Chapter One: Silent Partners
It all starts with Miles (and doesn’t it always?). His Inscrutable Opaqueness is creating a whole new language called FUSION with what is once again probably the greatest jazz group assembled, this time featuring Wayne Shorter on soprano sax and Josef Zawinul on keyboards. The pair hit it off, and after two albums that shake the world like magnitude eight earthquakes—In A Silent Way (1969), Bitches Brew (1970)—Z, Mr. Gone and Miles alum Miroslav Vitous decide to further their adventures in the newfound field of fusion as Weather Report.
Chapter Two: Weather Tis Nobler…
The eponymous Weather Report (1971) arrives with tsunami force; Down Beat names it the album of the year. It’s followed by the half live/studio hybrid I Sing The Body Electric (1972) and the Japan-only Live In Tokyo (1972). The music of the early Weather Report is alternately alien and lovely, classical and unclassifiable. Eric Gravatt and Dom Um Romao round out what briefly becomes a stable quintet, but Weather Report remains unpredictable and always in motion, leading to…
Chapter Three: A Change In The Weather
Shorter and Zawinul begin to tinker with electric funk, pushing the acoustic Vitous to the periphery on Sweetnighter (1973) and eventually out of the picture on Mysterious Traveller (1974), in favor of the younger, funkier Alphonso Johnson. Tale Spinnin’ (1975) continues the trend of a band in constant metamorphosis (they go through drummers faster than Spinal Tap).
Chapter Four: Suicide Jaco
Black Market (1975) and Heavy Weather (1976) find the band at the peak of their commercial success, now with an amazing young bass player named Jaco Pastorius who finally fills the void (and then some) left by Miroslav Vitous. Jaco sticks around until the second eponymous Weather Report (1982), which is a few years more than the jaded critics, who long ago grew dismayed with the band’s commercial directions.
Chapter Five: The Reign Clouds
Weather Report concluded their Columbia contract with a handful of albums featuring a new rhythm section of Victor Bailey and Omar Hakim. Wayner Shorter plays an increasingly diminshed role on these albums. The final This is This! (1986) was actually recorded after the band disbanded, and features no new compositions from the legendary saxophonist, who had resumed his solo career the previous year with the release of Atlantis (1985). Josef Zawinul likewise wasted little time in renewing a solo career with the release of Di-a-lects (1986). Jaco’s death the following year provides a definitive end to what is surely one of the most interesting and influential jazz bands of the 20th century.
Kronomyth 5.0: SILENT KNIGHT. This is an ambient/classical/jazz album recorded in between Joe Zawinul’s brief but brilliant stint in the Miles Davis group and the formation of Weather Report. It’s in line with his work from the period, a kind of continuation of the ambient jazz introduced on In A Silent Way (1969), recorded with a large ensemble cast similar to Bitches Brew (1970) and featuring future Weather Report co-founders Miroslav Vitous and Wayne Shorter. Although it didn’t change the direction of jazz like Silent Way or Bitches Brew, and nothing on here is quite as lovely as “Orange Lady,” Zawinul is an important milestone in the career and development of Joe Zawinul, one of the great visionary keyboardists of the 20th century. Conceived as a tone poem of sorts, the album contains five songs that have deep, personal meaning to Zawinul, including a return to “In A Silent Way,” here presented in its original form with the introduction intact. In describing this music, I keep returning to the protogenesis of a new world. It’s matter in movement, the death and rebirth of stars and planets in a strange, new galaxy of sound. Yet this is also sentimental music in many ways; in earlier attempts at this review (I often go through multiple intros before I find the right mood), I had cast Zawinul as a science-fiction sentimentalist. He’s an intrepid explorer with a backpack of childhood memories slung over one shoulder, and perhaps it’s that dual residency in the past and the future that allows him to see everything as alien. As for the supporting musicians, they’re only chess pieces to a point, or colors on a palette from which Zawinul is free to paint. In other words, the exciting things that might have happened in an open collaboration between Zawinul and Herbie Hancock don’t happen here. Zawinul’s creation is closed to the idea of chaos in that sense; it’s a controlled experiment and Zawinul is the lone mad scientist in a room full of high-ranking henchmen. At the time of its release, Zawinul charted respectably but was overshadowed by Bitches Brew and forgotten in the wake of Weather Report. It’s an album ripe for rediscovery, especially if your tastes lean toward the aforementioned albums, ambient composers like Brian Eno and Harold Budd, or the free jazz experiments of John Coltrane.
