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Weather Report: Heavy Weather

Sacha O'Grady By

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Weather Report were one of the earliest jazz fusion groups to emerge at the beginning of the '70s. They were rare in that, like Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, they didn't have a guitarist to light the fire and excite the audience as was the case with Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever; instead, they relied, in addition to pure instrumental virtuosity, upon intelligent compositions. The band's founding members were none other than Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, two exceptional musicians who had already contributed considerably to Miles Davis' continuing evolution throughout the '60s and into the early 70s; some of the great trumpeter's most pioneering achievements might not, in fact, have been possible without them.

Now, forty years after the event, Heavy Weather was the Weather Report's major commercial breakthrough; arguably their finest album ever, it succeeded in breathing new life into a genre that was challenged to compete against the latest pop/rock fads of the time.

Part of the LP's success, it must be said, was due to the group's enlisting of John Francis "Jaco" Pastorius, fretless electric bassist extraordinaire; a man who forever altered the perception of his instrument and whose self-titled 1976 Epic Records debut, caused such a sensation that, at the time, many considered it to be one the greatest bass albums ever recorded.

The opening "Birdland" features some wondrous keyboards and smooth as silk soprano and tenor saxophone. Not unlike Hancock's Headhunters (Columbia, 1973), one aspect which differentiates Heavy Weather from so many of its intellectual cousins is that this was jazz fusion you could groove to, removing the need to sit on the couch with an expensive glass of wine and naval gaze over every note being played while, at the same time, snubbing your nose at those musical Neanderthals next door. In other words one doesn't have to analyze it in order to enjoy it.

"A Remark You Made" is a darker, less radiant number, with some reflective playing by all involved, especially Shorter, whose saxophone is exquisite throughout, as Pastorius plucks away in a soulful and intimate fashion. In one word: perfection.

"Teen Town" is Pastorius' vehicle to blow, where he displays his considerable talents, including playing drums. Shorter and Zawinul provide an attractive melodic background to what is the album's shortest track, and one which is both relaxed and tense all at the same time.

"Harlequin," the final song of the first side, is also fairly short at only four minutes. Still, it packs a subtle and cerebral punch as only jazz fusion can, where Pastorius' bass is melodically uplifting, alongside Alex Acuna's multi-dexterous drumming, and of course Zawinul and Shorter's own inventively complex contributions.

Side two kicks off with a live recording of Manolo Badrena shouting out in Spanish followed by some intense drumming and percussion. Fortunately it only lasts for two minutes before we're back in the studio with the funky and multifaceted "Palladium," where the boys really get to show off their instrumental abilities. There are lots of congas, spacey keyboards, and some extraordinary playing in general. "The Juggler" is the sort of thing which might have resulted if Jethro Tull and Return to Forever had jammed together, where Zawinul even imitates the sound of a flute through his synthesizer (perhaps one of the reasons to dislike it; give this listener a real flute any day). The final track has everyone sounding like they're in a supersonic sprint except for Shorter, who offers a brief interlude to bring things down a bit, allowing Pastorius to flex some finger muscles before they fly off again down the jazz fusion highway as if in a serious attempt to break the sound barrier.

Heavy Weather was a landmark achievement. Not only did it revitalize a sophisticated musical movement, but it injected it with energy, making it more accessible to a public who was about to be bombarded by a new wave of psychological warfare, otherwise known as disco. What this album did was pump new life into a commercially decaying art form, offering those who required something a bit more challenging than Kiss or the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. As if to prove that quality music didn't have to be plastic in order to be popular.

Track Listing: Birdland; A Remark You Made; Teen Town; Harlequin; Rumba Mamá; Palladíum; The Juggler; Havona.

Personnel: Joe Zawinul: electric piano, grand piano, synthesizer; Wayne Shorter: tenor and soprano saxophones; Jaco Pastorius: bass, steel drums, drums; Alex Acuna: drums, conga; Manola Badrena: percussion.

Title: Heavy Weather | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Columbia Records

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