As Chick Corea witnessed for himself again and again, including on the British music series The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1976, the strangest thing happened in pop during the Seventies. Music fans would buy tickets to arena or amphitheater shows by bands like Return to Forever — founded and fronted by the late jazz keyboardist, who died of an unspecified type of cancer on February 9th at 79. Then they would settle into their seats and watch, and attentively listen, as the musicians would play an hour or two of entirely instrumental music.
And we’re not talking lulling new age, but instead a jacked-up style of jazz — twisty pieces in which tempos constantly shifted, musical notes bounced around like pinballs in a machine, and band members would take solos that could veer wildly away from the core melody. And although most of it was delivered with enough volume to flatten the cochlea hairs in listeners’ ears, the crowds didn’t mind that, either. As one critic wrote in 1976 of a Return to Forever show, “Every time a soloist or the group, in unison, would complete a fast, complicated passage, the audience roared with delight.”
Even in the anything-goes era that was the Seventies, when underground cultures like disco and glam infiltrated the mainstream, little rivaled the moment when fusion became pop, its musicians ascending to rock-god level. Then and now, fusion remains one of the most critically disparaged styles of pop, accused of slicking up and commercializing jazz with overly flashy musicianship. But during a brief moment, bands like Return to Forever, Weather Report, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra played to sold-out, foot-stomping crowds and saw their albums rise into the Top 40.
The absorbing 2014 documentary Jaco, about the late, psychically damaged Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius, includes a clip representative of this moment. Alone onstage with his bass, Pastorius, looking like a hippie suavely dressed for a night at Studio 54, plays a complex, sometimes arrhythmic, somewhat show-boaty solo that goes on for at least 10 minutes. By the end, the arena crowd is on its collective feet — not to head to the bathrooms but to give him an ovation.
Corea’s Return to Forever also rode that wave. Formed at the dawn of the Seventies and folding at its end (although members subsequently reunited for shows and albums), Return to Forever grew more adventurous and more polished with each album. In its early days, as on their 1973 album Light as a Feather, they blended vocalese, Corea’s glistening electric piano, and longtime member Stanley Clarke’s slapping bass lines. The subsequent Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy incorporated the monstrous guitar parts of Bill Connors, bringing Return to Forever closer to rock.
By 1976, the group was at its commercial zenith, sharing stages with the likes of Roberta Flack and Procol Harum. During a show in Los Angeles, Stevie Wonder came onstage to present them with two then-prestigious Playboy awards (for best jazz album and best jazz bassist).
Their appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, which primarily welcomed rock and pop acts, was another sign of the way fusion had crossed over. Although it was a relatively concise song for them, “Medieval Overture” — the lead track from 1976’s Romantic Warrior, which made it up to Number 35 — distilled the Return to Forever and fusion experience. Playing sometimes in unison and sometimes individually, the band incorporates the looseness of a jazz ensemble, the power-chord intensity of a rock unit, and the synth-solo flash of a prog band.
With his French-waiter top, Corea alternates between synth and electric piano, playing a fluid solo one moment or pulling a movie-soundtrack special effect sound out of them the next. Even when he’s watching Clarke or guitarist Al Di Meola take their own solos, Corea communicates nothing but joy and enthusiasm. It’s as if he can’t quite believe that so many people are attentively joining him and his band on their musical ride into the unknown. Watching the clip — the peak of the fusion moment — it’s impossible not to feel the same way: Did that world actually exist?