In-Depth: The Genius of Weather Report

In our latest in-depth feature, author Stuart Nicholson takes a look back at the remarkable career of Weather Report to coincide with the CD/DVD releases of the second in a trilogy of classic live concerts to mark the 40th anniversary of the band. Click on the following links to read previous in-depth features: The Cult of Nic Jones, Legend of The Watersons and Mary Gauthier in Song.

The recorded legacy of the band Weather Report, formed in 1971 and wound-up in 1985, represents one of the most significant bodies of work in post-1960s jazz. All of their albums charted in the top 200 in the USA and during their lifetime they played to packed clubs, concert halls and stadiums, headlining at jazz festivals around the world. The group, usually a quintet, was essentially a collaboration between keyboard player Joe Zawinul from Vienna and saxophonist Wayne Shorter from Newark, New Jersey, plus a revolving cast of bassists, drummers and percussionists. They emerged in an era when jazz went electric, cranking up the volume with powerful amplifiers and massive speakers and adopting the tone colours of rock music – electric instrumentation – and rock-inspired rhythms. Of all the bands that came to prominence during this period, Weather Report’s individualism stood out, “We play our brand of music,” Zawinul once asserted, “Nobody plays tunes like we play,” (Black Music & Jazz Review, June 1978) and he was right.

Weather Report (photo © WDR/Becker)

Though it has been decades since they made their last album, they still sound forward-looking and contemporary. Often described as a ‘jazz-rock’ or even a ‘fusion’ band, with the passage of time it is now clear they were sui generis since their stylistic outlook was extremely broad. Not only did they achieve a successful integration of improvised lines within pre-written parts and adapted well to the possibilities offered by the new electronic technology to create a fresh and vital context for jazz improvisation, but they also created a large body of compositions that outside of Duke Ellington, numbers among the most diverse and imaginative in jazz. Their range extended from classical influences (such as the French Impressionists) to free jazz, from world music to bebop, from big band music to chamber music, from collective improvisation to tightly written formal structures, from modal vamps to elaborately conceived harmonic forms, from structures with no apparent metre to straight ahead swing and from programmatic pieces to total abstraction. They recorded with a children’s choir and experimented with Musique Concrète (pre-recorded sounds), such as the stunning intro to Scarlet Woman on their album 8:30. By any standards this was a band with a remarkably broad range and any success they enjoyed was achieved on their own terms.

Weather Report made sixteen albums for the Columbia label, with 1977’s Heavy Weather their most successful, reaching 30 on the Billboard chart. With initial sales of over 500,000 the album quickly went gold and critical acclaim was unanimous, Downbeat awarded the album five stars and its readers voted it ‘Album of the Year’, with Zawinul’s composition Birdland receiving a Grammy nomination as ‘Best Instrumental Composition’. Columbia also put out additional material by the band on a somewhat piecemeal basis. In 1979, several live tracks recorded in March 1979 at the Karl Marx Theatre in Havana were included on two volumes of Havana Jam while Live And Unreleased from 2002 – a two CD set of previously unreleased live material from 1975-1983 – and the box set anthology Forecast: Tomorrow from 2006 that included two unreleased alternative takes, represent everything Columbia has so far put out by the band.

So, when news broke of three sensational concerts from the 1970s and 1980s being released by the Zawinul Estate to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the formation of the band, it caused a ripple of excitement through the jazz world. The first album, Live In Berlin 1975, was released in March 2011 and reviewed on this blog. Taken from German television broadcast tapes of the band’s performance at the Jazztage festival in Berlin on 6th November 1975, it shows the direction of musical travel the band were going, between two key Columbia albums: Mysterious Traveller (1974) and Tale Spinnin’ (1975). The second previously unreleased album (Live In Offenbach 1978), which came out on 20th June 2011, was recorded in Germany on 29th September 1978 at a time when the band were cashing-in on the huge success of Heavy Weather. Both albums reveal how much looser the band was in live performance in contrast to their meticulously crafted studio recordings. Taken together they give us a chance to reconsider afresh one of the most consistently challenging and inventive ensembles in any genre of music of the last four decades.

