Weather Report was an influential jazz fusion band of the 1970s and early 1980s, combining jazz and latin jazz with art music, ethnic music, r&b, funk, and rock elements (in heavily varying proportions during the years), often demonstrating high levels of compositional and improvisational skills.
Founders pianist Joe Zawinul
and saxophonist Wayne Shorter
first met and became friends in 1959 as they had both played in Maynard Ferguson
's Big Band
. Weather Report is, despite this, often seen as a spin-off from the group of musicians associated with Miles Davis
in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Shorter
duo became a stable core of the group, while other musicians were rotated with almost every new album release. Both Zawinul and Shorter had made their mark among the best composers in jazz, Zawinul in Cannonball Adderley
's group and Shorter in Miles Davis's group. Zawinul later joined Shorter with Miles Davis's first recordings of fusion music, In a Silent Way
and Bitches Brew
Initially, the band's music featured extended improvisation, similar to Davis's Bitches Brew-period work, and instrumentation included both a traditional trap set drummer (Alphonse Mouzon ) and a second percussionist (first Airto Moreira, later Dom Um Romão). Though the album credits only Airto on percussion, Brian Glasser, in his Zawinul biography In a Silent Way, describes the participation of two other percussionists prior to Airto's involvement: Don Alias, a well-known session player who subsequently toured and recorded with Jaco Pastorius; and Barbara Burton, a New York symphonic and freelance percussionist recruited by Shorter. According to Glasser, Alias "walked out before the record was completed after an argument with Zawinul about what he should be playing". Burton told Glasser that she and Alias did the whole album, and it wasn't until the last session "when all the tracks had been laid [down] at Columbia Studios" that Airto became involved. Apparently Zawinul thought something was missing, or he was in some way unsatisfied, because Burton overheard Joe asking Airto if there was anything he could add. Airto said, "Man, that album is finished. There's nothing I can add." Nevertheless, Zawinul persisted and Airto recorded for the album. [IASW, p.133-135]
The group was unusual and innovative in abandoning the soloist-accompaniment demarcation of straight-ahead jazz and instead featuring continuous improvisation by every member of the band.
Reedman Wayne Shorter further pioneered the role of the soprano sax (taking the torch from Sidney Bechet's and John Coltrane's earlier efforts) and both Zawinul and original bassist Miroslav Vitouš experimented with rock guitarists' electronic effects, Zawinul on piano and synthesizers, Vitouš on upright bass, often bowed, as a second horn-like voice.
Weather Report's self titled debut album Weather Report
won Down Beat
magazine's Album of the Year in 1971. Although the album features a softer sound than in later years (acoustic bass and no synthesizers were used), it is still considered a classic of early fusion. The opening song "Milky Way" uses a technique by which the piano strings are sounded not by the hammers from the keyboard itself but from Shorter's soprano saxophone playing the notes and causing sympathetic vibrations
in the piano strings.
The following year, Weather Report's second album, I Sing the Body Electric, featured their first use of electronics beyond an electric keyboard (a synthesizer and sound effects were utilized). Part of the album was recorded live in Japan, an excerpt from what was then a Japanese-only release. The entire Live in Tokyo double album would later be released as an import and made available in the United States.
Starting with 1973's Sweetnighter
, Zawinul decided to abandon the (primarily) acoustic group improvisation format and the band started to take a new direction. Weather Report became more funk/groove oriented while adding more structure to both song and improvisational sections. This change would prove to be not the best fit for Vitouš' talents as his relative lack of interest in playing more repetitive, funky vamps would become an issue (parts of Sweetnighter
employ an electric bass studio sideman). Eventually this led to his departure and replacement by a fretless electric bass player Shorter knew who was playing with Chuck Mangione's group, Alphonso Johnson
. The last song on the album, Shorter's "Non Stop Home", would arguably foreshadow the band's hallmark sound that would appear more in evidence on their next album.
