Technique will get you a long way, but first you have to be a human.” — Lenny White
As one of the founding fathers of the musical movement that became known as “fusion,” Lenny White earned a worldwide reputation as the drummer in the mid-’70s supergroup Return to Forever. But as with many drummers, often overshadowed by the so-called “lead” players in their band, White’s legendary work with RTF, although important in the history of jazz, hardly represents the entirety of his musical contributions.
He first made a name for himself in Jamaica, Queens, NY, nearly a decade before wearing his trademark gaucho hat and YouTube-made-famous tuxedo t-shirt. White was still a teenager in 1967 when Jackie McLean asked the lanky left-hander to join his band. Within a year he had played on two of the most important fusion records ever made: Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay. In 1972, before joining RTF, White established his rock ‘n’ roll credentials in the Escovedo brothers’ Latin rock band Azteca.
After Return to Forever’s split in 1977, White proved his individual mettle by recording three critically-acclaimed jazz rock records on his own, contributing significantly to a new form of danceable jazz-funk that he describes as “progressive-pop.” His late-’70s bands, Best of Friends and Twennynine, are often cited as outstanding examples of a new transitional sound made famous by friends Earth, Wind & Fire.
White’s versatility attracted the attention of the finest jazz musicians, leading to collaborations with Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Gato Barbieri, Gil Evans, Stan Getz, Jaco Pastorius, Carlos Santana, and RTF band mates Stanley Clarke, Al Di Meola, and Chick Corea. Most notably, he worked with Corea on two straight-ahead jazz projects in the early 1980s, Griffith Park and the GRAMMY®-nominated Echoes of an Era with vocalist Chaka Khan (both produced by White). At the other end of the spectrum, White again teamed up with bassist Marcus Miller (who had played on his 1978 Streamline record) for the drum-and-bass-dominated Jamaica Boys and Spike Lee’s School Daze soundtrack.
Throughout the 1990s, White excelled as a composer and producer, effectively bringing all genres together on a number of solo projects. He also recorded and produced a number of records for the Hip-Bop record label.
With the coming of a new millennium, White, with help from guitarist Larry Coryell and bassist Victor Bailey, offered more proof of his success and influence in the world of jazz/rock fusion. Having begun by playing complicated jazz compositions in an energized rock ‘n’ roll vein with RTF, the group CBW (Coryell, Bailey and White) was defined more by its jazz interpretations of rock ‘n’ roll standards.
In the summer of 2008, as a dramatic completion to White’s living legend drum circle, he again joined Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Al Di Meola for a 30-years-in-the-making, highly successful Return to Forever reunion world tour. In May 2010, White released his 13th album, Anomaly, in conjunction with the Abstract Logix label.
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