'Live In Berlin 1975' 'Live In Offenbach 1978'

In 1970, Joe Zawinul was pianist in saxophonist Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley’s band, whom he had joined in 1961 after stints with the Maynard Ferguson big band and as an accompanist for vocalist Dinah Washington (he can be heard on Washington’s classic What A Diff’rence A Day Made). By the time he decided to leave Adderley in December that year he had already supplied the saxophonist with the biggest hit of his career – Mercy, Mercy, Mercy from 1967 – and a series of popular originals featured on various albums of the period. However, earlier in 1970, Zawinul had recorded an album under his own name called Zawinul for the Atlantic label with a line-up that included bassist Miroslav Vitous and saxophonist Wayne Shorter and it was to these musicians he now turned with the idea of forming a new band. Wayne Shorter had established a reputation as perhaps the finest post-John Coltrane saxophonist of his generation during lengthy associations with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis, while the Czechoslovakian Miroslav Vitous, who had recently escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, had impressed on the Chick Corea album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, deputised in the Miles Davis band and on his own 1969 album Infinite Search suggested he was a musician to watch.

Wayne Shorter - Offenbach 1978 (photo © WDR/Becker)

After much discussion they decided to call themselves Weather Report, “It’s Weather Report because that would allow us to change, just like the Weather so the scope is limitless, as the title suggests,” explained Zawinul (Black Music & Jazz Review, June 1978). However, he now admits that when the band came together they were not at all organised with, effectively, three leaders; there was no game plan, no master strategy other than rehearse, “We had a rehearsal and we did an album right after we were formed,” said Alphonse Mouzon, who was briefly their drummer at this time. “Then we had more rehearsals, and some more rehearsals – all we ever did was rehearse! We didn’t do very many gigs.” (Black Music & Jazz Review, November 1975)

'Weather Report'The band’s first album was an all acoustic affair recorded over three days in March 1971 and when Weather Report was released in mid-May it was to a certain amount of showbiz brouhaha from the Columbia press department and a lengthy encomium on the album sleeve from Columbia chief executive Clive Davis. Described by Zawinul as “a soundtrack for the imagination”, it was awarded a five star rating by Downbeat magazine and went on to win the ‘Jazz Album of the Year’ category in the magazine’s annual end of year poll. Although it only reached 191 on the Billboard chart, Weather Report was earmarked as a band of the future.

During their first year Weather Report did not work much in the USA, touring Europe and in January 1972 touring Japan, where their album had won the ‘Album of the Year’ and ‘Band of the Year’ awards from Swing Journal. By then Mouzon had departed and his replacement was Eric Gravatt from Philadelphia, an erudite and intellectual drummer who remains a favourite among many Weather Report fans. The band sold out concerts in Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo and the strength of enthusiasm that greeted them came as a surprise to Zawinul. 'Live In Tokyo'On 13th January, Columbia recorded their concert at the Shibuya Philharmonic Hall in Tokyo which produced two albums, the first, Live In Tokyo was originally intended for Japanese release. With Zawinul now playing electric piano with a flanger (a distortion device), the direction of the band had changed to intense, electro-acoustic free music; a player might carry the melody briefly and those around him would respond in highly interactive ways, fragments of melody might come from either Shorter, Zawinul or Vitous – the soloist/ accompanist roles of bop were abandoned completely – and on some pieces there was little distinction between the melody carrier and the accompanist. This was music where the elements of storytelling (the soloist), architecture (chord sequence), resolution (form and structure) are largely replaced by a field of intensity built up through collective interaction. When, in the liner notes to their first album, Zawinul said, “We always solo and we never solo”, this is what he meant.

