Along with Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea's Return to Forever brought jazz music to a rock audience. And though the "jazz fusion" label seemed to piss off the purists, Corea and the other talented musicians didn't mind the increased profile and accompanying profits.
Nearly four decades after forming, Return to Forever is still a vibrantly functioning unit. Ex-Miles Davis drummer Lenny White joined the band in 1973 and, along with bassist Stanley Clarke, produced one of the greatest rhythm sections in jazz and rock history. Speaking from a tour stop in Spain, and in anticipation of Wednesday's performance at Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie, White was kind enough to talk with DC9 about Return to Forever's fascinating musical odyssey.
Read the complete Q&A after the jump.
Why do you think fans of rock 'n' roll are so attracted to the music of Return to Forever?
Basically, as opposed to other bands playing jazz fusion, we really rock. We play progressive rock music. We don't play fusion. We play rock and we play jazz. It's not really a hybrid between the two.
Even if you say that you don't play fusion, why do you think fusion is one of the most popular forms of jazz?
Having a music that has its roots in jazz and has explorations in progressive rock music has brought in fans of different styles together. It has created something that bridges the barriers between the two styles.
When did Chick Corea ask you to become a member of Return to Forever?
It was 1973, and I was in San Francisco working with a band called Azteca. Chick gave me a call and we played for about a week, just Chick and myself. Then, we had two guitarists come and sit in. Chick ask me to be a part of Return to Forever, but I was already involved with this other band and I had to say I couldn't do it. Those guys all went back to New York and I believe Steve Gadd played with them for about six months. I was asked by this San Francisco band called Journey to play with them but Chick called me again. I flew out to New York and just decided to become a member of Return to Forever.
You played with Miles Davis on his legendary Bitches Brew album. How intense were those sessions and how many people claim to have played on that album that did not?
Everybody wants to be famous, y'know? We recorded for three days. It was myself, Jack DeJohnette, Juma Santos, Don Alias, Dave Holland, Harvey Brooks, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Larry Young, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Bennie Maupin and Miles Davis. That's who was on that record. Those are the people who played on those sessions. Now there were sessions after that where people might have thought that it was for Bitches Brew, but it wasn't. It was three days in August of 1969. It was released as two records. We recorded that 24 hours after Jimi Hendrix played the last note at Woodstock. 1969 was an eventful year. We walked on the moon. Woodstock happened. We were caught up in doing something and trying to rise to the occasion. At the time, I didn't think about being part of something special, but a couple of months later, I was, like -- wow! -- I recorded with Miles Davis.
Return to Forever plays an acoustic and electric set and each requires you use a different drum kit. Which do you prefer?
It doesn't matter to me because it depends upon the music. It's like an artist painting with a wide brush or a thing brush. You have broad strokes, so you need a wide brush and, for details, you need a smaller brush. I use the same approach no matter what kit I use.
Some of the recent gigs have been very long. With music this intricate and intense, are you physically exhausted by the end of the show?
I think what happens is that afterwards you might be exhausted. But when you're on the bandstand and you're creating with musicians that you have an affinity with, you don't get tired. Now, it you're up there with somebody who is dragging you down musically, that's when you get tired. I don't get tired with these guys.
What drummers do you find interesting?
My jazz heroes are Art Blakey, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones, Roy Haynes and Tony Williams. Those are my six heroes. As far as rock drummers, I like John Bonham. I listen to a lot of Latin music. Listening to all of those guys is what created my musical approach.
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Any other rock drummers besides Bonham?
I listen to a lot of guys, but Bonham always stuck out. Led Zepplin was my favorite rock band. I love Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies. I loved the way Buddy Miles played. Buddy Miles and Bonham had a real soulful, earthy feel to what they did.
You've played with Stanley Clarke for so long. Are you at the point where both of you know exactly what the other is going to play next?
We're kind of joined at the hip. It's great. We've been together for so long and I have seen him grow so much musically. He's become a great composer. He still has that edge that he brings to the music. He takes chances. He really is special.
It's been 40 years since Return to Forever became a band. What still makes the band's music so relevant today?
It's good. I mean, it is great music. Anything that is great will last an eternity.
Return to Forever performs with with Zappa Play Zappa on Wednesday, September 14 at the Verizon Theatre in Grand Prairie