I am a man who likes his rhythm – one reason, I guess, why I love Latin Jazz so much: all the glories that you associate with jazz, but with added congas and timbales. Rhythm and melody: it’s a lethal combination. Weather Report always seemed to have it in spades. Apart from the occasional tendency to noodle, the band was for the most part a combination of memorable compositions allied to some of the hardest rhythms and fiercest percussion this side of Tito Puente. The rhythm section seemed to change as frequently as Atlantic weather fronts, but the roll-call of percussionists reads like an international who’s who: Airto Moreira and Dom Um Romao from Brazil, Alex Acuna from Peru, Manolo Badrena from Puerto Rico and drummers of the calibre of Alphonse Mouzon, Chester Thompson and Pete Erskine, who powered one of Weather Report’s prime ‘competitors’, Steps Ahead.
The quintessential 1970s jazz-funk outfit in some respects, Weather Report was the lovechild of two remarkable talents. Austrian composer and keyboards wizard, Josef Zawinul, a kind of Rick Wakeman in a hat like a tea-cosy, studied – at a prodigiously young age – classical music at the Vienna Conservatory. Legend has it that he saw the film Stormy Weather an unfeasible 24 times. It must have marked him for life, because he knew then that he wanted to play jazz with black musicians – which is exactly what he did. Arriving in the U.S. on a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston, he wasted no time insinuating himself into the jazz scene. After a stint with the turbulent Dinah Washington, he soon became a key figure in Cannonball Adderley’s group, playing the kind of melodic and funky soul-jazz that must have warmed the cockles of a heart that yearned to play with 'the serious funk guys'. Among his contributions to the group’s renown was his classic ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy’, which won the outfit a Grammy award. From there, he was recruited in 1969 by Miles Davis to provide electric keyboards on two of his most seminal, scene-shifting albums, In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew (which featured lots of raw funk, but never an apostrophe).
It wasn’t long before he hooked up with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, a key figure in the great Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s. ‘Mr. Weird’, as he was known at school and beyond, had served a long and fruitful apprenticeship with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers before becoming one of Davis’ ground-breaking famous five for six years of gently but firmly pushing the frontiers of jazz. Detractors of the group that he and Zawinul founded in 1971 complain that Weather Report over time became the Viennese composer’s baby, while Shorter’s role was gradually reduced to little more than a colourist. Shorter himself, though, talked of how ‘colours really started coming’ during his tenure with Davis. It was almost as if he purposefully blew away the echoes of John Coltrane during his time with Blakey to concentrate instead on how to use space and suggestion and understatement in his later improvisations on tenor and soprano sax. He it was who christened the band Weather Report, in recognition of Zawinul’s search to make music that would constantly change like the weather. This quest for atmosphere and evanescent beauty seemed to be the tie that bound the wonderful compositions that they both individually came up with during Weather Report’s golden period spanning 1974’s Mysterious Traveller and 1977’s Heavy Weather. I think of the two pillars principally as composers who could also play whatever and however the music required. 'Sagas,' Shorter described their numbers, 'musical sagas. Dialogue with more theatre going on in the music.' When I first heard Shorter’s generally acknowledged masterpiece for Blue Note in 1964, Speak No Evil, it wasn’t so much the brilliance of the playing and more the misty, moody, slightly eerie compositions that rooted me to the spot.
In Weather Report such beautiful, haunting melodies were rooted in exhilarating rhythms. 'Many people called us a cerebral kind of thing,' Zawinul complained. 'They were dead wrong. The shit was totally gut music – but not stupid.' And after their first two albums, he told his co-founder, 'I'm gonna write some serious rhythmic stuff, otherwise we can give it up as a band.' It wasn’t only the drummers and percussionists who would stoke the serious rhythmic stuff, of course, it was also the electric bass players. On my favourite album of theirs, Tale Spinnin’, it’s Alphonso Johnson’s fluid, elastic bass playing that helps to make it probably the funkiest of all Weather Report records. 'Now we were not only funky, we played intelligent shit,' Zawinul suggested. 'It allowed Wayne and me all that space because the rhythm section wasn't all over the place. They were smokin'.' (What drove Johnson from the band 'was the fact that I played with so many different drummers.') But then along came Jaco. The manic loose cannon from Florida, John Francis Anthony (‘Jaco’) Pastorius III, destined to meet a violent and tragic end outside a Florida bar at the age of just 35, introduced himself to Zawinul as ‘the greatest bass player in the world’. You would never know it by looking at the instrument he called the ‘Bass of Doom’, a beaten up 1962 Fender jazz bass from which he removed the frets supposedly with a butter knife. This is what he plays on my perennially favourite Joni Mitchell album, Hejira, on all the Weather Report albums between his joining in 1976 and departing in 1982, and on the video I have chosen (after considerable mental debate).
