Weather Report (1) – I Sing the Body Electric

From the late ’60’s throughout the ’70’s, jazz-rock or fusion was a vital force in music. I would argue that while both jazz and fusion are still very much with us today, that may well have been the height of jazz’ popularity. And one of the greatest proponents of this genre – for sixteen years from 1970 to 1986 –  was a tremendously talented and highly influential band called Weather Report.

I will here confess that around the time Weather Report first started recording, I was not yet into jazz. I was very much a rocker. But gradually – through friends who turned me on to John Coltrane and Miles Davis   –  I started to get into it. (Listening to prog-rock bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson and Gentle Giant didn’t hurt the cause either). What I heard I liked and my friend Steve-o who, to his lasting chagrin keeps showing up on these pages, turned me on to this particular band.

In a sense, they were an offshoot of Davis’ bands. The founders were Josef Zawinul, an Austrian-born keyboardist and Wayne Shorter who was a member of Miles’ Second Great Quintet. They recruited Czech-born bassist Miroslav Vitous, drummer Alphonse Mouzon and percussionist Airto Moreira.

Over the years, Weather Report turned out to be a very fluid band with only Zawinul and Shorter remaining as the core of the group. They employed a succession of players and blew through more drummers than Spinal Tap.

I get a kick out of how AllMusic categorizes their first self-titled album:

  • Cerebral
  • Elegant
  • Freewheeling
  • Refined
  • Sensual
  • Stylish
  • Complex
  • Fiery
  • Laid-back/mellow
  • Reserved
  • Sophisticated

The album [Weather Report] is very much of a piece with Miles’ In a Silent Way and Bitches’ Brew. From that first self-titled album, “Umbrellas”:

There was always a tug of war within the band between the free-form jazzy stuff and the more commercial instincts. Over time, Zawinul became the clear leader with Shorter, apparently willingly, taking a back seat to their overall direction.

The band’s songs became more structured and introduced more elements of funk. Although that said, I think the case is somewhat overstated that they turned into some sort of funk band. Yes there were strong elements of that but still a fair amount of straight-up “out there” jazz that you really had to listen (and not just groove) to.

This was an issue for bassist Vitous who, try though he might, was not a funk player. Nor did he much like the direction the band was taking. The album Sweetnighter (1973) was to be his last with Weather Report.

Here’s a really cool tune from that album I haven’t heard in ages, Zawinul’s “Boogie Woogie Waltz”:

Between Sweetnighter and Black Market, the band continued its evolution. Wikipedia: “By 1976’s Black Market album, Weather Report’s music had evolved further from open-ended funk jams into more melody-oriented, concise forms, which also offered a greater mass-market appeal.

Zawinul further consolidated his use of keyboard synthesizers, while Shorter experimented with an early form of wind synthesizer, the Lyricon. The new album was also perhaps the most rock-oriented work which the group had produced to date.”

Next post: Weather Report (and fusion) hit the heights of their popularity. And Jaco Pastorius makes his statement. 

 

 

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