return to forever

I have to commence this post by stating that I am not a jazz aficionado, but when Orlando gets that excited about a gig, you know it is going to be worth it.

Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale assembled in Melbourne for the Return to Forever IV tour, and we were four rows from the front.

It was a distinctive crowd at the Forum, for this most exclusive of gigs. Carefully chosen outfits by men of a certain age. Long, flowing grey hair and meticulously trimmed beards. Shaven heads and goatees. A red bandana tied defiantly around an inevitably bald pate. A pork pie hat. At least one Marks-and-Spencer-style navy blue polo shirt. High-waisted pants. A safe pair of black jeans made completely illegal by being thrust into a pair of highly decorated cowboy boots. Black and white Rude Boy loafers. The odd glint of silver jewellery, inappropriate in a man of that age. At least one pair of glasses exactly like John Richardson’s funky old/new fogey ones.

And that was just the band.

I’d have to say I understood very little of what was going on, but I knew it was important. After a while I realised I was holding my breath. What these men were attempting (in fact, succeeding at) was far beyond anything I’ve ever seen attempted live. I have seen many incredibly talented individuals and bands playing live music, but I would have to say this was the cleverest group of musicians I have ever seen. This went beyond raw talent. This was like seeing a bunch of mathematicians live on stage, attempting to solve the Grand Unified Theory in parallel, reaching a crescendo of simultaneous mathematical prowess on a row of whiteboards, thus solving one of the greatest puzzles of our generation.

Lenny White seemed to toy with the rest of the band. The only one operating with no sheet music, he spent almost three hours on stage behind a complicated drum-kit driving the tempo wherever (it appeared) he wished. I could only guess at which segments were rehearsed and which were improvised.  Stanley Clarke took centre stage with his bass guitars and double bass. He, of all of them, got the biggest reaction from the crowd whenever he took the musical lead. Chick Corea’s curly grey head bobbed up and down behind a barricade of keyboards, sometimes taking control, sometimes doing exactly as Clarke or White dictated.

I felt as if there was danger in the air. I felt as if I was watching a group of extreme acrobats performing without a safety net. My mind was exhausted from hard concentration, focusing myself to help them get to the finish line by sheer force of will.

It wasn’t a performance at one level, it was an exercise in survival. One of the most exciting musical events of my life.

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