An edited version of the Tokyo concert comprised side two of I Sing The Body Electric for the US and worldwide markets. Side one, a series of ambitious studio recordings made prior to the Japanese tour opens with the programmatic piece Unknown Soldier that would subsequently be expanded and orchestrated for symphony orchestra on Zawinul’s 1995 symphony, Stories Of The Danube. It said much for the experimental nature of Weather Report at this time that a major recording company got behind their recordings; indeed, it is difficult to imagine any major recording company actively marketing such bold, serious, contemporary experimentation today. Remarkably, this uncompromising music actually figured on the Billboard chart at 147.

However, bold spontaneous interaction was not how Zawinul envisaged it for the future of the group, realising that in relying on spontaneity and creative impulse, the group were hostages to fortune, “Sometimes we were very creative, sometimes very creative,” he asserted, “but often it would happen that if we were not totally on, absolutely nothing! I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to search, the composition’s got to be there. On the second album there was more structure. In the beginning let’s say Weather Report was a joint thing. Then, after the second album there’s no question about it, it became more and more my group. Wayne wanted it like that, but we were always ‘partners in crime’. No Wayne, no Weather Report.” (Interview with author, October 1996)

'Sweetnighter'This change in direction can be heard on Sweetnighter, recorded in early February 1973. Here Zawinul asserts greater structural control over the compositions – indeed, half the compositions are his including Boogie Woogie Waltz, the first track on the album and crucial for airplay. He also became involved in arranging compositions from other members of the band, including Shorter. This new direction for Weather Report is today remembered for two Zawinul compositions, the opening track Boogie Woogie Waltz and 125th Street Congress, both of which have been extensively sampled by DJs.

Sweetnighter was also the first album on which Zawinul used a synthesiser, but he avoided obvious electronic effects. Instead, he sought ‘natural’ sounds with an ‘acoustic’ resonance. Not only were Zawinul and Shorter thoroughly arresting soloists in their own right, but they were forward looking and original composers who sought to expand the group’s dynamic range using the new electronic technology. However, when their next album Mysterious Traveller came out in 1974, the absence of Miroslav Vitous in the subsequent tour line-up was something of a surprise for fans. 'Mysterious Traveller'Clearly something unexpected had happened. “Mysterious Traveller was the point where we had to let Miroslav go,” explained Zawinul. “We needed a fundamental bass player with imagination, a bass player who holds the band together. A band has to have bottom and he didn’t have that – he should have been a guitar player. He could play, believe me, he’s helluva musician, but he didn’t have what I call a bass concept” (Interview with author, October 1996). Vitous’s replacement was Alphonso Johnson, who had previously played with Woody Herman and the Chuck Mangione group. Zawinul’s composition Nubian Sundance opened the new album, a joyous celebration that signalled Weather Report had redefined themselves once again.

By now Zawinul was using two Arp 2600 synthesisers, a moog synthesiser and a Fender-Rhodes piano with a phase shifter, echoplex and wah-wah pedal. He had also moved from New York to the more congenial climate of the West Coast and into a house overlooking the Rose Bowl. In musical terms this relocation meant a new recording studio in Devonshire Sound in North Hollywood and with sound engineer Ron Malo he began exploring the possibilities on offer. As a whole, Mysterious Traveller realised, perhaps more than its predecessors, the potential offered using the studio-as-laboratory to explore the tonal possibilities offered by the synthesiser’s wide dynamic range in combination with other electronic and acoustic instruments. Here was a seemingly limitless range of musical colours and textures, a theme that would be expanded on in future albums.

