If you read about Weather Report in Wikipedia, there is a section called “The Jaco Pastorius years (1976-1981).” This is because, quite simply, not only did he change the sound of the band but he also changed the way the electric bass is played. From Allmusic:
“Jaco Pastorius was a meteor who blazed on to the scene in the 1970s, only to flame out tragically in the 1980s. With a brilliantly fleet technique and fertile melodic imagination, Pastorius made his fretless electric bass leap out from the depths of the rhythm section into the front line with fluid machine-gun-like passages that demanded attention. He and Stanley Clarke were the towering influences on their instrument in the 1970’s.”
Jaco first played on the 1976 album, Black Market. He was somewhat transitioning and only played on a couple of numbers. The group itself remained dynamic and fluid, with players coming and (mostly) going.
In an interview, Zawinul said, “We’re always happy with the group, because if we’re not happy, we change it. There are a lot of musicians out there in the world. All the people who have played with us are great motherfucking musicians. They have fantastic skills.
But sometimes they’re going in one direction and we’re going in another one, so we have to make a change. Changing musicians gives us fresh blood, new ideas.” (This is more or less exactly the Steely Dan philosophy. For the record, that’s Wayne Shorter playing sax on “Aja.”)
In early 1977, Weather Report released what was to become their most popular and arguably, defining album, Heavy Weather. Still jazz, (the bible of the genre, Down Beat magazine, gave it 5 stars) but with a more accessible sensibility. It is one of the best-selling jazz albums of all time.
The kick-off song, “Birdland,” a tribute to Charlie Parker and the legendary jazz club of the same name, has gone on to become a classic, recorded by everybody from Manhattan Transfer to Quincy Jones. (My daughter played sax and clarinet in her college big band and she knows this number by heart.)
We were privileged to see Weather Report a number of times between 1974 and 1978, sometimes in really small venues, and it was never less than awesome. Here’s a live performance of “Birdland” from their 1979 8:30 album. The drummer here is Peter Erskine who managed to remain in the band for four years:
By the late ’70’s, the band had dropped the extra percussion and were now four pieces: sax, keyboards, bass and drums, giving them a leaner, meaner sound. To give you an idea of what they were like in performance, here’s a great Jaco number from Heavy Weather, “Teen Town”:
Around this same time, most of the band either recorded or toured with Joni Mitchell. Joe Zawinul was the lone exception. I wondered about this and a little research shows that he did not want to back her because he didn’t want to be confused with LA Express who were more of a jazz-pop ensemble. (Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny backed her on tour as well.)
What’s interesting to me is how fertile a time the late ’70’s were, how a pop/folk artist like Joni could record jazz albums and have a jazz band support her. And how that could be commercially popular with a mainstream audience. Unless that’s now happening out there somewhere and I’m just not tapped into that scene, that era is long gone. And it saddens me.
Weather Report played on until 1986 but in looking back, I’d say they peaked in the late ’70’s-early ’80’s. By 1982, Pastorius and Erskine left the band and worked on Jaco’s solo album. By the time Shorter left in 1986, it was pretty much all over.
A nice surprise from last year was the release of a 4-CD live set called Weather Report, The Legendary Live Tapes, 1978-1981. These were live performances that drummer Peter Erskine – who is till playing, recording and teaching – compiled and released. It is a fantastic addition to their discography. (You’d have to go back go to 1972’s Live in Tokyo to hear the original band live.)
In his extensive liner notes, Erskine talks about how hard the band worked, how much they rehearsed an how seriously they took the music. The results speak for themselves.
Here’s a mellow Zawinul number, “A Remark You Made” that features Wayne Shorter:
Josef Zawinul died in 2007. Wayne Shorter, who will be 83 years old next month, is still active and per his web site, will be touring in fall 2016. Jaco Pastorius’ story is saddest of all. It was later discovered that he had a bipolar disorder. Whether because of that or because of the stereotypical musician lifestyle, he turned to drink and drugs.
In 1987, he was drunk and tried to get into a club. Refused, he kicked in a glass door. The bouncer beat him pretty savagely but he was expected to be ok. Sadly, he lapsed into a coma and – at 35 years of age – died. According to Wikipedia, “William C. Banfield, director of Africana Studies, Music and Society at Berklee College, describes Jaco as one of the few original American virtuosos who defined a musical movement.”
As to the band, their legacy is secure as perhaps not only the best fusion band but one of the best and most influential jazz bands ever. They reached rock star proportions but never lost site of their original roots. Fusion is nowhere near as popular on a massive scale as it was in the late ’70’s, early ’80’s. But the music of that era is still out there and sounds as good as it ever did.