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Weather Report: Partly Sunny, Then Showers -- Looking Back on the Fusion Supergroup

Will Layman

A new box set encapsulating the jazz group's career causes our jazz critic to reassess his love-hate relationship with Weather Report.

When I first started listening to jazz, as a smarty-pants kid in 1973, the music seemed to teeter on the brink of history. On the one hand, many of the legends still walked: Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis. On the other hand, the future had arrived: the electric collision of jazz and its brash successors, rock and soul. I learned from the sprinting elegance of Clifford Brown and the soul-baring honesty of Sidney Bechet. But I thrilled to the promise of Weather Report -- the greatest of the "fusion" bands spawned by the jazz-rock revolution.

Blue Skies Interrupted by Thunder

I snapped up each Weather Report album with anticipation. The early records challenged me with psychedelic collective improvisation, pointing backward to Miles's Bitches Brew and even Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz. Then the band dug into funk and world music grooves -- leading me to George Clinton and Kind Sunny Ade. To a young fan with big ears, Weather Report was a skeleton key. I Sing the Body Electric, Mysterious Traveler, Tale Spinnin', Black Market -- each one seemed to unveil new musical possibilities. Weather Report was better than my favorite band -- they were my professors.

During my first year of college, with Weather Report improbably coating the airwaves with "Birdland", a hit song, I got tickets to see my boys in Boston. A friend and I hitched 150 miles across Massachusetts in time to grab a meal and head to the theater. We were electrified: Wayne Shorter, one of the greatest saxophonists and composers in jazz history; Joe Zawinul, the enigmatic Austrian who wrote "In a Silent Way" and silently guided the band; Jaco Pastorius, the first electric bassist to truly adapt the instrument to jazz in a revolutionary way; and Peter Erskine, a hot young drummer who fit the band better than any other.

The lights dimmed, the crowd roared, and the show was... a horrible disappointment. Here were my jazz heroes, in concert at the height of their powers and popularity -- and there were smoke machines? I'd paid precious cash for long, indulgent solos consisting of little more than speed and technique? Shirtless strutting and posing? Few if any moments of real communication and invention...?

After that experience, I stopped buying their albums and put my proverbial Weather Report shoes in the back of the closet forever. Indeed, I left the band -- and most of "fusion" music -- behind me, directing my attention to the avant-garde of The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton, hoping I'd never again see a group of jazz guys wishing they were Led Zeppelin. I barely noticed as the band limped along for seven more years until they dissolved amidst the rise of Kenny G and his band of happy Smoovers. I'd be lying if I didn't somehow feel it all was Zawinul's fault.

And now it's time to reassess my love and my deflation as the definitive Weather Report compilation emerges. Forecast: Tomorrow is a three-CD, one-DVD box set that seeks to summarize the band fairly and entirely. But for me it's more than that, as the DVD contains the entirety of a concert filmed during the very tour that made me begin doubting my musical heroes. Here is a chance, truly, to look at it all over again. But was it worth seeing, again?

* * *

Early Weather Report

From the outset, you can tell that the good folks at Columbia / Legacy know that Weather Report went downhill over time. The first few years of the band's existence take up all of disc one. This early material not only sets the table for what the band was about, but it sets the jazz bar high -- and higher than I remember.

The origins of the band are represented by three tracks: Zawinul and Shorter together on Miles's In a Silent Way, Shorter's solo recording of "Super Nova", and a daring orchestral piece from Zawinul when he was the pianist for Cannonball Adderley. In these early pieces, Zawinul and Shorter emerge as kindred spirits from different worlds -- the promise of their partnership awesome, indeed.

Listening to "Super Nova" again is a revelation. Shorter had apprenticed with the two greatest bands in jazz (Miles, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers), and his late-'60s music combined darting melody with mysticism and succulent harmonic impressionism. The rhythm section on this track is both seriously swinging -- with future Weather Report bassist Miroslav Vitous walking his ass off -- and a gorgeous, clambering mess. The guitarists John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock shed gorgeous shards of electricity as Shorter's soprano saxophone etches in acid. Zawinul's "Experience in E" (from Cannonball's long out-of-print Domination) is no less swinging, catching the Austrian pianist on his electric keyboard with a funky solo that leads to a daring ensemble passage bolstered by an orchestra in exciting counterpoint. It's easy to see what each saw in the other when they played together for Miles.

From the start, here's what's clear: Shorter's conception is looser but more oriented toward melody; Zawinul's vision of the music is grounded more in groove and arranged sound. The combination either makes them perfectly complementary partners or rivals in disagreement. And in a 15-year partnership, probably both.

