Weather Report: Forecast Tomorrow

Weather Report has long been an influential band, and even detractors of the group’s later work find it difficult to be critical of some of the group’s early recordings. At the group’s core were keyboardist Joe Zawinul, a veteran of Cannonball Adderley’s group as well as influential work with Miles Davis, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who worked extensively with Davis as part of his second great quintet and, before that, Art Blakey.

The third member that was often of great importance was the group’s bassist, and they went through several during the group’s tenure. The most famous is, of course, Jaco Pastorious, who not only redefined the electric bass and what its role in a group could be, but who also helped the group craft a more groove-oriented sound and contributed some excellent compositions. During the years that Pastorious was on board, the group’s core became a triumvirate—his contributions were that essential.

Many would divide the group’s work into three basic periods. The earliest was characterized by a sound and concept that few other groups have attempted and no one has been able to carry off as Zawinul and company did. Zawinul once described the concept as ‘no one solos, everyone solos.’ In short, the musicians play with and around each other, sometimes carrying the melodic line, and then handing it off to someone else. The foreground and background of the music shift fairly continuously. This period is characterized by the first three albums, Weather Report, I Sing The Body Electric, and Live In Tokyo.

The second section is characterized by a funkier, more groove-oriented feeling. The albums Sweetnighter, Mysterious Traveller, and Tale Spinnin’ are representative of this era. The funk-oriented music found on these albums is very open-ended, with less overtly melodic content and looser structure to the songs.

That began to tighten up on Tale Spinnin’ and a more song-form type of composition became the norm for the albums Black Market, Heavy Weather, and Mr. Gone. Black Market was the first album to introduce Jaco Pastorious, and his presence is heavily felt on Heavy Weather and Mr. Gone. His presence was also monumental onstage, as evidenced by the live recording 8:30 released in 1979. Pastorious was also around for the band’s next two albums, Night Passage, and 1982’s Weather Report, the group’s second eponymously-titled release.

The group’s final four albums—Procession, Domino Theory, Sportin’ Life, and This Is This—are characterized by shifting personnel, though bassist Victor Bailey and drummer Omar Hakim remain pretty consistent presences.

It’s challenging to put together a retrospective of this group’s work, but the box set, Weather Report—Forecast: Tomorrow does a nice job of presenting the group’s evolving sound in 3 CDs and a DVD. 

NDIM Jazz Guide Part 7: Jazz Fusion

Forecast: Tomorrow begins with the four-minute, eighteen second Miles Davis performance of Joe Zawinul’s theme “In a Silent Way.” One can certainly hear the beginnings of Weather Report here, which should come as no surprise since the track features Zawinul and Shorter, with John McLaughlin on guitar. The slow unfolding of the melody is a strategy Zawinul would use again and again in the Weather Report years. Stripped of the rock/rhythm groove of the second section, it is very reminiscent of the first Weather Report recordings. The music unfolds in an organic way and allows itself to be discovered rather than imposing itself on the listener.

Next up is Wayne Shorter’s “Supernova” from the album of the same name. This is something of a free jazz experiment, with Shorter joined by guitarists John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock, Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea, and Airto Moreira as well as future Weather Report bassist Miroslav Vitous. It demonstrates the freer side of Shorter’s music, and experience that he brought with him to Report. Though free improvisation was used less to create tension and more as coloring with Weather Report, it was still an element of the mix.

Wayne Shorter & Joe Zawinul

The third pre-Report track here is from Cannonball Adderley, an excerpt from Zawinul’s “Experience in E.” Produced by longtime Adderley producer David Axelrod, the piece begins atmospherically but then slides into the kind of Fender Rhodes and ride cymbal groove demonstrated on Miles’ In a Silent Way album. Zawinul definitely was one of the pioneers of the Fender Rhodes in jazz, as were fellow Davis alumnus Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

When Zawinul and Shorter announced they were forming a new band with bassist Miroslav Vitous and a drummer to be named later, expectations were high. And the resulting album, Weather Report, did not fail to fascinate and to point the way towards jazz music’s future—a future that was not out of line with its recent past, but which many did not want to hear of.