Kronomyth 2.0: WHITMAN’S SAMPLER. The experimental second record from Weather Report may be the strangest they’ve ever made. It’s divided into two distinct halves; the first side is avant-garde jazz featuring an expanded horn section and chorus, the second side is fractious fusion excerpted from a live performance in Japan as a quintet. The opening “Unknown Soldier” is Zawinul’s symphony against war, featuring a host of effects on the synthesizer including air sirens, explosions, gunfire and marching boots. Played out like some Greek tragedy for the twentieth century, the song layers horns and vocals atop the unruffled rhythm section of Eric Gravatt and Miroslav Vitous, bringing to mind some of Frank Zappa’s recent classical jazz experiments but presented in a more jazz-wise mode. The next track, “The Moors,” begins with a detuned 12-string acoustic guitar intro that is quickly if improbably swallowed by some spaced-out fusion from Wayne Shorter. Vitous’ fuzz bass, Shorter’s otherworldly horns and Zawinul’s crystal tones dominate the third track, while “Second Sunday In August” arrives like a dream, foreshadowing the music of Harold Budd and Brian Eno. Judged by these four songs alone, I Sing The Body Electric is an important work in the development of not only modern jazz, but modern music. The remaining trio of tracks, recorded live in Japan, is less interesting to my ears. The opening medley is noisy, pitting Zawinul’s confrontational keyboard sounds against Shorter’s sax; the silly “Surucucú” is interesting as an experiment in sounds but doesn’t break any vital, new ground. This second side of music simply reinforces what most listeners already knew: Weather Report was an electric fusion band with few peers. But on that first side of Body Electric, listeners were introduced to worlds they didn’t know existed. In the ever-shifting world of Weather Report, these landscapes would be abandoned in the pursuit of greener (financially) fields, but the core trio of Shorter, Vitous and Zawinul would never reach a higher creative summit together.
Kronomyth 2.5: AND THE BLIND WALLS CRUMBLE, UNKNOWN, O’ERTHROWN. An early adventure in the jungle of jazz, featuring the first stable lineup of Weather Report in the full throes of their avant-garde phase. Initially released only in Japan, Live In Tokyo is similar to those contemporaneous Circle recordings, except where Chick Corea and company were traveling without a map, Weather Report retraces the groundbreaking steps taken on their first two albums. The songs are presented mostly in medley form; only the classic and eternally classy “Orange Lady” arrives unbundled. The performances are noisier than I remember and open to exploration. There are some new instruments added to the mix as well: a distinctly Oriental-sounding string instrument on “Orange Lady,” a couple of experiments with oral/facial percussion, some creative distortions of the keyboards, flutes, etc. In a sense, the band follows an established path, but is free to explore the fringes and sometimes wander off into the woods, only to return a minute later. Circle inverted that approach, which made their music challenging to follow, but you’ll willingly follow Weather Report for ninety minutes as they unpack and uncoil their early repertoire. Highlights include the second medley (side two) and “The Moors,” which I’ve always enjoyed. A higher ratio of noise/dissonance may be offputting to some; Live In Tokyo is probably the noisiest release in their official catalog. Fans of avant-garde jazz, however, will appreciate the dismantling of blind walls in the search for new musical vistas. I’d rank this as the most essential of their live records, although it’ll be a bit costly no matter how you acquire it, since the double-elpee (now double-disc) set has never received a stateside release.