The four tracks from Weather Report, the self-titled first album, are a stunning portrait in balance. When I first heard this music, it was forbidding to my ears; rough-edged and avant-garde, sort of aimless noodling, without enough grounding in groove or harmony to set me at ease. And clearly the band intended to be challenging. When they were starting, out Zawinul famously proclaimed that in Weather Report "no one solos, everyone solos", suggesting that this "jazz-rock" ensemble was taking healthy input from the free jazz movement as well as the pop world.

Heard 35 years later, however, it sounds less like forbidding free jazz than like very good, very interactive jazz. Shorter's "Eurydice" is, in fact, a swinger that develops from a melody stated in free time. The notion that "no one" is soloing is pretty misleading. Shorter states the melody on soprano with arpeggiated "answers" from Zawinul and Vitous on Fender Rhodes and acoustic bass -- all while Alphonse Mouzon clatters in free time. Shorter improvises over this ballad section until the band starts to swing under him, with a Zawinul solo to follow. What's notable here is not how "free" or innovative it is but rather how fine the improvising is, and the complementary dialogue between Shorter, Zawinul, and Vitous.

The last track from the debut, "Orange Lady", written by Zawinul, pretty well sums up the band's early and mostly forgotten career; Weather Report was a partially electric chamber ensemble making a kind of psychedelic soundtrack-jazz. The band uses the same pastel colors (Rhodes, soprano, percussion) to paint an even more controlled and delicate picture: saxophone and bass stating a melody in unison over Zawinul's electric ripples, leading to a second six-note melody that really hooks you. The band acts as a small electric orchestra in perfect balance, themes coming and going, rhythm / melody / harmony phasing in and out. The tracks from I Sing the Body Electric largely follow suit: "Unknown Soldier" and " Second Sunday in August" are Zawinul tone poems that employ complex arrangement without opening out to much improvisation. "Directions" (an unissued studio take) and "Surucucu" (live) are more freewheeling; a free-bop workout and Shorter in his free-Brazilian mode. Still chamber jazz of a sort, but the more aggressive kind.

After listening to the first of the three discs, it was impossible not to conclude that Weather Report started as a much better, much more original jazz group than the contemporary critics realized. Far from being a mere spin-off of Miles's groups, Weather Report was something else entirely -- not so much a jazz-rock band as a curious blend of out-jazz and classicism, laced with amplification. In short, early Weather Report was a forward thinking jazz group with a relatively selfless angle on the music: a saxophonist, (electric) pianist, (acoustic) bassist, and percussion in dialogue. But that was to change.

Enter the Groove, the Synthesizer -- Classic Weather Report

As the '70s wore on, Weather Report hit a five-album sweet spot that was in real contrast to the avant-dialogue that came first. These were terrific records, but they begin with commercial calculation and they end with the balance of the band permanently out of whack.

Zawinul is on the record as saying that their third disc, Sweetnighter was an attempt to move product. "We realized that even though [I Sing the Body Electric] was a good record, we had to make a living. I have a big family and Shorter has a big family. Somehow we had to survive. We weren't selling enough records. So I wrote 'Boogie Woogie Waltz' to get us off the ground." Music this hip can't be called a sell-out, but it was still a move toward pop music, with the addition of electric bass and the rhythm section now distinctly in the business of setting up a groove that often sounds like DC go-go funk. It's a dance record, and Forecast: Tomorrow accords it only "125th Street Congress".

Mysterious Traveler and Tale Spinnin' were a better records -- honoring both the dance impulse and the complex soundtrack arrangements of the early records return -- yet the box nods to them quickly, as well, with only three tracks. The band had shed Vitous, a jazz bassist and no funkateer, for Alphonso Johnson. And Zawinul was combining electric piano with melody lines played on his ARP 2600 synthesizer. "Mysterious Traveler" is a Shorter tune given such a driving groove that you almost miss the ball-of-string complexity of the melody line. There was plenty of this kind of forceful fusion during this period, but the set emphasizes delicacy; the gentle Shorter/Zawinul duet "Blackthorn Rose" and a quiet world-music track "Badia". The diversity of sound, however, is accurate -- a cross-section of a band in transition, sifting through influences and approaches that would lead to the most fully realized of the band's records, Black Market and Heavy Weather.

