Review Summary: A truly incredible achievement for jazz fusion, both on a technical and emotional level.
As Chick Corea’s premier fusion act Return to Forever became more of a band than a solo project, their virtuosity and progressive elements continued to increase. Some may argue that this lessened the charm and beauty of their work, but I strongly beg to differ. Perhaps it’s the prog nerd in me projecting, but the way the group could still maintain their composing prowess while strengthening their ensemble interplay was really gripping. Corea was still clearly at the helm, but he brought in the best players to flesh out his vision as a jazz fusion luminary. The true magic of the collective’s work was in how these musicians could work off each other and make something both emotionally resonant and musically abstruse. Thus, Romantic Warrior
plays out as a wonderful - if slightly flawed - melding of incredible technical feats and inner-band chemistry.
The song titles really give away the kind of vibe you get with this record, what with the imagery of warriors, sorceresses, and jesters that permeate the tracklisting. The album is entirely instrumental as you’d expect, but the music does a perfectly good job of communicating the subject matter without the worry of intrusive lyrics getting in the way. “Medieval Overture” immediately sets the tone with buoyant keyboards providing texture over some rock guitar and intricate drumming patterns; Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White are perfectly locked in to support the scene that Corea’s laying out before us. Such an approach is the basis for most of the record, as it bleeds into everything from the laid-back funk of “Sorceress,” to the beautiful acoustic explorations of the title track, to the quirky yet lightning-fast musicianship of “The Magician.” This isn’t to say that Corea is the only one given prominent solo time, as everyone gets plenty of time to shine; however, he’s the one who makes the pieces as bewitching and personality-driven as they are.
With that said, Romantic Warrior
wouldn’t be what it is if not anchored by some of the most legendary musicians of the 70s fusion era of jazz. What’s really neat about the album is that every member gets his own respective piece credited to him, and you can really tell whose stamp is on which song. Corea has the two bookending tracks as well as the expansive title track, while White uses “Sorceress” to flex his drumming chops with a fun off-kilter take on classic funk rhythms. Di Meola penned “Majestic Dance,” a more straightforward rock piece with plenty of wailing guitar solos throughout, while Clarke absolutely tears apart his bass on the exceedingly technical “The Magician.” And as stated before, the personality
is never lost in any of these tunes. For instance, despite how complex and intricate “The Magician” is, it somehow manages to work in some beautifully pastoral moments led by Corea’s whimsical keyboard work, as well as a triumphant melody you’d swear was ripped straight out of a Final Fantasy
victory theme (if that franchise didn’t start a decade later, that is).
The only moments of weakness in Romantic Warrior
lie in the sections in which the technical parts are perhaps a bit too
intrusive. “Majestic Dance” is the biggest culprit here; you’ll be enjoying Di Meola’s fantastic guitar work, only to be taken out of the moment when Corea’s irritating clavinet parts ruin the flow. This doesn’t derail the entire tune, but it definitely threatens to. “The Magician,” for all the praise I’ve given it, could have also benefited from a bit more focus. The song plays out more like a series of separate fragments than a fully-realized piece; it’s just that those individual sections are great enough to make up for it. As a result, though, Corea’s songs are definitely the highlights here. The title track is the clear centerpiece of the entire album, as every member gets a perfect chance to shine with their respective instruments. The relaxing atmosphere just makes the experience even more alluring, something that I can also extend to the epic final track “Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant.” Every time the song gets a little too tense, that smooth synth motif always brings it all back together and you feel centered once again with the music.
It’s hard to determine whether Romantic Warrior
is Return to Forever’s best album - they have a stellar catalogue, after all - but at the very least, it’s certainly one of them. The fact that such a technically demanding record didn’t get derailed by overt self-indulgence is quite impressive, and the beauty and charm of the pieces is preserved wonderfully as a result. Chick Corea has a lot to be proud of here and with Return to Forever in general (as well as solo work, collaborations, Elektric Band, etc. etc.), both as a composer and an phenomenal musician. And while he may not be with us anymore, we can at least look back at the amazing body of work he’s left behind and marvel at how we got such a brilliant musical mind in this lifetime.
R.I.P. Chick Corea (June 12, 1941 – February 9, 2021)