Lenny White knows them all by heart – specifically, the swipes and gripes by jazz traditionalists that view the electric rock, prog and funk leanings of fusion music as stylistic sellouts.
He weathered such criticisms over three decades ago when the band he co-piloted, the popular quartet version of fusion mainstay Return to Forever, began playing larger and larger venues alongside the fellow jazz-rockers of Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters to what was then a new jazz generation.
Never mind how all of these bands have serious jazz roots that their growing fanbase quickly traced first to their one common source, Miles Davis, and then further to the music Davis made with John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Never mind how those young listeners discovered an entire jazz history in the process. No, to the traditionalists, the thought of hard electric jazz playing off of rockish impulses bordered on heresy.
But as a new Return to Forever ensemble – titled, accordingly, Return to Forever IV – takes flight this summer, White sees a certain vindication for himself, his fusion brethren and especially the music they popularized and pioneered.
“It’s funny, really,” White said by phone from Marseilles, France, during the European swing of a world tour that brings Return to Forever IV to Cincinnati on Thursday. “There were a lot of the jazz purists back then who thought what we were doing was destroying jazz music, that what we were doing was taking away from its tradition. It always seemed the complete opposite to me. I think we were bringing people toward the music.
“When you think about it, all of the seminal jazz-rock bands – Return to Forever, Mahavishnu, Tony Williams’ Lifetime, the Headhunters – all had representatives that played with Miles on Bitches Brew (Davis’ 1969 cornerstone fusion album). That’s where the germ of this music really started. Miles had delved into explorations of electric music before that. But Bitches Brew was the galvanizing point. That’s when people started going, ‘OK, this is something new. Let’s see where this goes.’”
Return to Forever surfaced in 1972 by ways of an album of the same name by keyboardist and Davis alumnus Chick Corea, who has remained an honored jazz journeyman in and out of fusion circles ever since. White joined him and bassist Stanley Clarke for a quartet Return to Forever band in 1973, first with guitarist Bill Connors and then with replacement Al DiMeola that lasted through 1976. A larger but short lived brass fortified RTF band that excluded White and DiMeola followed, although the band split seemingly for good in 1978.
“There was always a healthy competition in those days,” White said of the ‘70s era that yielded the popular RTF albums Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (1973), Where Have I Known You Before (1974), No Mystery (1975) and Romantic Warrior (1976). “And anytime there is this striving to be the best you can be, to be as good or better than the other guys, the music rises to a whole new level. The bar gets raised. It was a great time, man. The music was like a war cry.”
Aside from a short-lived quartet reunion with DiMeola in 1983, RTF remained dormant until 2008 when it toured extensively during the summer months. RTF IV proceeds this year without DiMeola but with guitarist Frank Gambale (who performed throughout the ‘80s in Corea’s Elektric Band) and violinist Jean Luc-Ponty (whose ties with Corea, Clark and White extend back several decades) in his place.
“The situation was Al had started working with his World Sinfonia band this year,” White said of how RTF IV came to be. “He felt that was what he wanted to do. Plus, Chick, Stanley and myself had done a trio tour (chronicled on the recent Forever album along with studio sessions featuring Ponty and Connors). We were playing jazz standards. Al doesn’t do that. So when we got back together to look at this version of Return to Forever, there were a lot of different considerations. But the feeling was kind of mutual that Al wanted to do something else and we wanted to try a different direction.
“But I’m telling you, man, the way this new lineup is playing is unbelievable. Jean Luc told me at breakfast the other morning how much he enjoys sitting back and watching us play. ‘And I’m on the bandstand with you guys.’
“So I think everybody is having fun. And that’s what’s really, really important.”
Return to Forever IV with Zappa Plays Zappa perform at 8 p.m. Aug 18 at the PNC Pavilion of Riverbend Music Center in Cincinnati. Tickets are $34-$71.50. Call (513) 232-6220 or (800) 745-3000 or go to www.ticketmaster.com.