in performance: return to forever IV/zappa plays zappa

return to forever IV: jean-luc ponty, lenny white, chick corea, stanley clarke and frank gambale. composite photo by c. taylor crothers, kimberly wright and miles standish pettengill III.

After walking onstage to a hero’s welcome last night at Cincinnati’s PNC Pavilion, the five members making up the newest lineup of jazz fusion juggernaut Return to Forever assembled in a very workmanlike formation.

Keyboardist/founder/de facto frontman Chick Corea and mainstay drummer Lenny White were as opposite ends of the stage facing each other with bassist Stanley Clarke standing in the middle, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with the band’s two new recruits – violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale.

This was a telling design, to a point. It was especially appropriate for Corea, who almost never took his eyes off of his fellow players. At age 70, his performance gift isn’t so much an obvious instrumental prowess, but a boundless sense of playfulness. While the band’s setlist tends to stay fixed from night to night, Corea gave the impression that his every musical move – whether it was the dramatic flourish of acoustic piano that roared under White’s Sorceress or the moog solos he assembled for the celebratory encore version of Clarke’s School Days – was dictated by a cue from his bandmates.

The tight formation also played out for the show-opening Medieval Overture (from what is arguably RTF’s finest album, 1976’s rock-savvy Romantic Warrior). Solos were held in check while the tricky rhythmic turns were taken at a deliciously (and deliberately) breakneck pace. In short, RTF was out to establish quickly that its new lineup operates as a proper band as opposed to an assemblage of honored fusion vets. Mission accomplished.

Of course, as the 90 minute program progressed, each member was given ample room to roam. Clarke’s dizzying, finger-popping electric bass turns were audience favorites, but Ponty’s often elegant turns on violin (especially during the lovely acoustic reading of his 1975 piece Renaissance) proved a refreshing new voice for the band to play with while Gambale colored much of the more electric material with a solid rockish underpinning that was, like much of this immensely enjoyable performance, refreshingly free of flash.

dweezil zappa.

Sharing last night’s bill was Zappa Plays Zappa, an ensemble led by guitarist Dweezil Zappa devoted exclusively to the non-classical repertoire of his late father/composer/guitarist Frank Zappa. Lest anyone dismiss this as just another tribute band, the younger Zappa and his group made it clear just how versed it was not only in the technical demands of his father’s compositions (Mr. Green Genes) but also in the sense of pop tradition that surrounds them (the doo-wop-ish What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?) and the sense of performance animation necessary to bring it all to life (the horror movie send-up Cheepnis).

Most of all, it was great just to hear a band of top flight musicians a generation removed from the elder Zappa keeping alive such a distinctive and demanding catalogue of songs. One can only imagine father Frank would be cracking a sardonic smile if he caught son Dweezil last night spreading a fluid but agitated guitar run over the rhythmic social ooze that was Po-Jama People. Like father like son, indeed.

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