Instability with the drum chair
For its first 8 years of existence the group had difficulty finding a permanent drummer, moving through an approximate average of one drummer per year Alphonse Mouzon
, Eric Gravatt
, Greg Errico
, Ishmael Wilburn
, Skip Hadden
, Darryl Brown, Leon 'Ndugu' Chancler
, Chester Thompson
, Narada Michael Walden
and Alex Acuña
until Jaco Pastorius helped recruit Peter Erskine
in 1978. Erskine and Omar Hakim
later on were the only Weather Report drummers that played with the band more than 2 years.
Weather Report's breakout album that established its hallmark sound would be Mysterious Traveller
from 1974. For the first time an electric bass (performed by Philadelphian Alphonso Johnson
) would be used on nearly every song. In addition, general compositional technique would be greatly heightened and Zawinul would exploit improvements in synthesizer technology on the recording. Some of the extra musical effects beyond just the musical synthesizer playing include crowd cheering (taken from an actual Rose Bowl game), space alien sounds, and child-like cries (Zawinul's own son recorded in their home). Mysterious Traveller
would begin Weather Report's unprecedented string of four consecutive Down Beat
"Album of the Year" awards.
Tale Spinnin', recorded in 1975, made even further strides in utilizing technological improvements in synthesizers. The album also showcased more of Wayne Shorter's soloing to the extent that he probably solos more on that album than any other Weather Report record. Shorter would also record the seminal and well received Latin-jazz classic of the 1970s, Native Dancer, under his own name that same year with the Brazilian vocalist Milton Nascimento. The Weather Report effort won the Down Beat best album award again and the Shorter/Nascimento effort was runner up.
The "Jaco" Years
By 1976's Black Market
, the group's music had evolved further from the open-ended funk jams into more melody-oriented, concise forms, which also achieved a greater mass-market appeal. Most notably, this album introduced virtuoso bassist Jaco Pastorius
into the group, although he only played on two of this album's tracks. Alphonso Johnson (who played on the other 5 songs) decided to leave Weather Report to play with the Billy Cobham
Band (a group that featured a young John Scofield
on guitar). Black Market
was perhaps the most rock oriented studio album by Weather Report, in part due to former Frank Zappa
sideman Chester Thompson
playing drums on most of the songs (he later would be recruited into the touring band of Genesis
). Black Market
again won Down Beat
's album of the year.
The addition of Jaco Pastorius helped push the group to the height of their popularity. Their biggest individual hit, jazz standard "Birdland", from the Heavy Weather album in 1977, even made the pop charts that year. The group also appeared on television on one of Don Kirshner's Rock Concerts. Heavy Weather proved to be the band's most successful album in terms of sales, while still retaining wide critical acclaim. Pastorius established a new standard in fretless electric bass playing and added two compositions of his own. Heavy Weather dominated Weather Report's disc awards, including their last Down Beat "Album of the Year" award.
Jaco Pastorius appeared on four more Weather Report albums: Mr. Gone in 1978, in 1979, Night Passage in 1980, and their second album just called Weather Report, recorded in 1981 and released in 1982. Pastorius departed the group in late 1981 as he had to fulfil touring requirements with his own Word of Mouth Big Band. By the time he left Weather Report, Jaco had begun displaying symptoms of manic depression which would leave him with serious problems later in life.
Owing to Pastorius' professional involvement with Joni Mitchell throughout the latter half of the 1970s, Mitchell hired both the Heavy Weather and 8:30 line-ups en masse (although without Zawinul in each case), to play on her studio albums Don Juan's Reckless Daughter and Mingus, respectively.
Downbeat's "One Star" rating
Many of the group's earlier albums had received the highest possible (5-star) record rating in Down Beat
's record reviews. However, in 1978 the group recorded the controversial and experimental Mr. Gone
, which received only a 1-star review from Down Beat
magazine. The group arranged for a rebuttal interview with the magazine to defend their efforts. Zawinul and Pastorius were defiant in their responses to the interviewer, Shorter more philosophical, and Erskine the most reticent of the four. Some say this particular Downbeat review was the most controversial in the magazine's history.
