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(Above: Return to Forever rock Stanley Clarke’s “School Days” to close their performance at the Midland Theater in Kansas City, Mo.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Stanley Clarke announced to an excited Midland Theater crowd that this latest version of Return to Forever wasn’t like all those other reunion bands who declare that a tour was their last time around. Rather, the bass player said, Return to Forever were just turning a new page.

Keyboardist Chick Corea has reconvened his famous Return to Forever groups several times since the band’s 1970s heydays. The current incarnation –- dubbed Return to Forever IV -– comprises Corea, Clarke and drummer Lenny White with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale on guitar.Clarke’s comment may have seemed an odd way to describe a two-hour repertoire was at least 30, and sometimes nearly 40, years old, but while the tones and textures of the original recordings remained unchanged, it was obvious the musicians were having fun exploring this music in a new context.
The quintet’s massive sound easily filled the big room. Playing at rock-show volume they opened with “Medieval Overture,” the first of three songs pulled from their classic “Romantic Warrior” album. White’s drums and Corea’s keys were pristine throughout the night, but it took a couple songs before Clarke and Ponty got the prominence in the mix they deserved.The telepathy Corea, Clarke and White have developed playing together over the decades were obvious from the first notes. While they were far from ringers, it seemed to take Ponty and Gambale a moment to insert their voices in the conversation, although the mix may have contributed to this as well.

Once the sound and musicians adjusted the already-nimble music hit warp speed. Ponty had already soloed before sounding off of Corea’s piano during the snippet of “The Shadow of Lo” that prefaced “Sorceress,” but in that moment he established his presence.

Ponty dominated the next number, a reading of his 1975 composition “Renaissance.” The first completely acoustic number of the night, it demonstrated the ensemble was still just as powerful in the quieter setting.

On “Romantic Warrior,” the other unplugged number, Clarke essentially turned his upright into a massive drum by slapping the neck with alternating hands. Although everyone took impressive solos, Clarke and Ponty’s seemed to generate the most applause throughout the evening.

The night ended with a celebratory romp through Clarke’s “School Days” with Clarke and Gambale standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the front of the stage strutting and strumming like rock stars.

Zappa Plays Zappa: Pairing RTF’s progressive jazz with Zappa’s progressive whatever-it-is was inspired. Dweezil Zappa led an eight-piece band through a one-hour exploration of his father’s catalog. The arrangements were faithful enough to the original recordings to satisfy Zappa’s rabid following, but managed to include several delightful surprises as well. Corea joined the group for “King Kong.” The set also included “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” “Big Swifty” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”

RTF Setlist: Medieval Overture; Captain Senor Mouse; The Shadow of Lo (excerpt) > Sorceress; Renaissance; After the Cosmic Rain; Romantic Warrior; Spain. Encore: School Days.

Keep reading:

Jeff Beck relishes “Commotion”

Open wide for Mouth

Fifteen Jazz Greats to Emerge in the Last 20 Years

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(Above: “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” was Charles Mingus’ tribute to Lester Young. It has been a regular part of Jeff Beck’s performances for the past 30 years.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The guitarist’s guitarist, Jeff Beck has a long and varied career. Here are some of the high points from each of the genres he’s worked in.

Blues

“Ultimate Yardbirds” (2001)

The song “For Your Love” brought the Yardbirds their first big hit, but it cost them their guitarist. When Eric Clapton quit the group for abandoning their blues roots, Jeff Beck was recruited. Beck’s tenure in the Yardbirds bridged the early rave-up blues era and the later psychedelic rock phase. For a brief period, he was joined by Jimmy Page on bass and, later, second guitar. Shortly after the Beck-Page incarnation appeared in the film “Blow Up,” Beck left the band and started his solo career. He has, however, participated on several of the Yardbirds’ reunion albums.

Note: The Yardbirds’ catalog was a frustrating mess of reissues and piecemeal compilations until Rhino released the two-disc anthology “Ultimate Yardbirds.” The collection contains every A-side, key album tracks and a handful of rarities across all three eras of the band.

