Year: 1976 – Producer: Wayne Shorter/Joe Zawinul – Label: Columbia – Genre: Jazz Fusion
In my mind, I always knew Weather Report, first and foremost, as ‘My Dad’s Favourite Band’ – but I didn’t know much about them. I knew my Dad was a big fan of The Police so, in my juvenile naivety, I assumed Weather Report were another New Wave outfit from the 80s much like The Police or Talking Heads – but, of course, they’re not.
Weather Report are one of the most prominent jazz fusion bands to emerge from the 70s along with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. Much like these two groups, Weather Report was made up of incredibly talented jazz musicians that were looking to move in a new direction following jazz’s demise.
Many of the Weather Report members played with some of the true jazz heavyweights. Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, pianist and saxophonist respectively, are credited on the hugely influential and seminal Miles Davis album ‘Bitches Brew’. Zawinul and Shorter also played with other big names over the years like Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderley to name a few. To be clear, though, the two didn’t have much freedom to express their musical voice in those groups. It was only when they formed Weather Report that their musical philosophy took centre stage and they were able to help define what people today regard as jazz fusion.
Another notable name on the personnel list of the album is bassist Jaco Pastorius (credited on tracks 2 and 6). Only 24 years of age at the time, Pastorius notoriously introduced himself to Zawinul as ‘the best bass player of all time’ and he would arguably go on to be just that. This album functions as a crucial stepping stone on his way to being one of the best jazz bassists ever.
The record’s opener ‘Black Market’ is a bouncing feel-good tune primarily revolving around a delicious bassline from Alphonso Johnson. We’re introduced to the insane synths that Zawinul will go on to use for the rest of the album – the timbre of the synths is unlike anything of the time but somehow fits into the overall sound perfectly. The verse transitions into a truly majestic refrain – the melody here seems like the perfect soundtrack to a warm summer afternoon, it’s so pleasant to listen to. Shorter then takes centre stage with an energetic solo, his wailing sax playing us to the final section of the piece where we loop back to the bassline first heard at the beginning. It’s so satisfactory to return back to the original bassline, it’s like you’ve come full circle on a musical journey. An altogether superlative composition by Zawinul.
The second track on the album, ‘Cannon Ball’, is named after the then recently deceased ex-bandmate of Zawinul: Cannonball Adderley. The track is soothing and comparatively much more calm than the opening track. The instrumentation is largely sparse and quite atmospheric, there isn’t a discernible riff or melody that drives the song. Pastorius is subbed in for Johnson on bass and his presence can be instantly recognised by the characteristic tonality and timbre of his bass. Traditionally known for, and even inventing, the fretless bass, Pastorius’ notes are consequently flowing in and out of each other as they do not have any frets to rigidly separate them. A sonic palate cleanser but this is not to say it’s a weak track.
‘Gibraltar’ is the third and final track on the album written by Zawinul. The track begins sheepishly, shyly making itself heard before the funk is kicked in around the 80 second mark. Amidst the flurry of instruments, Alex Acuña’s Afro-Cuban style percussion stands out as giving the track some real character and groove – this can be said for the rest of the album as well. Zawinul uses this track as a platform to exhibit some seriously outrageous groove – some which seem reminiscent of old video game console sound effects. Needless to say, they totally work within the context of the album. Being the longest track on the album the music goes through several arrangements but sticks with one particular melody which it carries to its close. By the end of the track, the melody is played as break-neck speed with the whole ensemble creating one of the most energetic jams on the whole record.
The pace is taken right down again with ‘Elegant People’, one of Shorter’s compositions. The track largely revolves around one bass groove played with staccato notes that make it feel so, so funky. The bass is accompanied by Zawinul’s piano, which is playing the exact same thing for the most part, and results in a Latin-influenced groove that makes for fantastic listening.
‘Three Clowns’ is another sedated, pensive piece by Shorter. This track resembles traditional jazz more than any other on the album. The instrumentation is bare and priority is given to sax and piano. Of course, there are some crazy synths and sleigh bells included later on to remind us we’re listening to fusion.
The opening bassline to ‘Barbary Coast’ may be one of the best basslines ever put to record in the history of mankind – you can take that to the bank. Jaco Pastorius is to thank for this sumptious and, frankly, fat groove. The only critique I would have of this track is that it is far, far too short. It’s actually the shortest track on the album but there are some great live versions where it’s stretched out to nearly 10 minutes – a much more fitting duration. The tempo of the track is so perfect one would think they scientifically engineered it to find the most enjoyable tempo for listeners. The dialogue between bass, piano, and sax here is also great to listen to – at no point does one take the lead, instead they do their own thing and throw around phrases and melodies like there’s no tomorrow. It’s simply a divine composition written by Pastorius and that’s all there is to say.
The album closes with the mighty ‘Herandnu’, one of the longest and most intense tracks on the record. There are some sections of this song that, if listened to out of context, one could mistakenly guess they were from a prog rock album. The rhythm is relentless, Chester Thompson’s drums are wonderfully busy and Johnson’s bass punctuates the whole thing beautifully. Shorter’s sax intermittently showers the track with some glorious phrases throughout – a fitting end to the album.
The blend of musical genres and styles as well as the wide use of instruments cause the album to sound so incredibly innovative in its sound – and this is the main reason it’s a personal favourite. On top of this, the songwriting is also praise-worthy because it was aptly able to balance traditional jazz style arrangements with more progressive fusion ones. Additionally, old and new are blended through the use of traditional jazz instruments like the saxophone and the cutting edge technology of the era like the Yamaha synthesizers used by Zawinul. Dynamics should also be mentioned under the songwriting bracket; there are many instances throughout the record where the music rises and swells into an avalanche of sound only to shrink to a soft cluster of notes. I guess this also relates to the purposeful pacing of the album, how it has one relaxed track that follows a more intense one to make for a more vital experience for the listener. And, of course, the individual talent of the superlative musicians causes the album to be collectively fantastic.
Top Tracks: Black Market, Gibraltar, Elegant People, Barbary Coast, Herandnu