Tale Spinnin'By 1975, the group continued to be unsettled. Since Gravatt’s departure, problems had primarily centred around the drum chair, “It’s very difficult with words to explain,” said Zawinul, “but there are very few guys in the world I like playing drums. What I didn’t like was that they didn’t have form, their stuff moves around all the time and I never liked that. You have to have form; the drums are as important as any other instrument” (Interview with author, October 1996). When Ishmael Wilburn left he was replaced by 21-year-old Darryl Brown, who later became a surgeon. For 1975’s Tale Spinnin’, Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancler, still a member of Carlos Santana’s band, stepped in on drums (he never toured with the band) and with virtually no preparation performed flawlessly in the recording studio – quite an achievement since Weather Report were then the most challenging and creative group in jazz. It was an album that consciously moved towards sunny climes; the opening track, Man In The Green Shirt, an impressionistic boogie named after an old man whom Zawinul had seen dancing in the Virgin Islands, incorporated the conventional concept of soloist-and-rhythm, but using subtle layers of complexity interacting beneath a slow moving melody line. Since Sweetnighter, this return to specific, quantifiable musical structures had gradually been gathering momentum. Yet today, Tale Spinnin’ sounds uncharacteristically light, both in tone and texture, but taken in context with Weather Report’s evolution on disc, it appears more as a precursor to the artistically and aesthetically satisfying period that was about to follow, a period that consolidated the band’s move towards bold new ad hoc song forms and structures.

Weather Report 1975 When the band went on the road, it was with Chester Thompson on drums and the rhythm section now appeared settled. Weather Report: Live In Berlin 1975 presents a valuable picture of this transitional stage of the band’s development. Recorded at the Philharmonie in Berlin, the release contains both DVD and CD recordings of the event. Here, live versions of classic Weather Report staples of the period, Mysterious Traveller and Badia/Boogie Woogie Waltz, are presented alongside Freezing Fire and Scarlet Woman, all opened up with extended solos. Here, the significance of electric bassist Alphonso Johnson in Zawinul’s reimagining of Weather Report after the departure of Miroslav Vitous, becomes clear through the funky underpin he provided the band.

Mysterious Traveller from Live In Berlin 1975 (Art of Groove MIG 80020)

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In 1976 Alphonso Johnson decided to leave, allowing virtuoso electric bassist Jaco Pastorius to join the band, which occurred in the middle of recording Black Market. 'Black Market'Despite personnel comings and goings, the album remains a remarkably well integrated statement, the title track, for example, numbering among the band’s most memorable performances and cited by Zawinul as the single song that best represented what Weather Report meant to him. A pre-recorded prelude (Musique Concrète) leads into a vamp of gathering intensity, a prologue to Pastorius’s bass ostinato that functions as a fanfare to announce the entry of Shorter’s saxophone. It was guaranteed to bring a huge roar from the crowd in live performance, a moment of drama caught on two subsequent albums, 8:30 and Havana Jam where the tempos are noticeably brighter. Gibraltar, originally slated to open the album, equally sparkles with vigour, while the two Shorter contributions, Elegant People and Three Clowns are impressive in their spare, yet moving writing and destined to become Weather Report staples.

Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, Peter Erskine 1978 (photo © WDR/Becker)

On the road, Weather Report were galvanised by the presence of Pastorious in their midst. For many, this version of Weather Report was the band of the ages. The bassist was soon stopping the show during his feature piece, a solo medley comprising Hendrix’s Purple Haze and Third Stone From The Sun, Charlie Parker’s Donna Lee, Wilson Pickett’s Funky Broadway and the Beatles’ Blackbird. “Jaco was in a space of his own,” said Zawinul. “He was so different to all the other bass players at that time. He had that magical thing about him, the same kind of thing Jimi Hendrix had. He was an electrifying performer and a great musician… Before Jaco came along we were perceived as a kind of esoteric jazz group… but after Jaco joined the band we started selling out concert halls everywhere” (Jaco by Bill Milkowski [Miller Freeman Books, San Francisco 1995]).

Pastorius’s extrovert presence in a line-up that contained two 40-something leaders added immeasurably to the drawing power of the band, extending its appeal beyond jazz fans to rock audiences. 'Heavy Weather'But despite Pastorius’s showbiz grandstanding – tossing his bass into the air, Hendrix-like assaults on his speakers, back-flips off his amplifiers and visually underscoring his playing with a wild line in choreography – he was an enormously creative musician who shared producer credit with Zawinul on their next album, 1977’s Heavy Weather. Here he contributed two originals, Teen Town, named after an area in his home state of Florida, and Havona which is effectively a tour-de-force of electric bass playing. In post-production he displayed a thoroughgoing knowledge of the mixing board, where the concept of the studio-as-instrument was employed as never before.