Hard rock

“Truth” (1968), “Beck-Ola” (1969)

As a nonvocalist, Beck has always had to hunt for a singer. When assembling his first post-Yardbirds project, he nabbed a little-known English R&B singer Rod “The Mod” Stewart. He also recruited Ronnie Wood to play bass. The trio — joined by a rotating cast of drummers — made two albums together before Stewart and Wood left to join the Faces. Both records have a similar feel to the heavy blues/rock Beck’s former bandmate Jimmy Page was making with Led Zeppelin.

Progressive rock

“Beck Bogert Appice,” “Live in Japan” (both 1973)

After the demise of the Jeff Beck Group’s second lineup, Beck teamed up with the rhythm section from Vanilla Fudge, drummer Carmen Appice and bass player Tim Bogert. While the studio album was a typical slab of power trio hard rock, the band expanded its template on the live album, stretching several songs to the 10-minute mark. Both albums contain Beck’s version of “Superstition,” the song Stevie Wonder wrote with Beck in mind, before Wonder’s manager persuaded him to keep it for himself.

Jazz/fusion

“Blow by Blow” (1975), “Wired” (1976)

Beck teamed with producer George Martin for his first all-instrumental solo projects. Asthetically, the albums fit comfortably alongside Chick Corea’s “Return to Forever” and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. “Blow by Blow” contains two Stevie Wonder covers and a version of the Beatles’ “She’s a Woman.” “Wired” contains some outtakes from the “Blow by Blow” sessions and a cover of Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” that has become a concert staple. The drummer on “Wired,” Narada Michael Walden, is in Beck’s current touring band.

Pop

“Flash” (1985)

After a five-year recess, Beck returned with Nile Rodgers of Chic. “Flash” was Beck’s bid for mainstream credibility and featured eight singers across its 11 tracks. The album won a Grammy and reunited Beck with Stewart on Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”

Rockabilly

“Crazy Legs” (1993)

The guitar sound on “B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go” and other early Gene Vincent singles had a big effect on Beck as a teenager. In the early ’90s he paired with the Big Town Playboys to pay tribute to Cliff Gallup, Vincent’s guitar player.

Techno

“Who Else!” (1999), “You Had It Coming” (2001)

Longtime fans were surprised when Beck embraced the samples and looping techniques made popular by the Chemical Brothers and Aphex Twins. “You Had It Coming” finds Beck sparring with guitarist Jennifer Batten and features an update of Muddy Waters’ “Rolling and Tumbling” with Imogen Heap on vocals.

Guest Appearances

Jeff Beck has popped up in some unlikely places over the years. Here are some of his most noteworthy performances on others’ albums.

  • Stevie Wonder – “Talking Book” on the song “Lookin’ For Another Pure Love”
  • Tina Turner – “Private Dancer” on the song “Private Dancer”
  • Mick Jagger – “She’s the Boss” and “Primitive Cool”
  • Roger Waters – “Amused to Death”
  • Jon Bon Jovi – “Blaze of Glory – Young Guns II” soundtrack
  • Hans Zimmer – “Days of Thunder” soundtrack
  • Buddy Guy – “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues” on the song “Mustang Sally”
  • The Pretenders – “Viva el Amor!” on the song “Legalise Me”
  • Toots and the Maytals – “True Love” on the song “54-46 Was My Number”
  • Cyndi Lauper – “The Body Acoustic” on the song “Above the Clouds”
  • Morrissey – “Years of Refusal” on the song “Black Cloud”

Keep Reading:

Jeff Beck relishes “Commotion”

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(Above: Ornette Coleman jams with the Roots. Improbably, people respond positively to the non-traditional collaboration.)

By Joel Francis

In 1958, Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.” Although the genre was only seven years removed from the its birth on the “Rocket 88” single and three years from its explosion into the mainstream with Elvis Presley, Danny White was right. Sixty years later, it is hard to imagine American culture without rock and roll.

