After working with jazz luminaries like Stan Getz, Sarah Vaughan, and Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Chick Corea performed in Miles Davis' electric bands in the late '60s and early '70s. During that time, he played on Davis' Bitches Brew, a revolutionary work that gave birth to jazz-rock fusion. Davis, who'd already pioneered cool and modal jazz, became a chief inspiration and mentor for Corea.
"Miles never compromised his vision," says Corea. "He always had the courage and the strength to just go ahead and turn the next corner and try the next idea. He didn't wait until it was popular or until someone agreed with him or the record company gave him the OK to do it. He went ahead and pursued it, because that's what he saw to do. He strengthened that purpose in me."
Davis had a similar effect on other Bitches Brew musicians, who went on to create three incredibly influential fusion bands: John McLaughlin formed Mahavishnu Orchestra, Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter started Weather Report, and Corea led Return to Forever.
"The idea was that there's this unique place where we all find ourselves spiritually, which is who we are — our basic personalities, our basic goals and artistry," says Corea. "Everyone is who they are. And sometimes we lose sight of that. It's a return to that basic spiritual nature of artistry and freedom of expression and the ability to enjoy life that we all have within us."
Over the years, Corea headed up three different versions of Return to Forever with bassist Stanley Clarke. While the first incarnation was mostly about the jazz, Corea steered the second one closer to rock after seeing McLaughlin perform with Mahavishnu. "I had never heard anything like that," recalls Corea. "It's exciting and it's got impact and it's got high artistry to it. It was very inspirational."
The show stirred Corea and Clarke enough to recruit electric guitarist Bill Connors and drummer Lenny White — whom Corea knew from the Bitches Brew sessions — for Return to Forever's 1973 album, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy.
After Connors left to pursue a solo career, Corea enlisted 19-year-old Al Di Meola, who was a student at the Berklee School of Music at the time. Di Meola first appeared on Where Have I Known You Before, the group's 1974 album — the first to feature the classic Return to Forever lineup of Corea, Clarke, Di Meola, and White. They went on to record No Mystery and Romantic Warrior, which, along with Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, have been remixed, remastered, and recently released as part of the two-disc Anthology.
Return to Forever broke up in 1977. Over the past 30 years, the four musicians talked about reuniting. They even came close a couple of times. They saw each other a lot over the years, but Corea can't recall any point where all of them were in the same location at the same time. Until recently — when everyone showed up at his Los Angeles studio to rehearse for the group's current tour.
"I could write a book about each guy," says Corea. "They've each got their unique qualities. Stanley developed a way of playing on both acoustic and electric basses. He has one of the widest and broadest approaches to music.
"Lenny's the only drummer that plays kind of jazz-rock fusion music in a way that makes it sound like jazz," he continues. "I always loved the way he played a backbeat and approached funk and rock, because it always had a swing to it. And Al's got a whole other thing. He's got a Latin soul and an amazing sound and lyricism on the guitar that rounds the whole thing out."
Onstage, each musician works together toward a mission that Corea first mapped out more than 35 years ago. "I've been on a constant quest to continually figure out how to present something that's high-quality and beautiful to audiences," he says. "It's not always something that's just my personal taste. It's something that I love to do — to bring pleasure to people. Not just to jazz fans, but to people who don't know anything about jazz."
Seeing these guys together three decades after they changed the scope of jazz fusion should thrill tons of fans — both old and new. "We're going to bring all that back," says Corea, "and put it into the mother ship." All aboard.