Prospective buyers should know from the jump that Concord's two-disc Return to Forever retrospective is not complete. It only concerns itself with the era between 1973-1976, when Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White added an electric guitarist to the mix. Of the four recordings represented here -- Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (1973); Where Have I Known You Before (1974); No Mystery (1975),and "Romantic Warrior" (1976) -- only the first and last are presented in their entirety. They are considered critically as the beginning and ends of the "classic" RTF sound. The middle two albums were reissued in a single package from BGO. Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy is a (maybe the) quintessential jazz-rock fusion album; in many ways it sounds less dated than any RTF record that followed it. First it's the only one of the band's records that really took rock seriously as a place for jazz to jump from. The other three used improvisation, classical composition, and funk more formally, leaving only the volume and the dramatic dynamics from the rock aesthetic. Guitarist Bill Connors was the first RTF guitarist and appeared only here: he walked the jazz-rock path beautifully, and enjoyed some of the more theatrical guitar hero aspects of the former. Finally, this album appeared during the same seminal year as Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters, Weather Report's Sweetnighter, Miles Davis' Big Fun, and Mahavishnu Orchestra's Between Nothingness & Eternity. It's there in the opening title track: White's funky breaks contrast sharply with the three-person front line playing knotty lines in unison. Connors' solo is over the top and Hendrixian in its freedom.Clarke's solos -- particularly in "Captain Señor Mouse" -- are just unhinged. Corea's compositions and White's crackling rimshot funkiness offer a sound unlike any other in the fusion era and is still startling today.
That said, there is no argument that Al DiMeola was the premier RTF guitarist; he developed his own identity along with the group's. The end of disc one contains four cuts from Where Have I Known You Before, DiMeola's debut with RTF. They include the dreamy funk-rock of "Vulcan Worlds" and the suite-length "Song to the Pharaoh Kings," with perhaps the cheesiest -- and hippest -- synth phrases of Corea's career. The change in dynamic is evident right from the jump. DiMeola was a more creative, full-partner collaborator in the band's emerging sound. His own showmanlike intensity is ever-present, as is his deep love of Latin and flamenco, which is on display from the very start. Clarke's "Dayride" is one of four selections from No Mystery. It's all big funk with killer slap lines from the bassist, DiMeola, and Corea, with White breaking all over the place. In addition, White's futuristic, sci-fi jam "Sofistifunk" is here. These are both killer cuts expressing one dimension of the band's character beautifully. It is balanced by the sprawling neo-classical fusion workout "Celebration Suite, Pts. 1 & 2" by Corea, and the title track. "Romantic Warrior" is a conceptual offering in a sense; it wouldn't have made sense to break it up. It is considered by many as the most important record RTF ever cut, and their most collaborative since every member wrote some part of this interlocking musical suite. That said, while the technology here is most advanced for its time, it may also be the very element that dates this recording a bit in the end. It's no less enjoyable, but is so synthetic, so knotty and technical, that the grooves suffer in places. Ultimately, this set is completely satisfying, it sounds great, looks good, and Bob Belden's liner notes are, as usual, superb.