Zawinul’s delightfully extrovert Birdland from the album was released in edited form as a single, and extensively covered by several bands, including those of Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson. Two years later the composition was a pop hit for Manhattan Transfer with a vocalese take on the tune courtesy of lyrics supplied by Jon Hendricks, which earned them a Grammy Award. Heavy Weather was the culmination of a long journey, from the free-form pieces of Live In Tokyo, with its emphasis almost entirely on group improvisation, to the sophisticated ad hoc song form of Birdland, with what little improvisation there was on the piece framed by an ingenious and elaborate orchestration. It represented the high point both artistically and commercially of the evolution that had begun with Sweetnighter.

'Mr. Gone'With rave reviews of the band in live performance during the extensive tour to promote the album, much was expected of the band’s next release. When Mr. Gone appeared in 1978 it quickly went gold, reaching 52 on the Billboard chart but the unanimous critical acclaim that had greeted Heavy Weather seemed to have evaporated. An overeager Downbeat reviewer awarded it just one star, prompting a hostile response from Zawinul in the magazine a few weeks later – “Weather Report Storms Over Mr. Gone” – that became a cause célèbre with his claim that Weather Report were “not capable of making a one-star record”. Midway through the recording of the album the drum chair became unsettled with Alex Acuna tiring of the road and opting for a career as a session musician, so Zawinul called on Peter Erskine to fill in. Recorded at the height of the disco boom, this album makes oblique concessions to that very commercial beat; indeed, all Columbia artists were being urged to jump on the bandwagon during this period, with potential new jazz signings to the label being told it’s disco or nothing.

Live, however, the band continued to set standards of excellence, which can be revisited with the only professionally recorded videotape of Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine in concert (Live In Offenbach 1978). Released on 20th June alongside the two CD set of the concert, it includes memorable versions of Black Market, River People and their hit Birdland.

River People from Live In Offenbach 1978 (Art of Groove MIG 80092)

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Drummer Peter Erskine, who discovered his contribution to Mr. Gone was in fact an audition, was now a regular member of the band and in a press conference when they were touring Japan, an over keen journalist asked him, “What is a big band drummer who played with Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton doing in Weather Report?” prompting Zawinul to cut in, “Weather Report is a big band and a small band. Next question.” Later he reflected, “Peter had the goods.” A big statement for a man not noted for his love of the drumming fraternity, “He was a wild, crazy kid, but he had the goods! Peter was great!” (Interview with author, October 1996)

Peter Erskine - Offenbach 1978 (photo © WDR/Becker)
Joe Zawinul - Offenbach 1978 (photo © WDR/Becker)

Later in the year 1979 came 8:30, their first double-album since the Japanese-only release Live In Tokyo. Three LP sides of the album set were recorded live in what was up to then the band’s most ambitious tour, and documents the band two months after Mr. Gone at Phoenix, Berkeley and Long Beach, California. Here, highlights include Badia from Tale Spinnin’ and Boogie Woogie Waltz from Sweetnighter, a stunning uptempo version of Teen Town from Heavy Weather and another version of Black Market. The balance of the album comprised interesting studio experiments including Brown Street, a carnival romp that gloriously builds and builds that was brilliantly rearranged for Zawinul and the WDR Big Band on 2005’s Brown Street, and The Orphan that included ten members of the West Los Angeles Christian Academy Children’s Choir.