Whether the greatest or not, it’s undeniable that Jaco Pastorius transformed the way that the electric bass was played in a jazz context, in the same way that Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham taught others to slap the funk out of their bass guitars. Described by Christian McBride, one of the modern greats of the double bass, as 'the Charlie Parker of electric bass', Pastorius talked of learning to feel the instrument, to know exactly where and how to touch the strings to make it sing. Here was another colourist, then; another brilliant composer, capable of writing numbers like ‘River People’, ‘Three Views of a Secret’ and ‘Teen Town’, along with ‘Birdland’ the most easily recalled song on the gold-plated Heavy Weather.
So, then. Is it to be one of two fantastic performances at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, Shorter’s ‘Elegant People’ or Zawinul’s title track from Black Market, both played by arguably the best permutation of the group, which recorded the follow-up, Heavy Weather: Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius, Badrena and Acuna? The filming, as befits a commercial release, is all you could ask for – up close and personal, so you feel part of Zawinul’s battery of electronic keyboards and Badrena’s array of Latin percussion – and the band plays up a storm in both numbers. If anything, ‘Elegant People’ shades it over the more dynamic ‘Black Market’, mainly because the interplay on the latter between Badrena and Acuna, both on incredible form, is almost overpowering: too much emphasis on two temporary members at the expense of its three prime movers. There’s more space, more room to breathe and to sit back and appreciate on ‘Elegant People’, and rather more focus on Jaco. And it’s nice to see Shorter playing the bigger horn for a change.
Nevertheless, I plumped finally for Pastorius’ ‘Teen Town’ from two years on at Offenbach in Germany. Visually, it’s a little murky and clearly inferior to the Montreux videos. What’s more, the band had become a quartet by this time, with Pete Erskine on drums and drums alone. It was Weather Report Mk whatever that brought out the double live album 8:30 in 1979. Erskine’s drumming, though, particularly the cymbal work, is so relentless that the percussion back-up is hardly missed at all. Zawinul described this model as 'our best band... We were very sound rhythmically. Everything was there. That band was a killer.' Despite the visual gloom, this is a fantastic performance, with the four musicians so much in tune, so much in synch, so 'rhythmically sound' that you can hardly separate them. It’s great to see the bipolar Pastorius in an upbeat mood, revelling in the complex subterranean bass lines, shuffling around the stage like a happy toddler with a new toy.
One of my key selection criteria is that the live version should be at least as good if not better than the recorded original. It would be very hard to beat the sheer intensity of the third track on side 1 of the album. Even though they stretch out a number that said everything there was to say in just under three minutes to almost three times that length, it’s not in any way gratuitous. Zawinul said 'I cannot just be up there and noodle around waiting for something to happen.' This is a killer band to be sure, with its eye firmly on the prize from first to last. There’s a lot to be said for the extra minutes and some might even say that it's even better as a result. ‘Teen Town’ could have shut down around 4½ minutes, just after the percussion workout with Erskine, Pastorius and Zawinul, but Shorter re-enters the fray and they forge ahead, ramping things up towards an ecstatic unison crescendo before stopping dead in their collective tracks at the merest cue. My! Them boys were real pros.
As an electro-jazz outfit, Weather Report live were, as the Irish say, deadly. If you fancy some more, the double CD Live And Unreleased is a wonderful compendium of live performances in London and the US recorded with different permutations of the band between 1975 and 1983. To finish with one more quote from the Austrian keyboards wizard with the Joe Stalin moustache who would go on to found the highly rhythmic Zawinul Syndicate once Weather Report was taken off the air, 'We had sixteen people on the road. But it was music and it was theatre. They belonged together.'