Still, what could have prepared listeners for the opening track, “Milky Way,” included here? A duet for acoustic piano and saxophone, it utilizes the sound created when Zawinul would hold down a chord on the piano and Shorter would play an arpeggio into the piano’s soundboard. Only the return sound from the piano was recorded, not Shorter’s actual notes, giving the piece, which was edited together in the studio, an ethereal sound.

The next track included from the 1971 debut album is “Tears” which used a funk-rock sound and drummer Alphonse Mouzon’s voice singing syllables as a pure instrument. The full version of “Eurydice,” in many ways the most traditional jazz sound here (albeit a very modern conception) is also heard. The players do solo, which is not really done on the rest of the album. Also included is Zawinul’s “Orange Lady” which was originally recorded by Miles, but which was not released until the Complete Bitches Brew sessions came out.

Weather Report’s debut album created a huge stir that went through the jazz community as well as reverberating beyond. The album won the jazz album of the year in the DownBeat Readers Poll. The music was hard to pin down, offering the freedom of modern jazz, yet it was also in synch with what was happening in the rock music world.

Before the second album, I Sing the Body Electric was released, the group picked up percussionist Dom Um Romao and replaced Alphonse Mouzon with Eric Gravatt. In addition, Zawinul picked up the ARP 2600 synthesizer and used it on this recording. The album’s opening track, “Unknown Soldier” is heard here, and it is a stunning composition, both in terms of Zawinul’s writing and conception and the way it is put together in the studio. About his perhaps most ambitious composition, Zawinul has said:

“In 1945 my cousin and I buried two German soldiers who had been dead a long time, in very bad shape. One guy was rolled over by a tank. We opened their uniforms to break off their name tags, but on one of them, there wasn’t any tag. It’s that same old concept of the unknown soldier. That’s what I thought when I wrote this, with the prayers in there–it’s partially a recall of that night I told you about, September 10, 1944, when Vienna was burning, people were crying, buried underneath the ruins.”

Zawinul used the ARP 2600 to create some of the eerie sound effects heard in this piece.

Both “Surucucu” and “Directions” are part of Body Electric’s second side, which consists of suites of music edited together from a concert in Tokyo recorded in January 1972, a month or so after the studio cuts heard on the A-side of the album were recorded. This material was released in its entirety on the Japanese-only release Live In Tokyo. Both tracks show that Weather Report could create incredible energy live, but their performances relied so much on the moment that at times they simply couldn’t get things off the ground. This was one reason that Zawinul began to gravitate towards more groove-oriented pieces with more defined rhythms. Such a structure guaranteed a certain energy or ability to find a ‘way in’ to the music, but it was essentially open-ended and allowed the musicians plenty of room to do their own thing.

The resulting third album, Sweetnighter, produced two staples of live Weather Report shows for the next period of time: “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” which remained the group’s closing number until the success of “Birdland,” and “125th Street Congress” which is explicitly funky in a way that Report had not been before this. Zawinul, who had spent some nine years with Cannonball Adderley, had learned that you can take an audience where you want to if you remember to also play some ass-shaking soul or down-home blues. These tracks also brought the bass more firmly to the forefront of the group’s sound. “125th Street” features Andrew White on electric bass. That’s telling, because by the next album, Mysterious Traveller, Vitous was gone, replaced by bassist Alphonso Johnson, who came to the group by way of the Chuck Mangione Group.

The difference in this band is clear—it is more focused, energy-wise, as evidenced by the live version of “Nubian Sundance” (mislabeled as “Mysterious Traveller” on my advance copy) that leads off disc two. That energy carried over into the studio as well, as can be heard on the studio version of this same track (though studio effects are added that sometimes make it sound live), and on the other music included from this fourth album.

Shorter and Zawinul were still interested in freer forms, though, as can be heard on the duet track “Blackthorn Rose.” Zawinul plays acoustic piano and melodica, and Shorter offers a classic soprano burst. “Badia, ” from the Tale Spinnin’ album, reflects Zawinul’s growing interest in the music of other cultures, particularly Moorish, Arabic, and Latin American cultures. Weather Report was by this time creating music that followed its own internal logic and was not the artistically empty gesture that many would have dismissed all attempts at fusion music for. Zawinul, one of the first musicians to define the sound of the Fender Rhodes electric piano in jazz music, was, at this point, well on his way toward creating his own personalized synthesizer sound. He liked the ARP better than the Moog because he felt it did not carry its own sound imprint as much, as was better able to be personalized by the individual musician.

