To the uninformed, the term weather report would normally be associated with the Oxford Dictionary definition “the condition of the atmosphere at a certain place and time, with reference to the presence or absence of sunshine, rain, wind, etc.” It should be obvious to regular readers of this column that the title of this article is going to somehow be related to music, jazz in particular. But of course!
Weather Report was one of the pre-eminent and pioneering jazz fusion groups in the 1970’s and 1980’s along with Return to Forever, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Miles Davis’ electric bands. The band members were not too fond of the fusion label, however and Joe Zawinul even commented that he didn’t understand what the term meant. The band had a storied and underwent a number of transformations and personnel changes. The initial line up included keyboardist Joe Zawinul, saxophonist Wayne Shorter (both former Miles Davis alumni), classically-trained Czech-born bassist Miroslav Vitous (formerly with Chick Corea), drummer Alphonse Mouzon (McCoy Tyner) and Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira (Miles Davis).
Before moving on, let’s get to the name of the group. How on earth did they arrive at “Weather Report”? In an interview with Jazz Forum Magazine in 1976, one of the founders, saxophonist Wayne Shorter gives his account of the name’s origin. “When we first got together with CBS, we had a meeting with Clive Davis and we just mapped out what we were going to do. The only thing he asked was ‘How could we give some name to this music in order to sell it, where were we going to put it in the record stores, are we going to put it in the classical thing.’ So we just concluded that we should get something so unique that it would be without categorization.” Late co-founder and keyboardist Joe Zawinul recalls “We thought the Wayne Shorter-Joe Zawinul Quintet sounded ridiculous. So we were in my apartment in New York—Miroslav (bassist Miroslav Vitous) and I-trying to find a new name which would say something, especially what people had in their minds all the time. So we were thinking about Daily News, but that didn’t sound good. Thousands of names—Audience, Triumvirate, all kinds. Suddenly Wayne popped out Weather Report, and we all said, “That’s it!” Wayne counters with “We were sitting together one evening, talking, and trying to figure out what we would call this band. We didn’t just want an ordinary name, but something that would hit everybody. So I said what does everybody do at 6 o’clock every evening? They watch the news. And what do they want to hear? The weather! So I said, ‘How about Weather Report?’ And that was how it got started.”
Weather Report’s first album (believe it or not, there were no CD’s!), Weather Report, caused quite a stir in the jazz world, due to the amazingly talented musicians in the group and their unorthodox approach to their music. This project featured a softer sound than would be the case in the years ahead, predominantly using acoustic bass and Shorter playing soprano saxophone exclusively (a major departure from the norm). The band would later employ the use of electric bass, synthesizers and other effects. It built on the experiments which Zawinul and Shorter had pioneered with Miles on Bitches Brew, including the avoidance of head-and-chorus compositions in favor of continuous rhythm and movement, but taking the music further. To emphasize the group’s rejection of standard methodology, the album opened with the atmospheric piece “Milky Way” (created by Shorter’s extremely muted saxophone inducing vibrations in Zawinul’s piano strings while the latter pedaled the instrument).
Down Beat described the album as “music beyond category” (Dan Morgenstern, Down Beat , May 13, 1971) and awarded it the title of “Album of the Year”. On the 1973 project Sweetnighter, Weather Report began to abandon the primarily acoustic group improvisational format. At Zawinul’s insistence, the music became more funk- and groove-oriented and heavily influenced by R&B. With the addition of dense electric keyboards, more structure was added to both the prewritten and improvisational sections. The last song on the album, Shorter’s “Non-Stop Home”, was a sign of the band’s developing signature sound and the end of bassist Vitous association (that would lead to great bitterness on his part).
