Weather Report: Forecast: Tomorrow
While the virtuosity of its members was never in dispute, of all the groups that emerged in the 1970s fusion era, Weather Report was the one that best avoided the trappings of excessthe victory of technical facility over musical substance to which other bands of the time fell prey. However, despite an auspicious beginning that leaned closer to a free jazz aesthetic than groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return to Forever, notwithstanding an emphasis on electric sounds and advanced production values, Weather Report's continuous personnel changes and stylistic reinventions caused ongoing controversy throughout the group's fifteen-year existence.
Fans tend to divide the group into three distinct erasthe early, freer material, the middle groove period with bassists Alphonso Johnson and, later, Jaco Pastorius and their final period where co-leader/keyboardist Joe Zawinul's increasing interest in world music became more dominant and, ultimately, segued into subsequent groups including the short-lived Weather Update and his ongoing Zawinul Syndicate.
Forecast: Tomorrow brings together three CDs of largely available material and one DVDa complete 1978 concert performance that is the jewel of the set. There are also a few unreleased/extended tracks from the earlier part of Weather Report's career that shed greater light on the group's imagination and forward-thinking. What's also remarkable when working one's way through the three CDs, is that while the group that recorded Sportin' Life (Columbia, 1985) was a very different group that turned many heads with "Milky Way," the opening track to Weather Report (Columbia, 1971), there were consistencies as well.
Perhaps the two greatest threads that ran through Weather Report's career were the consistent compositional strength of Zawinul and co-founder/saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and its orchestral approach. Weather Report always managed to sound bigger than its usual four or five member line-up. In the hundred-page booklet that accompanies the box, drummer Peter Erskine recalls how, at a press conference shortly after he joined the band, he was asked if his prior experience playing in big bands qualified him to play with Weather Report. Zawinul, never less than outspoken, responded, "Weather Report is a big band and we are a small group, too. Next question."
In many ways, when Weather Report first came together, what they did was inevitable. This is clearly documented on the first disc, which begins with three non-Weather Report tracks that demonstrate all the fundamentals that the new group would soon extrapolate into even greater innovations. Miles Davis' recording of Zawinul's "In A Silent Way" demonstrated an ability to work with space and ambience. The title track from Wayne Shorter's 1969 Blue Note record Super Nova suggested an advanced form of collective improvisation, the "everybody solos and nobody solos" aesthetic that would define much of Weather Report's music. And an excerpt from Zawinul's "Experience In E," from the Cannonball Adderley's 1965 Capitol Records disc Domination, proved that even this early the keyboardist was thinking in broader orchestral terms.
Weather Report often engendered the comment "How did they do that?" and the opening of their first album, the Zawinul/Shorter duet "Milky Way," was the first of many such occasions. After years of silence on the subject, Zawinul explains exactly how they did it in the booklet. But even when you know how they did it, the fact that they had the creativity to conceive it makes this track a defining moment in musical history.
Bassist Miroslav Vitous, who was also a co-founder of the group and remained with them through Mysterious Traveler (Columbia, 1974) albeit in a radically reduced role, played a key role in defining the first album's sound. Vitous may have concentrated on acoustic bass, but by feeding it through a distortion unit and wah wah pedal, he was a significant expander of the band's textural potential. He was (and still is) a fine arco player, as his work on the Zawinul tone poem "Orange Lady" makes clear.
Unfortunately, when Zawinul began to become interested in music with more defined groove after their second US release, I Sing the Body Electric (Columbia, 1972), Vitous' shortcomings became more apparent. On "125th Street Congress," from Sweetnighter (Columbia, 1973), Vitous plays acoustic bass alongside electric bassist Andrew White III. But by the time of Mysterious Traveler (Columbia, 1974), Vitous' involvement shrank further until he was ultimately replaced by young electric bassist Alphonso Johnson (who plays on most of the album). Mysterious Traveller may be a transitional album, but it's still one of the group's strongest.
Zawinul's orchestral leanings were evident from the beginning and he would evolve into a remarkable self-orchestrator as he accumulated more and more electric keyboards. Still, "Unknown Soldier," from I Sing the Body Electric, is one of the best examples of him working with conventional (and largely acoustic) instrumentationan expanded Weather Report featuring piccolo trumpet, flute, English horn and three vocalists. It's an eight-minute tour-de-force that remains as vital today as it was over thirty years ago.