Kronomyth 3.0: SWEET NIGHT, GOOD PRINCE, AND FLIGHTS OF ANGELS. Sweetnighter is where the relationship with Eric Gravatt and Miroslav Vitous soured. Wayne Shorter and Z had decided to explore funkier terrain on this album, which left the jazz-inclined Gravatt and Vitous out in the cold. Oddly, Weather Report didn’t replace them; instead, they invited another bassist (Andrew White) and drummer (Herschel Dwellingham) to join them, apparently hoping that the extant rhythm section would take the hint. All of which makes Sweetnighter an unusual, transitional album, as it has the new rhythm section superimposed on top of the old. It causes some confusion on the two extended funk workouts, “Boogie Woogie Waltz” and “125th Congress Street.” A clearer vision of the band’s funk future emerges on the closing “Non-Stop Home,” which features only Dwellingham on drums and White on electric bass. This song, a study in contrasts between the sweeter Shorter and the revolutionary Z, is their most succinct track to date. Of the three funk experiments, “Boogie Woogie Waltz” is the best, filled with the kind of musical revelations found on earlier Weather Report albums. The remaining three tracks are similar to the still-life paintings of Body Electric. On “Adios” and “Will” especially, you can almost imagine a transfixed Eno listening to these songs and making notes for Another Green World. Despite its share of great music, Sweetnighter isn’t a personal favorite of mine. Two of the six tracks, “Manolete” and “125th Street Congress,” just don’t do it for me musically, and that’s a third of the album. The decision to open both sides of the album with extended funk workouts must have had a polarizing effect on fans up to this point. In retrospect, we can see that Weather Report would weather the storm and come out stronger on the other end, but at the time it must have seemed as though they were abandoning their experimental jazz roots and growing into some unmanageable monster. All totaled, Sweetnighter is two-thirds of a classic Weather Report album, which makes it required listening for fans of their first phase.
Kronomyth 4.0: THE LAST TANGO. You’ll hear the end of an era on “American Tango,” the last Weather Report composition to feature founding member Miroslav Vitous. It’s a typically ethereal piece, a fitting swan song from the musical odd duck in an ever-shifting birdland. Mysterious Traveller is still a transitional record; in fact, no two songs sound exactly alike. There is again a new rhythm section, this time featuring Alphonso Johnson on electric bass (check out the swinging “Cucumber Slumber” to hear his funky influence) and a fresh pair of double drummers (Skip Hadden, Ishmael Wilburn). Another new wrinkle is the addition of vocals; choral in the case of the opening “Nubian Sundance” (which recalls the extended jams of Sweetnighter) and actual lead vocals from Josef Zawinul on the pretty musical playground of “Jungle Book.” The band continues to break new musical ground with each album. On “Mysterious Traveller,” it seems as though Shorter and Z are creating a new musical language as realism and cataclysm collide. On “Blackthorn Rose,” the two are reconciled briefly for some remarkably restrained jazz—and in Weather Report’s world, restraint is almost an act of sabotage. On the funereal “Scarlet Woman,” Sweetnighter once again casts its shadow. A good half of Mysterious Traveller retreads the same ground as their last album, while the other half introduces the funky rhythms, African elements and piquant pairing of sax and keyboards that marked a change in the weather. As with their last, Mysterious Traveller is regarded as a classic Weather Report album with some minor flaws, most of them attributable to the band’s restless, experimental spirit. It’s a good record, with moments (“Jungle Book,” “Blackthorn Rose”) you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else in their catalog, and a few songs (“Cucumber Slumber,” “American Tango,” “Mysterious Traveller”) that have stayed with me over the years.
