A long-overdue homage to perhaps the greatest fusion ensemble of all time. Centered around the molten core of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, Weather Report transcended category and gave shape to a fresh, vital form of improvised music during their decade-plus of prominence. Putting together a best-of from such a chameleonic entity had to be a daunting task, and no doubt some fans will scream foul over the exclusion of personal favorites. So it goes. The present compilation is more than representative, it’s just about the best summary that could fit onto a single disc.
The eleven tracks date from 1973 to 1980, from the nascent band of adventurers with Miroslav Vitous on bass through the world-famous Jaco period. Since Weather Report changed drummers as often as socks, with the bass chair in a similar flux, the onus fell on Zawinul and Shorter to provide unity and direction to the group. For the most part the tempestuous pair succeeded, with the frequent missteps that characterize such groundbreaking music. Not all of their compositions were memorable themewise; motivic development and improvisation were always the Report’s best suits. And it’s the ensemble interaction here that really makes this collection something to treasure.
It was only logical to kick this set off with the mega-hit “Birdland”, so famous in part because of its noteworthy multi-part structure. This is the Weather Report with which most listeners are familiar: the quacking and whispering keyboards, Pastorius’ inconceivable bass facility, Shorter’s almost subsidiary offerings. It’s precisely because of the stereotype wrought by this hit that such a global look at the whole WR picture is necessary. The next track, “Mysterious Traveller”, takes us three years back and a musical universe away. Different bassist and percussionist, two drummers, and an radically different vibe built upon choppy, lurking grooves. It’s a contrasting face of the same gem, as are most of the other tunes here. Another year backwards is “Boogie Woogie Waltz” (an ironic title, as neither the waltz-time nor the boogie feel are immediately evident) from the Vitous era. This one is grounded in the disco-funk-jazz style of electric Miles Davis, a valued nod to the roots of the form. Back then the bass’ function was solely supportive, a far cry from the equality afforded Jaco.
Such unity-in-diversity is evident throughout the collection. “The Elders”, from the condemned-in-its-day Mr. Gone, is lightweight almost to the point of insubstantial, while “Freezing Fire” is sweet with percussive textures and exotica. “Night Passage” and the lovely “A Remark You Made” skate along on the flawless drive of Pastorius’ bass. “Elegant People” and “Man in the Green Shirt” contain some of the band’s most remarkable use of sounds beyond the norm, thanks to Shorter’s Lyricon and the ever-resourceful Zawinul. “Blackthorn Rose” is an attractive, if highly uncharacteristic, acoustic duet by the co-leaders which confirms their jazz roots in case there was any doubt. “Black Market” is an ideal way to finish up the day, its constant foreign vibe elevating the speakers and our spirits. As usual, the drums are all-important without overwhelming the total group conception.
If you only know Weather Report by way of Heavy Weather, this collection is especially recommended as a full-bore overview of the group’s aesthetic. If you don’t know the band at all, hold onto your hat and prepare for a ride like no other.