One of the gems of the first disc is the full version of Shorter's "Eurydice," that was edited down by nearly half on the group's debut. Shorter was an interesting foil for Zawinul, a more introspective and cerebral alternative to Zawinul's more extroverted nature. Capable of navigating anything, Shorter's emphasis on economy would eventually cause fans to postulate that he was being pushed out of the band around the time of Mr. Gone (Columbia, 1978), where many suggested he was the titular figure. But there's no shortage of Shorter throughout the box set, either compositionally or in performance.
The first disc also includes an unreleased studio version of Zawinul's "Directions" which, by the time they recorded it, had become a staple of Miles Davis' live performances (which perhaps explains why it was never released until now, other than in live versions). The majority of the first disc leans towards rich orchestration, loose improvisation or both concurrently, but ends on a suggestive note with Sweetnighter's "125th Street Congress," setting the stage for the second disc.
Disc two begins with an unreleased live version of "Nubian Sundance" from Mysterious Traveler. Longer than the original, and without the added production, it features Johnson's first appearance here, alongside drummer Darryl Brown who, until now, was never represented on a Weather Report album. The first thing noticeable is just how dense the group's sound had become, largely due to Zawinul's recently acquired synthesizers. There's also an energy and a taste of world music concerns that would dominate more later.
Weather Report fans may find the choice of material for Forecast: Tomorrow to be odd. Other than an alternate version of "Nubian Sundance," the only other track from Mysterious Traveler is the Zawinul/Shorter duo "Blackthorn Rose," and the only track from the follow-up, Tale Spinnin'" (Columbia, 1975), is the world music-centric "Badia." But rather than treating this box set as a greatest hits collection, it's more appropriate to look at it as a retrospective about evolution. Sure, groove tunes like "Cucumber Slumber" and the title track from Mysterious Traveler would be appropriate as fan favorites (as would "Boogie Woogie Waltz" from Sweetnighter), but what they signify in terms of where the group was going is already well-represented.
It's also possible that, with some material showing up on the concert DVD, Zawinul, Shorter and Bob Beldenwho co-produced the boxchose not to repeat it on the audio discs (although there is some cross-over). And so the choices from Weather Report's next release, Black Market (Columbia, 1976) are only a little surprising. While there's a live version of the title track on the DVD, the studio version is essential listening, if only for Zawinul's incredible orchestration. While he was a remarkable live performer, managing to squeeze in many of the multiple keyboard tracks that he'd layer on the studio releases, the blend of sounds on the studio version remains outstanding today. "Cannon Ball" introduces Pastorius on bass, and proves that his lyricism was every bit as important as his energy and formidable technique. Shorter's brief "Three Clowns" may be an odd choice, but it's another feat of complex composition and vivid texture.
While everyone has their favorite Weather Report album, Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977) was the one that pushed the group into superstardom. Johnson was a distinctive bassist, but Pastorius, with his rock-star looks, untouchable playing and remarkable writing, made the core group a triumvirate again for the first time since its early days with Vitous. On this, his first full album with the group, he was already listed as co-producer and wrote two of the album's strongest tunesthe staggering "Teen Town," which became de rigeur learning for every bassist at the time, and "Havona," which demonstrated a harmonic language still referenced to this day. But the radio hit of the album was Zawinul's "Birdland," a tune that blended a catchy theme with complex writing. Featuring Shorter soloing over a chromatically-descending set of changes, it proved that the group may have been targeting a larger audience, but was making no compromises when it came to how they achieved it.
The second disc finishes with two tracks from the studio side of the mostly live and Grammy Award-winning 8:30 (Columbia, 1979), and one track from the widely criticized Mr. Gonealthough time has been, perhaps, kinder to it than the press was at the time. Its layers of synthesizers, lack of radio-friendliness and diminished participation of Shorter may have made it something of an experiment in orchestration for Zawinul that was perceived to be a failure. "The Pursuit Of The Woman With The Feathered Hat" could easily have been supplemented here with Pastorius' "Punk Jazz" and the fiery but short take of Shorter's "Pinocchio." But there's only so much room on a disc, and the three CDs all clock in at close to capacity.