Kronomyth 5.0: WONDEROUS STORIES. It’s a cruel madness that goads me in this Sisyphean task (another day boulder, another day wiser) and leaves me crushed by my own shortcomings as a critic. There are no new words, nor novel arrangements of them, that will tease any insight from Tale Spinnin’ not already examined, illustrated and catalogued by more clinical and patient minds than mine. Nothing I add will advance your curiosity an inch, I’m afraid. Mysterious Traveller had been a fascinating travelogue, a point I somehow never get around to mentioning in my review of it (as worthless as the common words it uses). Tale Spinnin’ is another journey of sound, sometimes through lush landscapes, ingenious and indigenous. The Shorter-Zawinul expedition expands the search party with Brazilian percussionist Alyrio Lima, drummer Leon “Ndugu” Chancler and the mysterious presence of The Original New Timbral Orchestra (TONTO), a towering altar to the new electronic gods of the digital jungle. The electronics prove to be nothing more than a big, expensive bug zapper, crackling and buzzing in the background, but Ngudu is an important addition, giving the rhythm section a much-needed snap not heard since, well, never. Highlights this time include “Man In The Green Shirt,” a classic in the making that invariably invites the words “joyful” and “exuberant” onto the printed page, the sexy/funky “Between The Thighs” (dreams of “Cucumber Slumber”) and the middle eastern exotica of “Badia.” For Zawinul, the creative process involved composition and re-composition; a middle might become a new beginning, for example, if it told a better story. Tale Spinnin’ is best approached as a collection of musical stories, featuring rich settings that the listener can inhabit. The dynamic between Shorter and Zawinul is interesting here, musician and mad scientist, as Z mixes all manner of sound into his alchemical creations and Shorter carries the melodies unbruised through the turbulence. The albums from Mysterious Traveller through Heavy Weather represent the band’s most fertile musical phase; all four should be collected, cherished and championed. And, now, I have a tub to clean…
Kronomyth 7.0: REMARKABLE. There is a moment near the end of “A Remark You Made” when Joe Zawinul’s keyboards cross the threshold of the merely mortal into the realm of the celestial. The same might be said for Heavy Weather. It is the most perfect expression of Weather Report in any incarnation, and if you’re thinking that the full-time participation of Jaco Pastorius has something to do with that, give yourself a gold star. From the opening moments of “Birdland,” when Jaco’s bass dares to sound like an electric guitar, a change in the Weather is clear. Heavy Weather wisely puts its three strongest tracks up front: “Birdland,” a celebration of sound for the ages; “A Remark You Made,” sublime balladry of the highest order; and Jaco’s “Teen Town,” a fresh study in contrasts. “The Juggler,” Zawinul’s calm exploration of Oriental tones, and Wayne Shorter’s “Palladium,” a blend of smart city jazz and Latin jazz, are also highlights over a long career. Weather Report reaches heights on Heavy Weather that they wouldn’t attain again. The aforementioned moment in “A Remark You Made,” the exuberance of “Birdland,” the rhythmic machinations of “Teen Town,” these are milestones we didn’t know existed until now. The album’s only flaw, other than the occasionally earthbound idea (“Havona” and “Harlequin” are merely okay), is the current state of their rhythm section. The album seems to feature two percussionists and comes up short one drummer; even then, Alex Acuna and Manolo Bardena are sometimes buried so low in the mix that you have to strain to hear them. No diamond is completely perfect, however, and Heavy Weather outshines them all. In fact, this album justifies every lineup change and experiment that came before, since they couldn’t have arrived at this place in the journey without taking so many turns. Few bands, jazz or otherwise, have reached such a peak, where the earth meets the sky and the music of man comingles with the immortal.
Kronomyth 11.0: JACO HISTORIUS. This is the last of the Jaco albums, although it sounds like he’d already checked out. Zawinul was clearly the driving force behind the band in its later years, and here he steers the discussion toward modern-sounding songs that feature computers, synthesizers and fractured arrangements. Wayne Shorter again contributes only one song, the likeable “When It Was Now,” and Pastorius contributes none. The closing “Dara Factor Two,” credited to the band, is really just an improvisational piece that employs the same interesting musical pattern introduced in “Dara Factor One.” While the band’s untitled 1982 effort is not one of their best, it may be a more approachable effort for rock fans as it leans toward that side of the fusion equation. You can digest the songs in smaller pieces, isolate the bass, drums, keyboards and sax in your head, hear the effect they have pitted against one another, and see the whole thing as finely meshed gears in a big machine. Having grown fat on previous feasts, the entries from this Weather Report are only appetizing for an instant to me. The startling range of albums past is missed, replaced with a by-the-numbers mathematical quirkiness that produces some eye-opening moments (the introductory drums on “Volcano For Hire,” the simulated strings at the end of “When It Was Now,” the intoxicating pattern of “Dara Factor One”) but little of lasting beauty. Highlights would have to include the three-part “N.Y.C.” and the ballad “Current Affairs,” which comes surprisingly close to sounding like a Vangelis song. The returning rhythm section of Peter Erskine and Robert Thomas, Jr. is expectedly solid, although they could have been brought up higher in the mix. As for Jaco, his bass is often filtered through effects and rarely provides a strong creative counterpoint. Shorter at this point is the Banquo’s Ghost in the band, entering the dialog to deliver something of weight and then disappearing again. Zawinul is too intelligent to be boring, too talented to be ignored, yet this album is least representative of what made the Z/S/P lineup so exciting.