The band’s 1974 project Mysterious Traveler would prove to be a breakout album. Exit drummer Mouzon and bassist Vitous and enter bassist Alphonso Johnson (Chuck Mangione) and drummer Ishmail Wilburn. Bassist Johnson was recruited by Shorter because of his versatility and was more than able to supply the funk element desired by Zawinul. The driving groove atmosphere of Sweetnighter was enhanced on this newest effort and Zawinul continued to incorporate the improved synthesizer technology on the recording to add processed sounds such as cheering crowds (taken from a Rose Bowl game) , child-like cries (his own son recorded at home) and noises similar to sci-fi aliens.
Once again, Weather Report scored another Down Beat “Album of the Year” award and would go on to win for an unprecedented fourth consecutive time. Here’s a cut from Mysterious Traveler penned by bassist Johnson:
Even though the band’s success continued, so did the inability to keep the drum throne occupied! During a tour, drummer Wilburn “lost heart” and Darryl Brown was hired to help out. However, at the tour’s end, both drummers left the group. So once again, the services of another experienced drummer were sought. Former Herbie Hancock stick master Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, who had been working on a project in an adjacent studio, agreed to play for the up coming project, Tales Spinin’. He recorded all of the drum tracks in one week-but declined to be a permanent band member, in favor of continuing with Santana. (Was it the group name or the music or some unseen force that acted as a drummer repellent?) Alphonso recommended his friend and former Frank Zappa drummer Chester Thompson, who joined in time for the next tour. Tale Spinin’, released in 1975, went on to be what many considered the group’s most solid effort to date. Zawinul continued his onslaught of synthesizer work and Shorter’s playing was showcased by featuring more sax solos than on any other album in the band’s entire career. Let’s check out a tune from this album:
By the 1976 Black Market album, Weather Report’s music had evolved even more, from open-ended funk jams to more melody-oriented, concise forms, which also offered greater mass-market appeal. Zawinul continued his use of keyboard synthesizers while Shorter experimented with an early form of wind synthesizer, the Lyricon. This project had the most rock-oriented vibe for the group to date, mainly due to the presence of Thompson. Wouldn’t you know it-here comes yet another round of personnel changes! Percussionist Alyrio Lima played on one track, but was replaced during the sessions by Don Alias and Peruvian drummer and conga player Alex Acuna (who had been playing in Las Vegas with Elvis Presley and Ike Turner). Bassist Alphonso Johnson was worn out by the band’s frequent changes in drummer and the strain that it put on the rhythm section. During a break in the activity halfway through the recording of Black Market, Johnson decided to make his exit in order to play with the Billy Cobham/George Duke Band. Prior to his departure, Johnson played on all but two of the tracks. His replacement was Jaco Pastorious, a virtuoso fretless bassist from Florida who had been in contact with Joe Zawinul for several years, who played on the cuts “Cannon Ball” and his own composition “Barbary Coast”. (I had often wondered why Alphonso was not in the photo on the album’s rear cover. This explains it.) Here is the tune written by and featuring Jaco:
Jaco’s playing style, while incredibly masterful, was much busier than Johnson’s. The drummer-go-round continued as Thompson would leave allegedly due to not being able to gel as a rhythm section with Pastorious. The group reached new levels of popularity as a result of Jaco’s extraordinary musicianship, horn-like melodic fluidity and use of harmonics, propelling the electric bass to the forefront of Weather Report and bass playing in general. They would score a huge hit with the song “Birdland” from the 1977 album, Heavy Weather. Here are some examples of Pastorious’ brilliance:
Weather Report would continue to be plagued by not having a full-time drummer and percussionist. Drummer Peter Erskine would become a full time member of the band after recording studio sessions. He toured with the band and would remain with the group until 1982. Jaco would eventually leave to form his own band and a new iteration of Weather Report (that I was fortunate to see live) came into being with bassist Victor Bailey and drummer Omar Hakim anchoring the rhythm section. Here is a tune from the 1983 album, Procession:
There is more to this amazing group than what is presented here, but I’ve gone on long enough. It should be evident that Weather Report successfully created its own presence in the music atmosphere that is mainly jazzy, partly classical and funky, with a 90% chance of groove.
Weather Report Website