If left to his own devices, figures Return to Forever bandleader Chick Corea, he'd probably leave a lot of people dazed and confused.
"I think if I were to make some music that was completely my own personal taste in music, without thinking about audiences or other musicians, probably no one would like it," says the legendary jazz keyboardist. "No one would even be able to relate to it. It would be so in another place."
It was that awareness, Corea says, that made his recently reunited jazz-rock fusion group, Return to Forever, such an interesting challenge in the first place.
"I wanted to make music that had a beauty to it that a lot of people could enjoy — to see how far I can push it toward my own personal tastes without losing people. So it's a balancing act. And I brought that idea into the formation of Return to Forever, just to make beautiful music for people."
As it turned out, Return to Forever went through a number of musical styles and musicians throughout the '70s. The band formed around the nucleus of keyboardist Corea and bassist Stanley Clarke, who were then joined by saxophonist Joe Farrell, drummer Airto Moreira and singer Flora Purim.
After putting out its first two albums — a 1972 self-titled release followed by Light as a Feather that same year — Corea and Clarke moved on to powerhouse drummer Lenny White and guitarist Bill Connors for the next two albums, after which then-19-year-old guitarist Al Di Meola replaced Connors in what's generally considered to be the classic Return to Forever lineup.
Along with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, the group helped pioneer the alternately loved and lamented jazz-fusion movement, crossing over to rock audiences and scoring a gold album with 1976's Romantic Warrior. One album later, the band embarked on a 30-year hiatus most fans expected to last forever.
Not so. In 2008, Corea, Clarke, White and Di Meola reunited for an extensive tour. While Di Meola has gone his own way since then, the other three musicians have soldiered on. In 2009, they toured as a trio — documented on the recently released live album, Forever. Since then, they've added two new members: violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale.
Ponty, who was a key member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, had played extensively with Clarke over the years, and Corea was intrigued by what the violinist might add to the band's sound.
"He was already real comfortable playing with Stanley, which was a good start," says Corea. "It took us several concerts to get accustomed to the sonics of the band, like how we're placed on stage and how to make the sounds that blend, which I think we've now got down pretty well. But he brings a real vibrancy to the band, a real vitality in his soloing that's exciting. He seems to be doing great. He's smiling all of the time."
In fact, things are going well enough that, after all these years, a new studio album may yet come to fruition.
"We have written new material," says Corea. "I've got about six new pieces sitting in the wings, Stanley's got several. Lenny's got a few. But it didn't seem appropriate or the right moment to bring out a bunch of new material for this tour. So we're kind of holding onto that."