Chick Corea - keyboards; Stanley Clarke - bass; Al Di Meola - guitar; Lenny White - drums
This performance by Return to Forever, the reigning fusion juggernaut of its day, is historic for a few reasons. Recorded just a few weeks before the group's powerhouse outing for Polydor, Where Have I Known You Before, it marks the first performance of RTF with the fiery young guitarist Al Di Meola, who at the time of this Carnegie Hall concert was three weeks short of his 20th birthday. As Di Meola recalled, "Sometime in the early summer of 1974, I was sitting in my Back Bay apartment in Boston behind Symphony Hall when I got a call from Chick. My first reaction was shock and disbelief that it was him. As a student at the Berklee College of Music, RTF and Chick were favorites of mine and a lot of fellow students. He had called me to extend an offer to come to New York and join the band based on a recording that he had heard. A friend of mine from New Jersey, Mike Buyukas, had taken it upon himself, without my knowledge, to locate Chick and try to get him to listen to some recordings he had made of me playing with the Barry Miles Quartet when I was 17 years old. This cassette tape that Mike passed on to Chick convinced Chick to hire me. So I packed a bag, hitched a ride back home to New Jersey, and three days later was playing in Carnegie Hall."
Corea addresses Di Meola's entry into the band as a last-minute replacement for guitarist Earl Klugh, who himself had been a temporary replacement for guitarist Bill Connors, an equally fiery distortion-laced electric guitarist who had appeared on Return to Forever's 1973 album, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. You can even hear Chick refer to Di Meola in his introductions as "Albert," which is probably the first and last time he ever used that misnomer. Rounding out the group are Stanley Clarke on bass and Lenny White on drums. Performing material that would later appear on Where Have I Known You Before, this Carnegie Hall gig essentially served as a dress rehearsal for that potent recording which blended rock power with jazz harmonies and improvisation like no group had done before.
They open this July 3rd concert with a volcanic number which lifts off with all the power of a 747 leaving the runway. Afterwards Corea explains to the audience, "That was a piece that we played for the time. We call it 'Hymn II,'" which was clearly a working title—a kind of sequel to "Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy"—for what would ultimately be called "Beyond the Seventh Galaxy." The group's uncanny precision on this explosive opener—executing such intricate unison lines at breakneck tempos on this challenging Corea composition—would become a signature of the group. Di Meola's brief solo near the end of this piece, his first in public with the band, adds the particular rock punch that Corea was looking for to complete the band. And White's relentlessly driving work on the drum kit fuels the white-hot proceedings.
Next up is Corea's "Song to the Pharoah Kings" (which Corea introduces as "Song of the Pharoah Kings"). This piece is a chance for Chick to show off some of his new gear, particularly the Mini-Moog, which would become an important part of his keyboard arsenal in years to come. Prior to this Carnegie Hall gig, he was using strictly the Fender Rhodes electric piano with a Ring modulator and distortion pedal. But thanks to this new piece of technology created by Robert Moog, a whole new universe of sound was opened up to Corea, and he made the best of it, as evidenced by his thorough demonstration here. Di Meola also turns in an outstanding guitar solo on this lengthy, suite-like number. They follow with White's "The Shadow of Lo," a tune named for one of the moons of Jupiter and which showcases Di Meola in classic chopsmeister mode. Corea's gentle "Where Have I Known You Before" is an extended piece for solo piano. Clarke, an incredible, groundbreaking electric bassist, follows with a virtuosic solo acoustic bass showcase. And White turns in a thunderous drum solo before the band kicks into Clarke's dynamic "Vulcan Worlds" (which at this time was being called "The Vulcan Empire") to close their Carnegie Hall set with a wave of high energy.
Where Have I Known You Before would be released in September of 1974. The fusion supergroup would follow with 1975's Grammy Award-winning No Mystery before switching to the Columbia label and debuting with 1976's best-selling Romantic Warrior. Corea would disband that particular RTF lineup and carry on with an expanded edition of the group which included Clarke on bass and featured a five-piece horn section, along with Gayle Moran (Chick's future wife) on organ and vocals. Thirty-two years after disbanding, that same potent lineup of Corea, Clarke, White, and Di Meola would reunite for a triumphant world tour and subsequent live CD/DVD. A new edition of Return to Forever, dubbed RTF IV (featuring Corea, Clarke, and White with guitarist Frank Gambale and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty) will be touring the States and Europe this summer. (Milkowski)