Listening again to the selections from what were my two favorite Weather Report albums, it becomes clear that this was a band changed along a continuum over time -- becoming more structured, more dominated by Zawinul's sensibility of orchestration through the use of ever-more-sophisticated-synthesizers, more acutely tied to pop and groove rhythms and leaving jazz time behind. The blessings of the first two records were jazz blessings: three great players on their signature instruments. By Black Market, Weather Report is really a band, a single entity playing tightly conceived music that balanced competing elements. This is where the sound gels.

"Cannonball" is about perfect: several great melodies that lead into each other, Zawinul sounding perfect both on his tried-and-true Fender Rhodes but also playing eerie and organic sounding leads on his ARP, the debut of electric bass phenomena Pastorius whose lines are funky and melodic at once, and Shorter playing brilliantly on tenor in balance with the electric sounds. "Black Market" is vintage percussive Weather Report, with an ostinato bass line exploding into a burst of harmonic sunlight that is so joyous you're excused for shouting out loud. "Three Clowns", though a Shorter tune, shows Zawinul's orchestral keyboards at the limit of sounding good. The composition is so fine that you excuse the cheese, but the seeds are planted for the band's eventual souring -- a kind of echoey synth-plasticity that doesn't survive the 30-year gap since the album came out. Still, Shorter's music is irresistible.

The tunes from Heavy Weather fully incorporate Pastorius, and they exude a musical confidence that will soon become an Achilles' heel. Here, however, a terrific balance is found. The box set puts up three tracks that sparkle with pop power but also seem to fulfill the jazz-rock promise of intelligence and speed. Pastorius's punchy "Havona" gets Zawinul up on acoustic piano again, rippling and exact, and draws a darting soprano solo from Shorter as Pastorius's electric bass plays impossible -- but also impossibly beautiful -- electric figures. The tune has the punch of big band jazz under a fusion cover.

The same can be said for the hit, "Birdland", which still sounds great -- Zawinul using his Oberheim polyphonic synth to recreate a Basie vibe for another age. But how many of us remember the incredible Shorter track, "Palladium"? Succulent and ripe and playful, this may be the best thing the mature Weather Report would have to offer us. Like the earliest tracks, "Palladium" sets Shorter's saxophone and Zawinul's Rhodes into direct dialogue, but the Latin-jazz groove beneath them is a perfect home for Pastorius's Florida-raised bass and the clattering percussion of Alex Acuna and Manolo Badrena. On the out-chorus, both of the leaders solo with joy, Zawinul even making his synthesizer seem shoutingly human.

I dare you not to love this band, a jazz group operating with the force of pop appeal. But: almost on a dime, it was over.

Out of Balance, Overconfident, Over (In Concert)

The success of "Birdland" and Heavy Weather (which reached #30 on the Billboard pop chart) brought Weather Report to a new audience of radio listeners and prog-rock fans. It was an opportunity, and it was a danger.

My dearest hope in listening to the second half of this box set and in watching the 1978 concert was that historical perspective would prove wrong the deeply disappointed teenager in me. I swear: I wanted to be wrong. I wanted to listen to Mr. Gone and Procession with a renewed wonder and humility. Alas: no can do.

Mr. Gone, the next album, was plainly a Zawinul solo project of overproduced grandeur. Here we get "The Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat" -- a tune of horribly overblown, synth-mad, faux-nativism. It has all the flaws that would plague the band from here on out: too much artificial sound, not enough room for improvisation, too little Shorter Shorter, too much chanting world-music-y singing.

You can almost taste Zawinul's overconfidence souring the drink. But why merely taste it when you can watch it on your TV in the DVD concert that comes with this box? Filmed in Offenbach, Germany in 1978, this pro-quality recording catches the band honestly and clearly -- the very band and even set list I saw during college. The band is blatantly looking for a connection to some kind of rock audience; flooding the stage with smoke and cool lighting effects, playing recorded sound effects before and after songs, more accurately to recreate the album performances, leaving the musicians on stage alone for long solo showcases that were designed to get the audience pumped over speed or volume or virtuosity.

The "hits" are here -- "Black Market" to start, "Birdland" to finish, endless encores, and plenty of great tunes in between -- but the soul is gone. Everyone plays great, no doubt, but the strut and preen of arena rock overshadows the band's potential. When Pastorius starts his bass feature by playing Shorter's Miles-era tune "Dolores", well -- it's a thrill. But then the junk-shop show-offery of the solo as a whole seems to dishonor the gesture. Zawinul lurks behind his band of keyboards constantly fussing over the settings and knobs, more a sound engineer than a musician living and creating in the moment. The show seems literally to be processed through his patch cords. Erskine is propulsive but without nuance; shirtless and brash and backbeat giddy. Only Shorter comes off as a guy trying to play great music in the moment -- and he is, of course, the one guy the crowd doesn't seem to get the way they love the others.