The group’s main point of instability at this point was the drum chair, which was occupied by no fewer than eight individuals between the departure of Eric Gravatte during Sweetnighter and 1975, when the group recorded Tale Spinnin’ with Leon ‘Ndugu’ Chancleer on drums. Chancleer had already played with Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi group and Miles Davis. At the time of the Tale Spinnin’ sessions Chancler was the drummer for Santana. Zawinul reportedly tried to get him to join Weather Report, but Chancler declined, electing to remain with Santana.

The group’s next recording, Black Market, set the tone for the next phase of the group’s career. Chester Thompson, who had played drums with Frank Zappa, came on board the drum seat, except on two of the tracks heard here, where he was replaced by Narada Michael Walden: the title track, and “Cannonball,” Zawinul’s soulful tribute to his former boss.

Black Market still featured Alphonso Johnson on bass, but on two tracks, “Cannonball” (included here) and “Barbary Coast” (not included here) he is replaced by the musician who would redefine both the electric bass and the Weather Report sound: Jaco Pastorious. “Havona,” the track that concludes W.R.’s next album Heavy Weather, is one of Pastorious’ best compositions, and it is immediately apparent that his bass work will be an instrumental voice that will be equal to Zawinul and Shorter’s. “Birdland,” a pop-structured song (sort of) that was turned into a bonafide hit single, changed the group’s status, springboarding them into the minds of people who had never considered themselves any kind of jazz fan. Shorter’s “Palladium,” a powerhouse track that uses Latin rhythms in an inventive way is also included.

Now catapulted into a strange kind of stardom, the band released their next album, Mr. Gone, to relative critical indifference. There was some consensus that the group was increasingly under Zawinul’s complete control, and that it took much of the freedom and collaboration that had made the group’s concept such an original one, away. What many may have been reacting to was Zawinul’s expanding bank of keyboards and effects, now exacerbated by Pastorious’ use of bass effects. On a track like “Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat” it can’t help but feel like the Joe Zawinul show. However, his use of the new electronic tools at his disposal was amazing, dwarfing what virtually any other jazz musicians with the exceptions of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea were doing. Disc Two finishes off with two tracks from the band’s live album (well, three sides of it, anyway) 8:30. From the studio side come two tracks: “The Orphan” is an atmospheric vehicle for Shorter’s tenor, while “Sightseeing” bristles with aggressive energy provided by Pastorious and new drummer Peter Erskine.

The final CD in this set opens with four more tracks from the Pastorious-era band: Zawinul’s “Dream Clock,” Shorter’s “Port of Entry,” and Jaco’s “Three Views of a Secret” all come from Night Passage, “Dara Factor Two,” credited to the whole group (it came out of a lengthy jam) is from Weather Report (1982), the final album for the Pastorious/Erskine rhythm section.

Many dismissed this post-Jaco era as the group’s decline and demise, but there was still a lot of interesting music being created. In addition, Zawinul remains one of the few synthesizer players to come through the 1980s without sounding like everything else that was done during that era.
The following two albums, Domino Theory and Sportin’ Life, featured the same group of musicians and the selections heard here: “D-Flat Waltz,” “Domino Theory,” “Predator,” “Face on the Barroom Floor,” and “Indiscretions” show that the band had not changed so drastically—it was the audience who was no longer as interested in this type of music that brought the group to an end as much as anything else. No tracks are included from the group’s final album, This Is This, because it was released strictly to fulfill a contractual obligation and is considered even by Zawinul to be the group’s weakest effort.

The bonus DVD includes a complete unreleased performance from 1978 featuring Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorious, and Peter Erskine. The setlist is generous though it is skewed toward Weather Report tunes from Black Market through Mr. Gone, with standout performances including “Black Market,” “A Remark You Made,” “Mr. Gone,” “Teen Town,” “Badia,” and, of course, “Birdland.” Also featured is Jaco’s explosive bass solo on “Portrait of Tracy/Third Stone from the Sun,” and there’s a performance of Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way.”

Forecast: Tomorrow is an excellent distillation of the recorded history of Weather Report. Hopefully a new generation of musicians will be inspired by their example, going off the road map and creating music that is a reflection of their experiences as musicians, without regard to current style.

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