While it's understandable that the final disc has to emphasize the final incarnation of the band with bassist Victor Bailey and drummer Omar Hakim, it's unfortunate that too little space is provided for Night Passage (Columbia, 1980) and especially Weather Report (Columbia, 1982), the swan song for Pastorius and drummer Peter Erskine (who joined the band for the 1978 tour and first recorded with them as part of the Mr. Gone sessions). While mental health issues and the extreme substance abuse that characterized the last tragic years of Pastorius' life diminished his role on his final album with the group, his playing remained as vital as ever.
Still, for a band that began as a more collective improvising unit, Pastorius' dominant musical personality had shifted the group closer to the bombast that it had managed to sidestep for most of its career. Night Passage did, however, mark a return to a certain jazz-centricity, even including a reworked Duke Ellington tune. And so, with Erskine and Pastorius gone and Bailey and Hakim in, the band made a shift for the final few years to a band that would indulge Zawinul's ever-increasing interest in world music. And while the bassist and drummer were equally capable of dazzling virtuosity, their role was more clearly defined by Zawinul as a rhythm section.
Far too many people regard these last few post-Pastorius years as never living up to the band's earlier glories. Still, ignoring the out-with-a-whimper swan-song, This is This (Columbia, 1986), where Shorter's role was reduced almost to sideman status, the material culled from the last three Weather Report releasesProcession (Columbia, 1983), Domino Theory (Columbia, 1984) and Sportin' Life (Columbia, 1985)turns out to be surprisingly strong. Perhaps time and distance from what came before now allows this final version of Weather Report to be assessed on its own terms, rather than comparatively. Certainly the three tracks from Procession and two from Sportin' Life hold up as well as any earlier Weather Report line-up.
A DJ Logic remix of "125th Street Congress" closes out the third disc in a way that's meant to demonstrate just how influential Weather Report has been on modern musical trends. That may be true, but the track adds little to what can be determined from simply listening to the untouched Weather Report material, and so it's little more than a marginally interesting footnote.
If Pat Metheny Group performances are as close to a rock and roll aesthetic as jazz gets these days, in 1978 Weather Report was the rock and roll band of jazz, as the DVD footage attests. Pastorius' rock posturing aside, by this time Weather Report shows had become much more stridently orchestrated than the looser improvisational affairs of pre-1975. Lighting, smoke machines, pre-recorded tapesÃ¢âï¿½¬Â¦all these things meant that, while there was plenty of muscular playing, Weather Report wasn't just a band to be heard; it was a band to be experienced. The two-hour concert features material dating right back to its first release ("Waterfall") through to tracks from Mr. Gone.
The set also features a number of solo spots, and the Zawinul/Shorter duets that had been popular from the beginning. Highlights include Shorter's powerful tenor on a blindingly fast version of "Black Market," Pastorius' staggering sixteenth-note groove on his "River People" and, despite those who sneer at it for its commercial success, "Birdland," where Zawinul's ability to recreate almost all the keyboard textures is especially inspiring when one considers just how limiting the analogue synthesizers of the time were.
Erskine was the perfect match for Pastoriusa drummer who could swing hard when necessary, and also match the bassist's own flamboyance beat-for-beat when necessary. It may have been all about the brashness of youth (Erskine was, after all, under 25 at the time), and he's evolved into a far more intuitive and subtle player, but Weather Report was the gig that put his name out in ways that previous experience with Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson hadn't.
The DVD is well-recorded and, for the time, the sound quality is fine. There have been some complaints that it's not a 5.1 mix but, frankly, with this being the first time that a full Weather Report concert from its commercial peak has been available, that shouldn't be an issue. For anyone who didn't see the band in its heyday, this DVD is the closest thing to being there, and proof that Weather Report deserved every accolade it ever received.
For those who find too many of their favorite tunes missing from Forecast: Tomorrow, remember that the box is not intended as a collection of the band's most popular material. Instead, it traces the evolution of the band from its earliest roots to its final hours, and draws a line through it that has never been so clear. Composition and orchestration. There from the beginning, there to the end.
