A welcome Return and a night of virtuosity

By Bill Beuttler
Globe Correspondent / August 13, 2011

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A fourth incarnation of the legendary jazz-rock fusion band Return to Forever took an enthusiastic audience back to a time when dazzling musicianship could still land an instrumental group on the pop charts. Thursday night at the Bank of America Pavilion, RTF stalwarts Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White were joined by violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale in the current lineup. Zappa Plays Zappa - Dweezil Zappa leading a crackerjack young band through similarly challenging repertoire from his late father, Frank Zappa - was the opening act.

In introducing the Clarke tune “Dayride’’ midway through Return to Forever’s set, White made a crack about modern boy bands in which no one plays an instrument. “We are a man band,’’ he declared, pointedly.

And man, can these men play their instruments. White confined himself primarily to propelling the others through their paces with precise, vigorous drumming, his one big solo coming toward the end of the night on Corea’s “Spain,’’ which also featured Chick leading the audience on a wordless sing-along with his keyboards.

Gambale took his best electric solo on Corea’s “Señor Mouse’’ early on, and a solid acoustic one later on Corea’s “Romantic Warrior.’’ Ponty, who put in some time with rival fusion behemoth the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the ’70s, excelled on his own “Renaissance,’’ the night’s acoustic highlight.

Clarke alternated between keeping everything anchored and, when soloing, bringing jaw-dropping flamboyance on both electric and acoustic bass. His “School Days,’’ the band’s rocking encore, showed why he ranked with Jaco Pastorius as a god of the electric bass, and his acoustic work - on “Renaissance,’’ especially - was even more breathtaking.

Corea, meanwhile, demonstrated why Clarke calls him maestro. His playing on assorted keyboards was phenomenal - Corea has no equals on electric piano - and his compositional gifts did as much as the musicians’ virtuosity to put RTF forever on the front ranks of jazz-rock fusion. A Chelsea native, a much-slimmed-down Corea (he is looking as trim as he did in the band’s ’70s heyday) made callouts to old friends and family in the audience. But he was obviously inspired by his old friends onstage as well.

Zappa Plays Zappa was an ideal opener, running through such complex old favorites as “Dancin’ Fool,’’ “Pojama People,’’ “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,’’ and “Peaches en Regalia.’’ Ben Thomas blew trumpet and handled the frenzied, wiseacre vocals, and Scheila Gonzalez (saxes and keyboards), Joe Travers (drums), Billy Hulting (vibes, percussion) and Dweezil Zappa (guitar) were instrumental standouts.

Bill Beuttler can be reached at


At: Bank of America Pavilion, Thursday