It is also hard to imagine what the malt-shop teens and leather jacket hoods of the Eisenhower administration would have thought about auto-tune, power pop and nu-metal. Although the seeds of today’s rock were planted in the 1950s, the resulting flora has blossomed into hybrids that bear little resemblance to the original crop.

Picture how different today’s musical landscape would be if anything that varied from the pre-British Invasion strains of rock and roll were bastardized. If songs bearing the touch of John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were decried as impure for straying from the “true” roots of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.  Or if anything after the summer of punk and the rise of synthesizers was kept at arm’s length and segregated from the great Rock Cannon.

Would we expect our children to dig out old Bill Haley and Beach Boys albums if this were the case? Teach them “Fun Fun Fun” and “Maybelline” as historical exercises? Of course not. They would shrug, pay us lip service and invent their own confounding strain of music. The ties to existing music would be obvious – nothing emerges in a vacuum – but nothing we couldn’t dismiss as the impure follies of youth.

Why, then, do we place the same parameters around jazz and feign surprise with then inevitable occurs?

It seems every year a new study comes out showing the median age of jazz listeners climbs while attendance drops. The latest is a National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted through the U.S. Census Bureau. Predictably, the self-appointed Guardians of Jazz like Wall Street Journal columnist and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout are freaking out. But all this hand-wringing is like an ordinary bicycle enthusiast fretting while the chain-driven model populates the streets. The vehicle is still very much alive, it’s just been modified and influenced by culture.

Too many jazz museums and concert curators suffer from WWWS: What would Wynton say. Would Wynton Marsails, the genre’s most prominent performer and steadfast caretaker, approve of their exhibit or event? While Marsalis is a talent trumpet player who deserves every bit of his fame and credit for bringing jazz to the masses, he is conservative and traditionalist to a fault. Museum directors and concert promoters should be following their own muse and vision, not looking to someone as restrictive as Marsalis for tacit endorsement.

The growth of jazz from Dixieland to big band to bebop is celebrated, but somewhere along the line – about 1965, shortly before John Coltrane’s death, when free jazz and fusion started to creep into the mix – a line was drawn. In shorthand, acoustic Herbie Hancock playing with Miles Davis and recording for Blue Note is “good” jazz; synthesizer-rocking Hancock’s best-selling “Head Hunters,” though, is “bad.”

If directors and promoters must get the thumbs-up from a Marsalis, could it please be Branford? Although a lesser celebrity, the tenor saxophone player and older brother of Wynton has equally distinguished jazz pedigree. He’s also allowed jazz to grow, branching into pop with Sting, serving as musical director for the Tonight Show and working with hip hop artists.

If the stodgy stylistic caretakers turned up their noses when jazz artists, the highest pedigree of musicians, started dabbling in rock and funk, they have completely ignored most jazz performers slumming with rappers in a genre oft-maligned for possessing the lowest level of musicianship.

The elitists are missing the point. At their best, jazz and hip hop are better together than chocolate and peanut better. The improvisational aspect of jazz fits the free-flowing poetry delivered by a great MC. The swing of the instruments matches the swagger of the beats. Dig the way DJ Logic’s turntable work complements Medeski, Martin and Wood’s “Combustication” album, how Mos Def and Q-Tip’s rhymes soar over Ron Carter’s live basslines, or how Roy Hargrove’s trumpet pushes and accentuates Common’s poetry.

Teachout and Wynton Marsalis’ simplified stances ignore the long history of jazz in popular culture. The enduring standard “Someday My Prince Will Come,” was plucked from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although both Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong released albums of Disney material, it is doubtful Wynton Marsalis would record a song from a children’s cartoon.

The Chicken Little jazz forecasts don’t show that jazz is less popular or interesting today. The news they bring is even more disturbing: hard evidence that the standard-bearers of the genre are increasing ignorant to how their beloved music has grown, changed and been embraced. They’re the ones missing the party, but don’t worry – their numbers are dwindling.

(Below: More Ornette Coleman with the Roots for all the alarmists. Note how well the musicians play together despite being from the disparate worlds of jazz and hip hop. Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse.)

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