The 1979s fusion jazz group Weather Report was at its creative peak with its popular "Birdland" album. Band members at that time: Joe Zawinul, left, Jaco Pastorius, Alex Acuña, Wayne Shorter and Manolo Badrena.
Forecast is sunny for Weather Report
For me, one band stood out during the heydey of fusion jazz in the 1970s. Weather Report was one of the few groups that didn't depend on the power of rock to get its point across. That's due to its two creators and mainstays, keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Zawinul, an Austrian native, spent nine years with the Cannonball Adderley band, and wrote its funk-soul classic "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." Shorter was a member of one of Miles Davis' better lineups and had recruited some equally forward-thinking musicians for Davis' "In a Silent Way" recording sessions, making music that would herald the transition from acoustic post-bop to electric fusion.
An overdue box set of Weather Report's innovative music is out now, 20 years after the band's disbandment. Zawinul and Shorter helped co-produce this three-CD set that includes an invaluable DVD that contains a German concert from 1978, featuring the young and fiery rhythm section of a couple of then-wunderkinds, bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Peter Erskine.
More on that later. The first two CDs contain the tracks that made the band a joy to hear. We get to re-evaluate "Eurydice" (a fine example of the chemistry of Weather Report's first lineup, which included the Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Alphonse Mouzon) and how the band really took off, with the switch to the unheralded Eric Gravatt behind the drum kit. You can hear how the band grew in confidence over four consecutive tracks on the first disc: A previously unreleased take of Zawinul's "Directions," an amazing "Surucucú," recorded live in Tokyo '72, the expansive sound palette on "Second Sunday in August" that hinted at the future sound of WR, and "125th Street Congress."
That particular track, and the album it was on, "Sweetnighter," was my introduction to the band in '73. Its organic funkiness was a precursor to hip-hop, and it's still incredible to listen to. (A short remix of the track by DJ Logic is tagged on at the end of the third disc, adding a vocal track and scratching.)
The combination of Zawinul's panethnic and synthesized approach with Shorter's solid jazz work on tenor and soprano saxes is heard in full blossom on disc two. The two always got the best out of their rhythm sections -- check out the fiery soundboard recording of "Mysterious Traveller" from a Chicago concert and the Eastern-flavored "Badia."
"Forecast: Tomorrow" is a just-released retrospective album of the band's work.
With the addition of the fluid-fingered Miami bassist Pastorius, however, Weather Report hit its peak of popularity. Himself a solid composer, Pastorius was part-and-parcel of the crossover "Heavy Weather" hit album of 1976. His Afro-Caribbean styled "Havona" is heard here, plus two of the album's strongest tracks, Shorter's Latin jazz tribute "Palladium" and, of course, Zawinul's "Birdland," buoyed with interlocking voices and made a hit again years later by the Manhattan Transfer.
Erskine, hot off his tenure with Maynard Ferguson's big band, was such a solid drummer that percussionists were no longer part of the Weather Report sound. The band would continue its hot streak as a burning quartet. We hear some of that in "Sightseeing" and in two versions of "The Pursuit of the Woman With the Feathered Hat," in its original studio version and in performance on the DVD.
Playing before an attentive German audience, it's great to see this band firing on all cylinders, playing expanded versions of such WR favorites not included on the CDs, like the space-age/ambient "Scarlet Woman," the lyrical Zawinul/Shorter duet on "A Remark You Made" and the mutant disco of Pastorius' "River People."
We also get to see each member's solo showcases, highlighted by Pastorius' "Portrait of Tracy" that suddenly switches to heavy distortion and overdriven harmonics on his wildly inventive take on Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone from the Sun."
The final CD is welcome for its reconsideration of the reformed '82 lineup that included rhythmmates Victor Bailey and Omar Hakim. There are three selections from that band's best recorded effort, "Domino Theory," including the standout track "D-Flat Waltz."
And while Weather Report is no more, it's good to say that Zawinul and Shorter are still making relevant music.