This comprehensive live set moves back and forth in time, and between quintet and quartet line-ups. The comparisons make for fascinating listening, and suggest that maybe the jazz fusion band is actually more genre defying than defining.
"We don't fuse nothin'. We just play from the heart." So said Weather Report leader Joe Zawinul, according to the band's drummer Peter Erskine at the start of his energetic, comprehensive notes for The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981. It poses an interesting question to start from in listening to these four live discs. If Weather Report, long considered a flagship fusion band, isn't in fact a fusion band, then what are they?
It opens up another series of questions as well about where the band came from and where it went. Weather Report was always a studio entity, and it's hard not to see Miles Davis's influence of Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul's work in this group, no matter how much they might protest. The In A Silent Way sessions in particular loom large over the band's early work. But for all its studio mastery, Weather Report could also bring it live, as evidenced on the second half of I Sing the Body Electric and some of 8:30. But now The Legendary Live Tapes provides an interesting, comprehensive live document of the band's post-Heavy Weather years. It both connects back to the band's early, wilder days, and yet also displays an impressive tightness. There's a cohesion -- maybe that's a word Zawinul would go with -- that ties the players and the sounds together. But there's still room for plenty of experiment and exploration.
Maybe the best thing about this four-disc set is that it is not presented chronologically. Instead, discs one and three come from quintet shows played in 1980 and 1981, while discs two and four have tracks culled from quartet shows in 1978. The core band is the same here, with Zawinul on keys, Jaco Pastorius on bass, Wayne Shorter on sax, and Peter Erskine on drums. The 80's dates add Robert Thomas, Jr. on percussion. The set goes back and forth in time, and back and forth between quintet and quartet, and the comparisons make for fascinating listening, especially as the tracklist doesn't spend a lot of time mulling over different takes of the same songs.
Disc One opens with a droning, all-encompassing take on "8:30", complete with talk-box vamping. But it clears out plenty of space for a tight take on "Sightseeing". The band takes a direct jazz approach here, at least as a starting place. They introduce the theme, play around with it a few times, solo off of it, and then launch into space. It's worth noting that these recordings come from tapes made mostly by sound guy Brian Risner. It's a seemingly basic recording method for a band so prone to studio noodling, but the sound is remarkably crisp. You can hear Pistorius running his odd, off-kilter, funky lines through any holes Shorter leaves in his solos. Zawinul's keys seems to come from all angles. Erskine and Thomas, Jr.'s percussion lay steady yet unpredictable beats throughout. The drums feel foundation, almost too far down in the mix at times, until they erupt in a perfectly placed solo. The opening set rolls along with its groove, rumbling through "Brown Street" perfectly (even if those repeating whistles sound dated), but the band also drifts out in the odd, transfixing spaces of "Three Views of a Secret", suggesting that the atmospheric influence of In a Silent Way hadn't softened over a decade later.
It's a wide open and impressive set, and it both compliments and contrasts nicely with disc two. There are moments of more refined clarity in the quarter recordings. "Birdland", one of the most famous, ahem, jazz fusion songs of all time, is played as sharply as anything here to kick of the album's second set. What's interesting about this set is the shifts in band dynamics. On disc one, Pistorius and Shorter seem locked in to each other, weaving their way around one another at every turn. The quartet shows feel more like a back and forth between Shorter and Zawinul. "Birdland" centers around their rise-and-fall interplay, though the deep rhythm section is vital to the tune. Then "A Remark You Made" lets both reach for the rafters. Zawinul backs up Shorter's solo on the keys, adding reach to his already lengthy phrasings, before Zawinul himself leaps into an impressive piano solo.
The back and forth here isn't just about band dynamics. It also shows the many sides of the Weather Report sound. Sure, the quintet can stretch out in different ways, as on the expansive and aggressive turns of "Madagascar", but the quartet could find the same knotty spaces and exploratory structures on "Gibraltar". The quartet could tighter up into a nearly hard-bop groove on "Directions" (originally composed by Zawinul for Miles Davis), but the quintet could downright swing in way Duke would love on "Rockin' in Rhythm". There's also the solo tracks to consider as further complications of the band's sound. The group would clear out and let, say Joe and Wayne play together on their own, or let Erskine pound on his kits for a bracing five minutes on disc two, while Pistorius rips off an inventive, harmonic-laden solo on disc four. The band was so bonded playing together, that when they break apart and play on their own, you start to see new angles to their sound, new views on their secret.
And therein lies the pleasure of this excellent set. The question of what kind of band Weather Report was isn't clarified -- it's cast into further doubt and complexity. It's not that anyone has called the band a jazz fusion outfit as a pejorative, but it also feels like a limiting label for what they are capable of here. It also suggests that their greatest strength was not in the studio, but in their compositions, their musical dialogue between one another, their energetic execution. Erskine ends the liner notes here with his own answer to what Weather Report was. "Weather Report was a JAZZ BAND," he writes in all caps. The Ellington nods by Zawinul in his solos, the way the band could swing, the long history of jazz from bop to then unrolling with every note of Shorter's sax -- these would all suggest Erskine was right. Or maybe he's just giving us a different place to continue the conversation on this great band. The truth lies somewhere between Zawinul's denial of fusion, and Erskine's claiming of jazz. The answer, thorny and evasive as it may be, comes brilliantly through The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981.