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Spree Music with J. DiDomizio: Return to Forever Review

Almost every seat was filled at UB’s Center for the Arts on Monday night. I sat in mine with a simple benediction my fellow attendees bestowed upon me before heading in: “I’m so jealous that you’re seeing these guys for the first time.” The double bill of Return to Forever and Zappa Plays Zappa is not a show you would have caught me at before, oh let’s say, last Friday. That’s when I was subject to a marathon session of audio research by fellow music aficionados, who gave me the same jaw-dropping eye-popping expression I’ve been known to give when I realize someone’s missing a huge piece of music knowledge.

I’ll admit that I don’t know much about jazz. I’ve dabbled here and there with some of the larger figures of the sound, but never put the time and patience into any further investigation. To take this a step further, Jazz Fusion is something I didn’t consider my palate ready for, even after digesting Miles Davis’ masterpiece, Bitches Brew. This weekend I had no choice but to embark into some challenging waters. Two drummers, a bassist, and a pianist got me plugged in and primed for what I was going to hear at the show. But no matter how many tracks from Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before I heard, or interviews with Frank Zappa’s former band members I watched, there was simply no way to be ready for what went down that night.

Zappa Plays Zappa, led by Zappa’s son Dweezil, played a tight and phenomenal set, which was astounding to experience. The crowd was into the show, cheering with each selection, and giving a long standing ovation at the end. The musicianship was amazing, and about halfway through their set I noticed how much fun the band was having and how at ease they were when playing difficult material. it appeared effortless. AS an audience member I had almost no energy left at the end of ZPZ’s set. It was a challenge to keep up with, and it was worth every second.

Then Return to Forever took the stage. The crowd took to its feet with cheers and clapping that put so many other shows to shame—and the musician's had yet to play a note. Living up to all the accolades I had heard, the fourth installment of RTF was majestic. Stanley Clark’s wild bass maneuvering stole the show by the end, but Chick Corea’s keyboards held it all together, while Lenny White’s incomparable drumming kept pushing forward. Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale were the new additions in this iteration, and even though their chemistry with the group wasn’t on the same level as the others, they fit in well, note for note. They made this music look as graceful as it sounded. The audience stood up at the end of almost every song, with the energy and love for this music reaching ecstatic heights by the end.

As RTF played a much more rock influenced selection for their closing track, the audience was on their feet again, and I was with them, clapping, cheering, and having the best time at a show that I’ve had in a while. Children and teens sat in the audience with their parents, I felt a lot like one of those kids that evening, possibly there for the first time too, learning a new way of listening that left me feeling fulfilled, tired, and grateful for the work.

Return to Forever will be touring the country through the end of September with Zappa plays Zappa. This was the second stop on the tour, which will conclude in Seattle, WA. Here is a rare cut of “Vulcan Worlds” from Return to Forever’s Where Have I Known You Before.

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