Album of the Week 32-2013: Return To Forever – Where Have I Known You Before

Like any young kid with a sane mind, I used to hate Jazz. And to this day, there are still types of Jazz I can’t stand, but it was through the Fusion era that I started to like the genre a lot more than I had anticipated. Especially the bands that obviously leaned towards Rock in the sense that there were riffs and melodic themes played at high volume. The first two albums of Mahavishnu Orchestra were instrumental in winning my soul for the genre, as is this fantastic band. Return To Forever is loud, energetic and complex. This, I can deal with!

‘Where Have I Known You Before’ marked the joining – and recording debut – of Al Di Meola, who would continue to become one of the world’s heroes in both acoustic and electric guitar. It’s not like he joined a bunch of amateurs though; keyboard player and band leader Chick Corea and Lenny White had already played together at Miles Davis’ monumentally abstract ‘Bitches Brew’ album and Stanley Clarke is easily one of the best bass players in the world with a killer bass sound to boot. Together with guitarist Bill Connors, the band had recorded the fantastic ‘Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy’, which might even exceed this one in terms of songwriting, but this is their finest hour performance-wise.

Opening track ‘Vulcan Words’ sets the mood quite powerfully. On the basis of frantic rhythms, some fantastic melodic motifs are set and every musician seems to solo their hearts out. It’s remarkable that Lenny White’s composition on this album, ‘The Shadow Of Lo’, may be the most ornate in terms of melodies and mood shifts, while the rhythms are relatively simple. Mind you, “relatively simple” still beats the average Rock drummer out of the water here. But then again, that’s what makes a great Fusion band; a drummer like White or Mahavishnu’s Billy Cobham. ‘Beyond The Seventh Galaxy’ marks a return of many themes that were present in the previous album’s title track and is equally awesome. Just listen to Lenny White tearing it up!

‘Earth Juice’ funkily opens the second side of the album, but the true crowning achievement of what Return To Forever was able to do comes in the shape of the 14 minute closing track ‘Song To The Pharaoh Kings’. An epic monster that is an exercise in Eastern sounding scales – Corea’s main theme in particular – and mind blowing musical prowess. Those rhythms and long solos are nothing short of impressive. All these leviathans are broken up by the short ‘Where Have I…’ piano pieces by Corea, of which ‘Where Have I Danced With You Before’ is my favorite.

Any Rock fan with a hunger to reach out to Jazz should start out with this album and its direct predecessor – both of which I consider vastly superior to ‘Romantic Warrior’, which is generally viewed as Return To Forever’s magnum opus – and work their way to Miles Davis through Mahavishnu Orchestra. Davis discovered many of these musicians while they were still trying to find their way and offered them an entrance to the world of music. We should be eternal grateful that he did, because this combination of Jazz complexity and Rock intensity hasn’t been done better before or since.

Recommended tracks: ‘Beyond The Seventh Galaxy’, ‘Song To The Pharaoh Kings’, ‘Vulcan Words’

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