There have been many fantastic concerts in Western New York, and there will be more still in the coming weeks. But the highlight of the summer concert season from the perspective of musicianship took place Monday in UB's Center for the Arts, as jazz-prog legends Return to Forever joined with Frank Zappa repertory ensemble Zappa Plays Zappa.
Everyone else can sit down now. Your band may rock. Your tunes might be memorable and fun to hear live and loud. But you can't play like these guys.
Of course, that isn't the point. The best jazz and progressive music is never about showing off for its own sake. It's about employing skill and virtuosity as a springboard to take musicians and listeners alike to some place -- out there. And that's what happened with both ensembles Monday. The packed and enthused CFA crowd was wowed by first-rate musicians performing wonderfully, and often irreverently composed, tunes.
Led by the late composer Frank's son Dweezil, Zappa Plays Zappa -- guitarist Dweezil, second guitarist Jamie Kime, sax/flute/keyboard player and singer Schiela Gonzalez, drummer Joe Travers, bassist Pete Griffin, percussionist Billy Hulting and singer/trumpeter Ben Thomas -- offered a set that pulled liberally from several eras of the late Zappa's career, though it did concentrate on '70s material.
That wasn't a problem. This band has been the finest, most versatile and reliable repertory ensemble -- "tribute band," if you must -- in the country for several years now.
Monday's show posed no threat to that well-earned title, as the group arrived with an inspired reading of "Heavy Duty Judy," made a concession to Zappa's "hits" -- parenthetical, yes, because he never really had any -- with a hilarious but incredibly tight "Dancin' Fool," and then reminded everyone in attendance that Zappa's legacy as a composer of incredibly complex but oddly beautiful music will endure with a jaw-dropping run-through of "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?"
Dweezil took one of several "Frank"-esque solos during "Po-jama People," but part of what has made this band's development so awesome to behold has been the manner in which the players have made the music their own while simultaneously treating it with both respect and reverence.
The "Big Swifty" interplay drove this point home. By this point, each song was being sent on its way with a standing ovation from the crowd, and the players themselves appeared to be deeply moved by the reception. So an encore of a pair of tunes from Frank's "Hot Rats" album -- "Willie the Pimp" and "Peaches En Regalia" -- came as our reward.
An outstanding set, and a tough act to follow, even for legends like Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Jean-Luc Ponty, Lenny White and Frank Gambale. No worries, though -- RTF simply slayed us all with a lengthy set drawing from the earliest days and including material from the most recent effort, "Forever" -- a mostly trio-based record featuring beautiful new compositions performed by the trio of Corea, Clarke and White.
Return to Forever is a band generally considered to be a peer to the likes of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, and this makes sense, considering that the musicians in these bands all came from serious jazz backgrounds, and were eager to bring some of the urgency and energy of rock to their audiences. But make no mistake -- Corea and company play jazz. Serious chord changes took place, incredible improvised solos, and some daring real-time interplay marked the set from top to bottom.
The expansive "Medieval Overture," a playful but powerful "Senor Mouse," and a mind-melting blend of funk, jazz and prog in the form of "After the Cosmic Rain" comprised the majority of the first hour of the show, and all were played with considerable fire. Corea in particular appeared animated and way into it, leading the band with his facial gestures, his body movement, and his harmonic hints and cadences.
Interestingly, it was the band's take on Ponty's solo piece "Renaissance" that pulled the most searing and torrid improvisation out of the band members. Ponty and Clarke traded searing 16th-note figures, while guitarist Gambale offered a layer of legato, acoustic lines behind them. Drummer White played with a painterly air, adding color or taking it away at will, depending on the demands of the piece.
Return to Forever IV
Monday evening in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts, North Campus, Amherst.