New albums

New Stuff: Linda Oh and Return to Forever Returns

Chick Corea with the Five Peace Band at the Bluenote, November 2011

More new albums for today. The latest iteration of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever came out with a live two disc set and bassist Linda Oh’s excellent sophomore album “Initial Here“. Posts on the new Ravi Coltrane album (assuming I can find a copy) and Bela Fleck, Marcus Roberts and traditionalism upcoming, but the Linda Oh and Return to Forever albums should provide plenty to talk about for now.

Linda Oh, an Australian raised Malaysian-Chinese bassist now operating in New York, released her first album as leader, aptly titled “Entry“, in 2009. In between she’s been making waves in the live scene, although from what I can tell she’s been on only a handful of recordings. One of those was Dave Douglas’ “Orange Afternoons” which was a fine album with a great band: Dave Douglas on trumpet, Vijay Iyer on piano, Ravi Coltrane on saxophone, Linda Oh on bass and Marcus Gilmore on drums. It was extremely enjoyable, but Oh’s bass was not really on display there. Fortunately we have her new album to remedy that: it is an album on which both her playing and compositions shine.

Basically every track on this album is killer. The band, Oh, Dayna Stephens on saxophone, Fabian Almazan on piano and Rhodes and Rudy Royston on drums, is comprised of forceful and compelling musicians who clearly know how to work together. Each member of the band palpably exudes passion for the music on every cut, actively contributing without stepping on anyone else’s toes. My favorite track is “No. 1 Hit”, a modern burner highlighting every member of the band in turn. First Fabian Almazan on Rhodes, then Dayna Stephens, Linda Oh and finally a spectacular drum solo by Royston set against counterpoint from the rest of the band. This is a track on which everyone really does everything right: it is a composition that is interesting without losing its groove, Fabian provides first an excellent solo and then just the right sort of support behind each of the soloists (I mentioned in my post about seeing Brad Mehldau live how significant I think it is to be able to comp well under a soloing bassist; well, we can now clearly count Fabian Almazan among the select few who really know how to do it. Oh’s solo is a real joy and made only more enjoyable by Almazan’s airy Rhodes.) and finally everything really comes together behind the drums. Oh shows real chops, both on upright and electric bass on tracks like “Little House”. On the slower side we also get a loose, soulful rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and the moody album closer “Deeper than Sad”. All this together is an album which is interesting and impressive track to track and well conceived over all. Really the only cut I’m not sure I care about is “Thicker than Water” with guest vocalist Jen Shyu. Shyu scores points with me by singing half in Chinese, but the tone poem feel of the piece doesn’t really do it for me. But that is one track out of an hour great music. Overall a great album. I look forward to more like it.

Over five decades, Chick Corea has worked with a whole host of different musicians spread out over some iconic bands. One of the most iconic was the fusion flagship Return to Forever, which for me will always be the band behind “Light as a Feather” (Corea, Stanley Clarke on bass, Joe Farrell on saxophone and flute, Airto Moreira on drums and percussion and Flora Purim on vocals on most of the songs). For most people, however, the band is a quartet with Lenny White on drums and Al DiMeola on guitar. Well, Corea has come out with a new iteration and a new lineup, what he called “Return to Forever IV”, with guitarist Frank Gambale replacing DiMeola and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. For those who could not see the band tour, they have released a live 2 cd 1 dvd set, which is certainly not without some great music. Frank Gambale, doing his best DiMeola impression, really impresses technically and has a wonderful tone, especially when playing acoustic, which he does on “Romantic Warrior”. The tunes are slightly re-imagined for the new band, sometimes in really interesting ways. This rendition of “Senor Mouse” is like the more relaxed, groovier younger brother of the original “Captain Senor Mouse” from 1973’s “Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy”. Yet, this album feels like something of a mixed bag to me.

Partly I take issue with the presence of Ponty, whose tone and music imagination I don’t particularly care for. Mostly I think the band is starting to show its age. I’ve noticed Corea is less likely to engage in the particularly impressive virtuosic runs which practically define the sound of the 70’s iteration of the band. Technicality aside, I don’t think the conception of the band has moved forward much since the 70’s. I was excited to note that “Spain”, one of Corea’s most famous compositions, made the playlist this time around. After the first Return to Forever reunion in 2008, I was disappointed that “Spain” (as well as the criminally underplayed “Captain Marvel”) did not make the live album. I’ve learned to be careful what I wish for, this version of “Spain” is in some ways profoundly disappointing. There was apparently only time for one band solo, a Lenny White solo set against counterpoint from Chick and Stanley, which is, in all fairness, really spectacular. After a few minutes of brilliance, however, the listener is subjected to a back forth audience participation sing-a-long between Chick and a collection of random fans. Congratulations, Chick, you’ve officially entered aging rock star territory. Seriously, is there any worse sign you’ve really started to phone it in that to let the audience sing for you and release it as an album? Following this exceptionally disappointing rendition of “Spain” is a throwback take on the title track of Stanley’s seminal 1976 album “School Days”. It’s status as a throwback is readily apparent: in 36 years “School Days” hasn’t aged a day.

What makes “The Mothership Returns” really so disappointing is the tantalizing glimmers of what could have been. If only Spain had ended with dignity after Lenny White was done. If only the pseudo-classical schlock had been pared off the front of this otherwise enjoyable version of “Sorceress”. Despite the tacky 80’s mess that was the Elektric Band, Chick Corea is still one of the best producers of fusion in history (and fusion is a genre with more than its fair share of crap). Indeed, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin’s recent Five Peace Band is to my mind the best fusion group ever. This could have been a great album. Oh well.

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