'8:30'In 1979 8:30 won a Grammy award for ‘Best Jazz-Rock Album of the Year’ and at the end of 1980, Weather Report topped the ‘Jazz Group’ category for the ninth successive year in the annual Downbeat reader’s poll with 8:30 in the runner-up slot for the ‘Album of the Year’ – five of the group’s previous eight albums had actually won this category. Critically and commercially, Weather Report were riding the crest of the wave, but tensions were beginning to rise within the group through Pastorius’s increasingly eccentric behaviour caused through alcoholism and cocaine addiction. Even so, on Night Passage he again shared producer credit and contributed Three Views Of A Secret that many consider his finest composition. The album employed a variety of approaches: neo-classical (Rockin’ In Rhythm), post-bop (Fast City and Night Passage), world music (Port Of Entry and Madagascar), and tone poems (Three Views Of A Secret and Dream Clock). It scripted the manifesto for the 1980s, a pace that was now being forced by past achievements.

Jaco Pastorius & Peter Erskine - Offenbach 1978 (photo © WDR/Becker)

However, during the band’s subsequent tour to support the album, Pastorius’s drunkenness and outrageous behaviour on stage almost caused him to be sacked in Japan, the situation only saved by Pastorius showing up at Zawinul’s hotel door at 7.30 in the morning in a suit and tie to apologise for his behaviour. But by the time of Weather Report, from 1982, he no longer shared production credit and had not contributed any new compositions while his agile bass lines were almost buried in the mix. The album, their eleventh US release, saw the onset of a certain critical ennui, and was received politely rather than enthusiastically, “It must surely be recognised that at the group’s inception they turned the jazz world around,” said Downbeat, “[so] is it fair to compare [this], to say, their first totally revolutionary recording?” (Downbeat, June 1982) which seems rather harsh since the album included a strong collection of originals, including Volcano For Hire, the suite NY and an engaging Shorter composition When It Was Now. But when the band went out on tour in April 1982 it was without Pastorius, “The time had come for him to go,” said Zawinul simply (Interview with author, October 1996).

The group’s new line-up in the spring of 1982 introduced a new rhythm section with Victor Bailey on bass, Omar Hakim on drums and Jose Rossy, percussion. However, Wayne Shorter seemed to be becoming something of an enigmatic presence in the band; he would solo effectively enough in live performance but his influence was being felt less and less on recordings. Nevertheless, the Bailey-Hakim version of Weather Report released three powerful albums.

Zawinul, Rossy, Hakim, Bailey, Shorter

1983’s Procession was enacted against a backdrop of world music and had a guest appearance by the vocal group Manhattan Transfer on Where The Moon Goes; 1984’s Domino Theory charts the ascendance of the drum virtuoso Omar Hakim, whose playing fed Zawinul in the same way Pastorius used to in the 1970s. Hakim’s influence is very much to the fore on the driving Db Waltz, subsequently used by musicians around the world as a primer on how to swing in ¾ time. A brilliant technician, his flamboyance went some way to compensating for the mysterious humility of Shorter on record. Sportin’ Life from 1985 saw Shorter briefly emerging from the shadows to contribute two numbers and share production duties. Zawinul, who, as early as 1974 had considered including a vocalist in the line-up (Downbeat, 5th December 1974), now drafted in a small vocal contingent headed by Bobby McFerrin to join Zawinul’s own Martian-sounding efforts using a vocoder. But the release of the album was not supported by the usual promotional tour; Zawinul and Shorter stayed off the road to ready outside projects. By now the partnership that had produced fifteen albums and lasted almost fifteen years had all but run its course; but their contract with Columbia called for one more album. Due to schedule conflicts, Peter Erskine returned to replace Hakim and ended up co-producing 1986’s This Is This (although Shorter is missing on some tracks, replaced by guitarist Carlos Santana). On the album sleeve, a photo of Shorter and Zawinul show them locked in left-handed handshake, marking the end of a remarkable group and an ongoing collaboration that was among the most exciting in jazz history.

The third CD/DVD releases in the trilogy, Live At Rockpalast, Cologne 1983, are due out in September 2011.

Words: Stuart Nicholson
Photos: Courtesy of Joachim Becker at BHM Productions
(except for 1982 Columbia press shot & 1975 band shot with Alex Acuna)