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Return to Forever @ Gibson Amphitheater, 6/13/08

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Return to Forever is no "Boy Band"--they'd rather be called a "Man's Band." | Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/Used with permission

By Roger Park

Musical mastery is a rare beauty. On Friday, legendary jazz supergroup Return to Forever played two sets to an enthusiastic audience at the Gibson Amphitheater.

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Formed by keyboardist Chick Corea over 30 years ago, Friday’s classic lineup featured bassist Stanley Clarke, guitarist Al Di Meola and drummer Lenny White. The group recently announced a reunion tour and will play over 50 dates in North America and Europe this summer. Known for incorporating the visceral energy of rock with incredible jazz improvisational virtuosity, Return to Forever became a powerful statement in modern music history. The band is one of the founding pillars of jazz fusion in the 1970s.

And how does music hold up in the 21st century? The Los Angeles performance proved Return to Forever remains just as innovative, powerful, grooving and compelling as ever. The band’s intensity and craftsmanship is unparalleled; half a dozen tempo shifts in one song, dramatic texture transitions and unprecedented control of dynamics are handled with incredible precision and above all, tremendous feel.

Speaking to the audience, Clarke remarked how the last time Return to Forever played live was 25 years ago -- in L.A. He then lead the audience to sing "Happy Birthday" to Chick Corea who recently turned 67 on Thursday. For the skeptics out there who say jazz is for square old folks, Return to Forever's white-knuckle intensity proves they can still groove out and the get the audience heads' bobbing - and these cats are all over 50!

"I can't believe it! They sound as fresh and amazing as they did when I saw them 30 years ago, man!" said a gray ponytailed Baby Boomer guy with trendy glasses and Pumas into his cellphone (overheard during intermission).

While the band clearly demonstrated their tight together playing, the solos they took were interstellar cosmic journeys. Whether playing lighting-fast chromatic runs on the electric or seemingly impossible Latin-inspired arpeggios on the classical guitar, Di Meola's technical mastery and feel was phenomenal. Corea is a legend himself. His stylistic approach on the Rhodes, acoustic piano or Moog synthesizer was complex, charismatic and instantly compelling. Lenny White's drumming remains tight as ever and his dexterity and polyrhythmic shifts is equally amazing. Stanley Clarke is not only one of the best bassists alive today but one of best the world has ever heard and seen. On funky textures Clarke's electric bass grooves were mind-blowing. During the second acoustic set, Clarke's upright solo was one of the evening's highlights. Whether strumming the upper register of his neck in a Flamenco-inspired style or digging into the dirty Blues bass rumblings or to mutating a gossamer-thread of a melody to gigantic thunder booms, Clarke had the audience enthralled and into the fabric of every note he played.

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"In the age of music not being played on instruments," drummer Lenny White spoke to the audience, "let this music be a testament to the longevity of instrumental music."

"Also," White added. "In an era of boy bands, this is a Man's Band!" to which the crowded laughed and applauded whole-heartedly.

Return to Forever's reunion tour and Los Angeles performance proves among all, the testament to each of the band's own and their collective musical mastery.

A special double-CD Return to Forever anthology was recently released. Check out their website for more information about the band, their music, and their tour dates.

Special thanks to Chris Chafin at Shore Fire Media