Personnel: Joe Zawinul: organ, electric piano, prepared acoustic piano; Wayne Shorter: tenor and soprano saxophones; Miles Davis: trumpet (1); John McLaughlin: guitar (1, 2); Herbie Hancock: electric piano (1); Chick Corea: electric piano (1), drums (2); Dave Holland: bass (1); Tony Williams: drums (1); Sonny Sharrock: guitar (2); Miroslav Vitous: bass (all tracks except 3); Jack DeJohnette: drums (2); Airto Moreira: percussion (2, 5-8); Nat Adderley: cornet (3); Cannonball Adderley: alto saxophone (3); Walter Booker: bass (3); Roy McCurdy: drums (3); orchestra (3); Alphonse Mouzon: drums (5, 6, 7, 8); Wilmer Wise: piccolo trumpet (8); Hubert Laws: flute (8); Andrew White III: English horn (8), electric bass (12); Yolande Bavan: vocals (8); Joshie Armstrong: vocals (8); Chapman Roberts: vocals (8); Roger Powell: consultant (8); Eric Gravatt: drums (9-12); Dom Um Romao: percussion (9-11), pandeira, cuica, tamanco, chucalho, gong, tambourine, cowbell (12); Herschell Dwellingham: drums (12); Marungo: Israeli jar drum (12).
Tracks: In A Silent Way; Super Nova; Experience In E (excerpt); Milky Way; Tears; Eurydice (full version); Orange Lady; Unknown Soldier; Directions (tk. 1); Surucucu; Second Sunday In August; 125th Street Congress.
Personnel: Joe Zawinul: electric piano, synthesizers, oud, melodica, mzuthra, vocal, west africk, xylophone, acoustic piano, orchestration, ARP 2600, Yamaha grand piano, Oberheim polyphonic synthesizer, keyboards, kalimba, thumbeki drums, sleigh bells; Wayne Shorter: tenor and soprano saxophones, vocals; Alphonso Johnson: electric bass (1, 3, 5, 6); Darryl Brown: drums (1); Dom Um Romao: percussion (1); Alyrio Lima: percussion (3); Ndugu: drums (3); Jaco Pastorius: electric bass, mandocello, vocals, steel drums, drums (4, 7-10, 12); Narada Michael Walden: drums (4, 5); Don Alias: percussion (5); Alex Acuna: percussion (5, 6), drums (7-9); Chester Thompson: drums (6); Manolo Badrena: tambourine (8), congas, percussion (9), solo voice, vocals (10); Peter Erskine: drums, vocals (10, 12); Jon Lucien: vocals (10); West Los Angeles Christian Academy Children's Choir: vocals (11).
Tracks: Nubian Sundance (previously unreleased live version); Blackthorn Rose; Badia; Cannon Ball; Black Market; Three Clowns; Havona; Birdland; Palladium; The Pursuit Of The Woman With The Feathered Hat; The Orphan; Sightseeing.
Personnel: Joe Zawinul: keyboards, percussion, vocoder, vocals, orchestrations, electric piano); Wayne Shorter: tenor and soprano saxophones; Jaco Pastorius: electric bass, percussion, voice (1-4); Peter Erskine: drums, drum computer, claves (1-4); Robert Thomas Jr.: percussion, hand drums, tambourine (1-4); Victor Bailey: electric bass, vocals (5-12); Omar Hakim: drums, vocals (5-12); Jose Rossy: percussion, vocals (5-10); Mino Cinelu: percussion (12); Miroslav Vitous: acoustic bass (13); Andrew White III: electric bass (13); Eric Gravatt: drums (13); Herschell Dwellingham: drums (13); Marungo: Israeli jar drum (13); Dom Um Romao: pandeira, cuica, tamanco, chucalho, gong, tambourine, cowbell (13); Carlos (Omega) Caberini: vocal (13).
Tracks: Dream Clock; Three Views Of A Secret; Port Of Entry; Dara Factor Two; Procession; Plaza Real; The Well; D-Flat Waltz; Domino Theory; Predator; Face On The Barroom Floor; Indiscretions; 125th Street Congress (DJ Logic remix).
Personnel: Wayne Shorter: saxophones; Joe Zawinul: keyboards; Jaco Pastorius: electric bass; Peter Erskine: drums.
Tracks: Black Market; Scarlet Woman; Young And Fine; The Pursuit Of The Woman With The Feathered Hat; A Remark You Made; River People; Thanks For The Memories; Delores/Portrait Of Tracy/Third Stone From The Sun; Mr. Gone; In A Silent Way; Waterfall; Teen Town; I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good/The Midnight Sun Will Never Set On You; Birdland; Introductions; Fred & Jack; Elegant People; Badia. Recorded September 28, 1978, Offenbach, Germany, produced by Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne.
Images taken from the Weather Report box set Forecast: Tomorrow.
DVD produced by Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne, licensed by Studio Hamburg Distribution &a Marketing GmbH