There was a veritable buzz in the air in the minutes leading up to the beginning of the season-opening concert at the Mondavi Center (on the campus of U.C. Davis) last week. The occasion was the reunion tour of Return to Forever, in its fourth incarnation and therefore labeled RTF IV.
Jackson Hall was packed as we’ve never seen it packed before, with nary an empty seat and with lots of folks in attendance for whom this concert was their first visit to the beautiful hall. What everyone had come to see was the first and still probably best of the jazz-rock fusion bands of the 1970s. And they got their money’s worth, in a concert that lasted well over three hours (including intermission) and that also featured as good an opening act band as most in the audience could have hoped to see.
That band was the eight-member group that Dweezil Zappa has been touring with as a tribute to his late father, Frank, who was also a pretty big deal in the world of music back in the heyday of RTF. Dweezil’s band played a rock-solid 70-minute set that consisted of six of Frank’s best tunes. And they were all performed flawlessly by the excellent musicians his son has gathered.
Highlights of the set were “Don’t You Ever Wash that Thing,” with excellent vocals by trumpet player Ben Thomas; “Dancin’ Fool,” with a member of the audience playing the part perfectly in front of the stage (until he was escorted back to his seat by a friendly usher); and “Big Swifty,” which gave all of the musicians a chance to show their stuff in extended solos.
Those musicians, in addition to Mr. Thomas, all deserve mention, because they were all excellent. Scheila Gonzalez played alto and tenor sax and added back-up vocals; Billy Hulting handled all manner of percussion instruments, including a terrific turn on the marimba on “Wash that Thing”; Joe Travers banged some mean drums; Chris Norton played keyboards and sang backup on several songs; Jamie Kime played rhythm guitar; and Pete Griffin had some standout moments on bass.
And leading them all was Dweezil on lead guitar. His solos showed a real flair for both the instrument and the music. Although he doesn’t sing and doesn’t look particularly like his dad, his chops are definitely inherited. And his obvious love and respect for the consistently interesting music his iconoclastic father created made this opening set one to remember.
When keyboard master Chick Corea originally formed Return to Forever in the early 1970s he had in mind a distinctly Brazilian sound. That concept didn’t last very long. With co-founder Stanley Clarke’s brilliant bass playing as an impetus, the band soon began to incorporate solid rock rhythms into its repertoire. When drummer Lenny White joined up in 1973, the soul of the band took root. For the rest of the decade, the band turned out a succession of great fusion albums and became one of the most respected and revered musical groups of its era.
So it was no surprise that the tickets for this concert sold out quickly and that that buzz throughout the audience before the concert began was so palpable. When the five members of the current group took the stage they received an immediate standing ovation.
Joining Corea, Clarke and White for the one hour and forty minute set were violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale. All five had extended solos during the set, and all but Gambale (who wore his signature hat throughout the set) addressed the audience at various points.
Among the set’s highlights were “Renaissance” a Ponty composition that gave Clarke a chance to show why he is justifiably considered one of the greatest bass players the jazz scene has ever produced. On both stand up bass and electric, he carried the melody line for long stretches while performing some absolutely mind-blowing virtuosic picking. He was a show onto himself.
Returning the favor, a Clarke composition, “Mamma Music,” gave Mr. Ponty a chance to put his electric violin to work. At one point he literally made it screech (to the displeasure of more than a few in the audience). Monsieur Ponty (from Paris, France, not Paris, Texas as Mr. White jokingly suggested at one point) had earlier appeared for one tune during the Zappa set, having once been a member of the Mothers of Invention.
Another highlight was Mr. Corea’s “Spain,” (from the original ground-breaking RTF album, “Light as a Feather”) which also gave all five members a chance to solo. Even the audience got into the act, as Corea at one point turned and motioned for the crowd to follow his lead by singing the notes he played. Surprisingly, the audience was more than up to the task, possibly because this is a standard bit in all of Corea’s concerts where he plays the tune.
Suffice to say, as talented as all five musicians in this iteration of the group are, Mr. Corea is the genius behind it all. He is, as Stanley Clarke said in introducing him, “the maestro.”
And so the new Mondavi season is off and running. If the rest of the concerts on the schedule come anywhere near as close to this one in terms of musical excellence and audience satisfaction, the season will be as good as any in the history of this great venue.