Relaxing in his room at the Hilton Lyon, France, Lenny White is recuperating from a day of travel while munching on a room service hamburger. The occasion is Return To Forever IV, the current tour of the original RTF trio from 1970 featuring keyboardist Chick Corea and bassist Stanley Clarke, but now expanded to include violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Frank Gambale. Jetlagged or not, White eagerly discusses the recent release of the mostly acoustic Forever: Corea, Clarke & White, French fusion heads, and overcoming physical adversity.
I’ve been traveling all day from Kraków, Poland and then Paris before getting here in Lyon. The [Jazz À Vienne] is a famous jazz festival. It’s a big festival in a Roman amphitheater. It’s a beautiful setting. We played it in 2008, but it happens every year. Jazz is a fairly newer music but it’s very well accepted in Europe, maybe because it’s an import. Or maybe it’s because they just get it. They are very well versed in art and cultures of the whole world.
The difference with Return To Forever and all of the other so-called “jazz-rock” bands, maybe with the exception of Tony Williams’ live group, is the strong rhythm section. I’m being honest, for me, Return To Forever, the bass-organ-drums trio, is a rhythm section. It’s like a home, you know? And not discounting anybody that is put in front of us, but the heart of any group is the rhythm section, whether it’s John Bonham, John Paul Jones, and Jimmy Page, it’s still a rhythm section. This tour is some of the older Return To Forever music. We have a repertoire we play, but it’s a lot of tunes, and at the drop of a hat we could play new music any night.
Chick asked me to be a part of an “electric” Return To Forever in 1971, ’72. It was originally Airto [Moreira] and Flora Purim and Joe Farrell that played. And then, you know, I had played with Stanley [Clarke] with Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, and then we got together and played and it became something else. I don’t want to be misquoted: Return To Forever is a band. We did a tour after the 2008–2009 [festival] where we just went out as a trio and played and, you know, it’s really, really become a really safe space. Playing with those guys, it’s like riding a bike.
I have a spinal problem and it caused problems in my deltoid and bicep in my right shoulder and right arm to where I couldn’t pick up a stick. And I worked diligently to get to be able to do the 2008 tour. The beginning of the 2008 tour was very, very hard for me to complete a whole night of playing. But gradually it got better and better, and by the end of 2008, it was feeling fairly good. And I did the 2009 tour and it had still improved. And so now here I am in 2011 and I’m not 100 percent but with physical therapy and weight training and massage, I’ve managed to get to a point where I can play. I’ve had to have a totally different outlook, you know?
I think it’s a misnomer to call it fusion. My feeling is that it is jazz and it is rock. It’s both of those things. It’s jazz-rock. My roots, Chick’s roots, Stanley’s roots, are in jazz music, but we can play any setup that you want — an acoustic setting, or in a setting with different music. But just the fact that I can play with Stanley behind Jean-Luc Ponty, playing “Señor Mouse” [from 1972’s Hymn Of The Second Galaxy], which is a Chick Corea composition, is a testament to the fact that it’s something bigger, not musically myopic like it is now. And so, when people have a problem, saying, ‘Well what is it?’ you know, I think it’s because they’re trying to make it something that it’s not. It’s very simple: You listen to it and you know what it is.