I wanted to cry about it at 18, and I am crying about it, now. A great band: suddenly way out of balance. And once that balance went out of whack, the band was finished -- and there wasn't enough jazz left in their sensibility to make it worth listening to them just for their great playing alone.

The Long Slide to Irrelevance

After Mr. Gone received an infamous "one star" review in Down Beat magazine, Weather Report's fatal flaw seemed exposed. Once a complementary partnership between two jazz giants, the band was now Zawinul's utterly. Though Pastorius's presence had done the band good, Shorter seemed marginalized at best. Other jazz musicians -- guys in awe of Shorter -- wondered how he could let it happen. Drummer Jack DeJohnette even wrote a tune, "Where or Wayne?", meant to lament his diminution in the band. With Zawinul now slathering on the synths and credited as "producer" on the albums, things went Joe's way or no way. Which, I'm afraid, were largely the same.

Terrible stuff like "The Orphan" (from 8:30) is in the box -- with a children's' choir to boot -- warning you to stay away. There are jams like "Dara Factor Two" (from 1982's Weather Report) that are tossed-off nothings from a group that once aspired to change the face of music. You'll find something as dull as "Procession" here: a going nowhere groove and melody that comes to seem like one long synth chord that will never stop, topped by noodling decidedly NOT of the "everybody solos, nobody solos" school. Some interesting stuff -- "D-Flat Waltz", an angular herky-jerky workout -- is fouled by horrendous production and Zawinul-synth-indulgence. The third disc of the box set is half-listenable at best. And even when it's OK, it was nothing new -- certainly not the fulfillment of the promise shown only five years early.

But there are some glimmers. The album Night Passage from '80 fares pretty well. Zawinul's "Dream Clock" gives both Pastorius and Shorter's tenor some lovely changes to play over; big arcing swaths of melody on which they intertwine beautifully. It seems somewhat like a rehash of Heavy Weather's brilliant "A Remark You Made", but it's still terrific. Shorter's "Port of Entry" has a nice loose groove built around hand-drumming and -- wow -- acoustic piano accents, and Pastorius's solo is probably the greatest electric bass-playing on record. From the last Weather Report album, Sportin' Life, Shorter's "Face on the Barroom Floor" is a genuine melodic performance on soprano sax. Domino Theory's "Predator" isn't going to put you off fusion forever, and it gives you a sense of how the last Weather Report rhythm section -- Victor Bailey on bass and Omar Hakim on drums -- could really lay down a sweet, rubbery groove.

But even the casual listener and non-jazz-fan will be able to tell you that the last third of Weather Report's story is clammy with uneasiness. It makes you want to reach back into history and make it so "Birdland" never happened -- wondering if maybe that was the cookie that made Zawinul go crazy with the murderous impulse that only a polyphonic synthesizer can carry out.

And So...

But a complete examination of the Weather Report story makes the decline and fall of the great band seem inevitable. They started as a "supergroup" that played the most delicate of music -- a critics' darling on a major label that didn't sell all that many records. There was more pressure to "succeed" than there was pressure to be great. No wonder the balance gradually tipped further and further toward a mechanical populism.

The leaders of the band were yin and yang: an elusive African-American genius whose music got more indirect and subtle over time, and an ambitious European who wrote the funkiest tunes in the book of a funky and popular band and who had a taste for electronics. No wonder the band came to be dominated by the ambitious mastermind rather than the mystic. The only wildcards in the deck -- the arrival of a once-in-a-lifetime bass player in Pastorius and the three-cherries-in-a-row jackpot of "Birdland" -- probably just made the band's peak seem that much higher. And, of course, they made the band's fall-off that much more pronounced.

Today, Zawinul remains an imposing figure -- going more his own way with his world music-oriented Zawinul Syndicate -- and Shorter leads one of finest pure-jazz groups in the world. Vitous plays, teaches, and composes far from the pull of "fusion". You feel happy for them all that Weather Report let them go. (Pastorius suffered from severe mental problems and substance abuse and was beaten to death in Florida in 1987.)

I had a great time digging into Forecast: Tomorrow. It gave me the same feeling I get when I look at a scrapbook filled with high school photos. I smiled a lot, and I also cringed a lot. But I managed not to feel any regret.

They were a great band... but, you know, I'm glad they're no more. Long live Weather Report.

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