Monday, July 27, 2009

Bill Connors | Defining Jazz-Rock Guitar In Return To Forever



Like every teenaged guitar player of his generation, Bill Connors grew up listening to Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. By his own admission he was a ‘Rolling Stones glutton', and was soon learning every Keith Richards solo note for note.

His musical tastes soon evolved and he began listening to jazz -- Miles Davis, Bill Evans and John Coltrane became a preoccupation. A momentous epiphany came when he happened to hear one of Django Reinhardt’s recordings. At that point he decided he didn’t want to be a rock guitarist anymore.

Starting out his music career in the San Francisco jazz scene in his early 20’s, Connors was soon playing in groups with bassist Steve Swallow and saxophonist John Handy.

And when Chick Corea decided to steer his group Return To Forever towards a decidedly electric jazz-rock direction, he chose 24-year old Bill Connors for the incendiary role of lead guitarist. Connors recorded one album with the group, the groundbreaking Hymn Of The Seventh Galaxy.

Citing creative differences with his bandleader, Connors remained with Return To Forever for only about a year. With Chick starting to direct Connors more and more, the young guitarist felt that he no longer had any control in the music -- even over the form and direction of his solos. A committed Scientologist, Corea was also in the habit of requiring the members of his band to fill out forms and chart out graphs to rate their own performances every night.

In many ways, Bill Connors has not received his due. His forays into classical guitar on the ECM label following his departure from Return To Forever and his subsequent return to electric fusion with his own Bill Connors Trio in the late 80’s somehow did not bring him the recognition he deserved.

Stanley Clarke once stated, “When you talk to guitar players that followed the jazz-rock movement, a lot of guys mention John McLaughlin first and Bill Connors second”.

I couldn’t agree more. In my opinion, Connors paved the way for his successor, Al DiMeola, in Return To Forever. Connors created a sound in the band where none existed before. In the process, he helped further define the role of the electric guitar in the world of jazz-rock and fusion.

Perhaps when Connors reunites with his former bandmates Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White on 2nd September 2009 for one show at the Hollywood Bowl things might start looking up.




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