They would make a comeback and follow up with their last album of the 1970s. 1979's is considered to be one of their best, combining both live and studio recordings on a double LP release. The group won the 1979 Grammy Award for Best Jazz Fusion Performance for 8:30. Despite the Mr. Gone controversy, the band's follow-up 8:30 tour was probably their most well attended. Zawinul has been quoted as saying there were more stage hands hired for that tour than at any other time in the band's history. The group toured intentionally as a quartet now, temporarily abandoning the percussionist chair.
The band kept releasing new albums once a year with various line-ups until 1986. A high quality video (Live in Japan
— VHS and Laser Disc only) featuring Omar Hakim
on drums, Victor Bailey on bass, and Mineu Cinelo on percussion was also released around 1984. This video was released on DVD in 2007 and is currently available.
Weather Report did not manage to match the critical or commercial success they enjoyed during the 1970s during this decade. It was also becoming harder to market jazz fusion as traditional jazz was making a comeback at the time. Shorter and Zawinul mutually decided to disband in 1986 after recording their last album, This is This! Both would play jazz fusion with their own groups for a time before moving on to new styles of music.
Releases since the band's breakup
A "post band" Weather Report double CD, Live and Unreleased
was made available in 2002, featuring vintage live recordings during the late 1970s/early 1980s with various personnel. In September 2006 Columbia/Legacy released a Weather Report boxed set, Forecast: Tomorrow
. It includes 3 CDs of mostly pre-released material (from 1970–1985, excluding This is This!
) and a DVD of the entire September 28, 1978 performance in Offenbach, Germany (with Erskine and Pastorius) not previously available.
A DVD video of the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival performance (featuring the Heavy Weather lineup of Pastorius, Acuna, and Badrena) has become available as well. There also may be a chance that Columbia/Legacy may re-release the 1984 Live in Japan concert on DVD at some point in the future.
Other former members of Weather Report include bassists Alphonso Johnson
and Victor Bailey
, drummer and percussionist Alex Acuña
, percussionists Manolo Badrena
and Robert Thomas Jr., and drummers Peter Erskine
and Omar Hakim
Brief analysis of the leaders
It was first with Miles Davis, then with Weather Report that keyboardist Josef Zawinul became almost synonymous with the jazz fusion
era, contributing a number of genre-defining compositions. One such composition (although not typical) is the band's signature tune "Birdland" from the band's top seller Heavy Weather
Zawinul's playing style is often dominated by quirky melodic improvisations — simultaneously bebop, ethnic and pop-sounding — combined with sparse but rhythmic big-band chords or bass lines. In Weather Report, he often employed a vocoder as well as pre-recorded sounds played (i.e., filtered and transposed) through a synthesizer, creating a very distinctive, often beautiful, synthesis of jazz harmonics and "noise" ("using all the sounds the world generates"). Many consider Zawinul the "best" synthesizer player "in jazz", and he frequently employed over 10 keyboards with live settings of his bands.
Mr. Zawinul passed away on September 11, 2007 after a battle with Merkel cell cancer.
Wayne Shorter's role was not as prominent as it was with Miles Davis
during the 1960s and this led to some criticism of the group. However, he is regarded as one of the all time greats on both the tenor and soprano saxophone as well as a composer. At the urging of Davis before he left his band, Shorter began using the soprano saxophone and played it exclusively in Weather Report's debut recording. On later records, he played both soprano and tenor saxophone - sometimes on the same piece. Shorter is known for playing in a quite economical and "listening" style in many WR recordings, often adding subtle harmonic, melodic and/or rhythmic complexity by responding to other member's improvisations. Still, in some situations (with or without WR), he can also be frenetic like, for instance, John Coltrane
or Michael Brecker