way. It’s an exciting process. That’s when it becomes a group creation.

Does that process of interpretation ever stop? It seems like some of the older Return To Forever tracks are always reinterpreted as the years go by.

That’s the nature of the way we work. Any song or any composition that we take is always getting recreated and redefined, almost every night. It makes for an adventure [instead of] a static boring life.

Were you ever comfortable with the various labels people attached to Return To Forever? To see the band categorized as, say, “progressive rock” or “jazz fusion?”

I don’t know. I’m enjoy people having their own opinion about everything, especially about art and music. There’s no way I want to have another person think the way I think. So labels are just words and ways to communicate what you think about something. I don’t really care. It doesn’t matter to me.

I think it’s interesting. Labels are like comparative things. You have to say something that compares with something else and put it in a group together. It never really gets the essence of what your describing. Only poets use words really beautifully. I remember seeing a famous video clip of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It’s where Bird is receiving an award and Bird and Dizzy are about to play at tune. So the presenter says, “How would you describe your music, Mr. Parker. What song are you going to play now and what’s it about?”

And Bird just says very easily and with no edge to it, “We prefer to let the music speak for itself.” And then they go out and burn.

That’s kind of the way I feel. Music is what it is. I don’t care about labels. It doesn’t matter. For instance, all the Return To Forever versions and different music we play, I’d give it different labels depending what we’re doing. I’d probably call this version, I don’t know, “hard jazz.”

I love hearing when fans come backstage and tell us they were interested in one kind of music but because of us they got into another kind of music. In the ’70s rock ’n’ roll fans use to come back saying, “Hey, man. I want to thank you guys for turning me on to Miles Davis. Before that I was a stone rocker and now I’m into John Coltrane.” I love that kind of effect.

Photo: Martin Philbey
“There’s always the challenge of trying to get across our idea to a new audience every night.”

Return To Forever IV plays near Orlando at the House Of Blues in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Sept. 9. Other upcoming dates include Boca Raton, Fla., at Mizner Park Amphitheatre Sept. 10; Clearwater, Fla., at Ruth Eckerd Hall Sept. 11; Austin, Texas, at the Austin City Limits Live At The Moody Theater Sept. 13 and Grand Prairie between Dallas and Fort Worth at the Verizon Theatre Sept. 14. For more information, please visit