Inception and formation
Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter first met and became friends in 1959 while they were playing in Maynard Ferguson’s Big Band. Zawinul went on to play with Cannonball Adderley’s group in the 1960s, while Shorter joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and then, in 1964, Miles Davis’ second great quintet. During this decade, both men made names for themselves as being among the best composers in jazz.
Zawinul would later join Shorter in contributing to the initial fusion music recordings of Miles Davis, and both men were part of the studio groups, which recorded the key Davis albums In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970). In consequence, Weather Report has often been seen as a spin-off from the Miles Davis bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, although Zawinul was never part of Davis’s touring line-up. Weather Report was initially formed in order to explore a more impressionistic and individualistic music (or, as Zawinul put it, “away from all that eight bars shit and then you go to the bridge…”)
Zawinul and Shorter recruited another Miles Davis associate, the classically trained Czech-born bass player Miroslav Vitouš, who’d previously played with Zawinul as well as with Herbie Mann, Bob Brookmeyer, Stan Getz and Chick Corea (Vitous has subsequently claimed that it was in fact Shorter and himself that founded Weather Report, with Shorter bringing in Zawinul afterwards.) All three men composed, and would form the core of the project. To complete the band, the trio brought in former McCoy Tyner drummer Alphonse Mouzon and set about looking for a full-time auxiliary percussionist as they began to record their debut album. The initial recruits were session player Don Alias and symphony orchestra percussionist Barbara Burton. During recording, Alias quarreled with Zawinul – allegedly due to the latter being too dictatorial over the percussion approach – and the innovative Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira (yet another Miles Davis alumnus) was brought in to complete the record. John McLaughlin was also invited to join the group, but decided to pursue his solo career instead.
Debut and first concerts
Weather Report’s self-titled debut album Weather Report (1971) caused a sensation in the jazz world on its arrival, due to the various talents of the group’s members and their unorthodox approach to their music. The album featured a softer sound than would be the case in later years, predominantly using acoustic bass, with Shorter exclusively playing soprano saxophone. The band later employed the use of synthesizers, instruments, and other effects, but the first album is still considered a classic of early fusion. It built on the avant-garde experiments, which Zawinul and Shorter had pioneered with Miles Davis on Bitches Brew (1970), including an avoidance of head-and-chorus composition in favor of continuous rhythm and movement, but taking the music further. To emphasize the group’s rejection of standard methodology, the album opened with the inscrutable avant-garde atmospheric piece “Milky Way” (created by Shorter’s extremely muted saxophone inducing vibrations in Zawinul’s piano strings while the latter pedaled the instrument). Down Beat magazine described the album as “music beyond category” (Dan Morgenstern, Down Beat, May 13, 1971) and awarded it the title of “Album of the Year” in the magazine’s polls that year.