New York-based band Return to Forever made a name for itself in the ’70s as one of the premier Jazz Fusion ensembles, alongside Weather Report and Mahavishnu Orchestra. After a brief return in the ’80s, the band re-formed in 2008 and has seen wild worldwide success since the comeback. The group was a breeding ground for some of the biggest names in Jazz, including Al Di Meola, Earl Klugh and all of the members of the current lineup. Dubbed "Return to Forever IV," the all-star ensemble currently features original members Chick Corea (the founder) and Stanley Clarke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Frank Gambale and Lenny White. RTF's second world tour since the return comes to Riverbend's PNC Pavilion this Thursday with Dweezil Zappa's tribute to his father, Zappa Plays Zappa.
CityBeat recently spoke with White — who has played drums with big names like Stan Getz, Woody Shaw, Gil Evans and Jaco Pastorius, and released several of his own albums — about RTF's return to the public eye and what it was like to work on one of the most revolutionary albums in Jazz history, Miles Davis' Bitches Brew.
CityBeat: You guys have been in Return to Forever for many years, but you had a long break and came back together for the world tour in the 2008/2009 timeframe. How did you guys decide to come back together ?
Lenny White: Well what happened is that, you know, when we got back together in 2008, people had been asking for it for 25 years and so we felt as though it was time to do that. So we got back together and did a world tour and it was very, very successful. After that, Chick, Stanley and myself decided to go out as a trio (Corea, Clarke & White, which released the two-disc Forever collection) just to play as a different kind of experience and play some different kinds of music.
It was a reach again for us to come back out, but I think the other (members) wanted to do something different and we parted ways from that and put together a new configuration with Frank and Jean. It was great. We did a tour of Australia in February and we just finished up the European leg of the tour. We went to Europe then finally Israel and then we got back a couple days ago.
CB: So you are a little jet-lagged?
LW: A little? (laughing)
CB: What can we expect from the Cincinnati show?
LW: There are fans that have stayed with Return to Forever through the years. They know what we do with our kind of music. This is a little different because of the new configuration. Now there is a violin in the music that gives it a different color. We have actually taken some of the songs that we have done and re-issued them with some different ideas on how we approach them. But you can expect what you would expect from a Return to Forever concert — great playing and having a good time. But we are rocking out.
CB: There have been many new musicians come into the band over the years. How do you integrate a new person into the band and how do you audition someone to know they are going to be a good fit for the team?
LW: It’s not so much an audition because of the fact that Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale were in different bands that were performing at the same time Return to Forever was performing, when this music was in its heyday. So they got the perspective of being in another band and then also listening to and seeing Return to Forever.
So it’s like if I was playing in Return to Forever and we were playing the same time as Zeppelin was playing. I wonder what it would sound like if John Martyn came and played with Return to Forever and I had played with Led Zeppelin. I would say “OK, this is how I play that song.” I like the way John (Bonham) plays it, but I would do it a little differently.
So both Frank and Jean-Luc got the opportunity because Jean-Luc was in Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank was in Vital Information, bands that were performing at the same time Return to Forever was performing. So they got an opportunity to look at Return to Forever and say, “I wonder how I would do with that band.” So now that they are in it, it is not about auditioning … now that they are here and performing with Return to Forever it is kind of cool.
CB: I was listening to the CC&W Forever album this week. I think it is obviously wonderful music and great to have in the collection. My favorite song was the “Windows” song. I was curious when you guys go into the studio to write or get together to write, is it a process that you do together or is it something that you do individually and come together with ideas?
LW: It’s both. “Windows” is a song that Chick wrote a long time ago. He had performed it with a lot of different kind of configurations. It is like a Jazz standard. When we re-visited it with Forever, it was our take on it. Stanley and I had not played it that much, of course Chick wrote it, but when he got with Stanley and myself it took on a different feel.
But most of that music (on Forever), the acoustic (versions) of those songs, we are not doing with this version of Return to Forever. This is more electric and rocking out. It has changed again the process that happens when I write a song and bring it to the band or Stanley writes a song and brings it to the band. But then there is a different process when we are in the studio together and we start to do something from scratch, it’s a whole different process. Everybody in the band are composers. When we get together, you have this energy that happens and anything can happen. When you write a piece of music and bring it into the band, it is one thing. You might have, as a composer, one viewpoint of how that happens. But because of the different guys, you never know what can happen. It comes from something else. It literally happens every night.
CB: You've played with some of the best Jazz artists in the world. Could you tell me one of your fondest memories of recording Bitches Brew with Miles Davis.
LW: That was my very first recording. So for me that will always have a special place. And for it to be a landmark recording like that is very special too.
I just remember being with all those guys that are my heroes and I was the youngest of them and for me to fit in was a big issue for me. What happened, I went into the session thinking one thing, thinking I needed to play a certain way instead of acting the way I needed. I started playing on a song and he would say, “That wasn’t what I was feeling,” and he would say it that way. After the session was over, I was kind of down and I was sitting in the corner and Miles came over to me and put his arm around me and said, “What’s wrong?” I said, “I didn’t do what was right.” He said, “No, no, no, don’t worry about it. Come back tomorrow. You did good. It’s not a problem. This is a learning experience for you.” And I learned a lot from that.
CB: You have worked with Chaka Khan and Miles and Freddie Hubbard. Is there anyone out there that you would like to collaborate with that you haven’t been able to?
LW: That has changed over the years. There was a time period that I would have really wanted to really work with Bjork, and I still do. Robert Plant, I could see a situation that I would like to get into and make some music with Robert. But I have worked with a lot of folks. Each day brings on something new. So I would wake up tomorrow and want to work with this person or that person.
CB: You have definitely had a big year and have traveled all over the world playing music. What would you say has been your biggest highlight of 2011 so far?
LW: In February, Stanley and I won a Grammy for his album (The Stanley Clarke Band, which won Best Contemporary Jazz Album). That’s a real nice 2011 send-off. I think the best is still yet to come. We are making some real great music with Return to Forever and we are doing something really, really animated and I think the best is yet to come.
Photo: C. Taylor Crothers, Kimberly Wright, Miles Standish Pettengill III