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Return to Forever IV and Zappa Plays Zappa, Paramount Theater - Denver, August 27, 2011
Jean-Luc Ponty, Lenny White, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Frank Gamble
by Geoff Anderson
With Return to Forever IV and Zappa Plays Zappa on the same bill, the Paramount Theater heard more notes per cubic inch than ever before. To say that these two bands play fast is like saying the Yankees win a few baseball games. The virtuosic playing, the jazz-rock aesthetic and the timing of their popularity, mainly in the 1970s make these two bands naturals for a joint tour. (Zappa, of course, lasted a bit longer than RTF their first time around, getting his start in the ‘60s and continuing strong until his untimely death in 1993.) On the other hand, the bands differed in their approach and attitude toward the music. As drummer Lenny White explained from the stage Saturday night, Return to Forever is a man’s band (as opposed to one of those ubiquitous boy bands). Zappa, in contrast, could be much more playful (sometimes including comedy and social commentary) and at other times he could be even more challenging for the listener than RTF.
Another similarity between the two bands is personnel changes. Most obviously, Frank is no longer with us. His son Dweezil has been leading Zappa Plays Zappa for about five years now, keeping his father’s music alive and in performance. During Return to Forever’s first spin around the block back in the ‘70s, the band went through three incarnations. Each featured Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. The second version was the most electric, loudest and most popular. That permutation (RTF II?) was a quartet featuring, in addition to Corea and Clarke, Lenny White on drums and Al Di Meola (taking over for Bill Connors who lasted only a single album) on guitar. That was the quartet that reunited in 2008 for a successful world tour. This time around, Corea, Clarke and White have added violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, a ‘70s fusion star in his own right and Frank Gambale on guitar. In fact, there’s another similarity, Ponty played with Zappa for a time and Zappa produced Ponty as a solo artist.
This version of Return to Forever (RTF IV) most closely resembles RTF II and therefore it came as little surprise that the majority of Saturday night’s set came from that period. Much of the program was drawn from RTF II’s most successful album Romantic Warrior including Lenny White’s “Sorcerer.” Other tunes included Stanley Clarke’s “After the Cosmic Rain” from the Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. Corea had a stripped down keyboard setup with only a grand piano, a Rhodes electric piano and a single synthesizer. Earlier RTF incarnations had Corea wedged into a keyboard cockpit that resembled the flight deck of the space shuttle. No doubt, computerization has reduced the need for multiple synthesizers, but the simplification was also apparent in the music with Corea spending considerable time on the acoustic piano and the classic Rhodes.
A highlight of the evening was Ponty’s composition “Renaissance.” That one originally appeared on Ponty’s 1976 album Aurora. This version featured a beautiful, melodic solo by Clarke on acoustic bass. Before he was done, however, Clarke turned his bass into a percussion instrument, slapping the strings from every angle and tapping the body to completely change the mood of the tune. He eventually returned to a more typical mode of playing about the time Ponty and Gambale, on acoustic guitar, started playing a unison riff with enough space to allow the bass solo to continue. Another standout selection was Corea’s “Spain” which came toward the end of the evening. After the intensity of tunes mostly from the RTF II period, it was refreshing to hear a song from RTF I. While not exactly as light as a feather in the hands of the musical pyromaniacs on stage, it was nonetheless a delicate change of pace.
Even aside from his standout solo during “Renaissance,” Clarke visually dominated the stage. Simply stated, Clarke is tall. He towered over Ponty and Gambale who flanked him. Clarke was taller than Ponty even when Clarke was sitting on a stool playing his acoustic bass and Ponty remained standing. His bass playing could not be ignored either. On either electric or acoustic, he provided much more than simply a solid foundation, but continual intricate counterpoint.
Ponty is probably the addition that causes the greatest departure from the sound of RTF II. The violin is a new instrument for RTF and Ponty’s ideas cross pollinated with Corea’s and Clarke’s and resulted in a sonic hybrid vigor. Gambale on guitar, a veteran of Corea’s Electrik Band, will obviously be compared to Di Meola forever. That’s obviously a hard act to follow, but he stood up well, fluently playing the pre-arranged guitar parts and adding his own solo touches when his turn in the spotlight came. White continued to drive the band as he has for many years now with both force and finesse. Corea is still the leader, for the most part, stage directing many of the tunes as they unfolded and setting the improv bar at a typically lofty level.
Dweezil Zappa brought his eight piece band on tour. It takes that many players to adequately play the intricate music of his father. With around 60 Zappa albums in circulation, Dweezil has plenty of material to choose from. An hour long set can barely scratch the surface. For Saturday night’s program, Frank’s son chose several of the father’s more popular numbers such as “Dancin’ Fool,” “50-50,” “Po-Jama People” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow/Nanook Rubs It/St. Alfonso’s Pancake Breakfast.” But it wasn’t strictly commercial with other, more obscure selections such as “Big Swifty” and “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?”
Frank’s whimsical nature was present as the band used instruments like a kazoo, a squeeze toy, a Jew’s harp and a marimba for a bit of a cartoonish sound. Ben Thomas on vocals (also some trumpet and percussion) channeled the late Frank’s vocal style and dry wit pulling off what amounted to comedy routines in the midst of a polyrhythmic fusion frenzy. Dweezil, himself, generally followed some of his dad’s advice to “shut up and play yer guitar.” Frank’s guitar playing was always easily recognizable with a bit of a hollow, twisted tone and an angular, sometimes spastic attack. Dweezil tended toward a little cleaner sound but matched the velocity of any RTF lick out there. Speaking of lick matching, it was during “St. Alfonso’s Pancake Breakfast” that the similarities of these two bands became most apparent. The lick in that tune that comes right after the title matches nearly note for note the distinctive recurring, high speed riff from RTF’s “Romantic Warrior.” RTF and Zappa: brothers in licks.
Compare: “Romantic Warrior:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXs0NW6TzP0 (at 1:10 into the video)
“St. Alfonso:” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIoWD0Kg0lg&feature=related