Weather Report: Electric Red

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Besides making major contributions to mainstream jazz and jazz-fusion, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul will always be remembered for Weather Report, rated by many amongst the very best jazz-fusion bands of all time. The albums Black Market (1976) and Heavy Weather (1977) were at the pinnacle of jazz-fusion, and today are uniquely placed in the jazz pantheon. The compositions in those collections were so strong that they moved almost everyone that heard them. As one of the world’s great saxophone players, Shorter was never limited to playing in jazz-fusion, but his compositional skills were put to great use in the more conventional jazz mainstream. As one of the great jazz electric keyboard/ synthesiser players, Zawinul moved on to become a leader of the World music genre. Perhaps it was his non-American birthright that, in the end, sealed Zawinul’s role as arguably the most consistent member of the jazz-fusion group of musicians. Besides reviewing the recorded output of Weather Report, this book makes a detailed study of the solo albums of the band’s most prominent members. It includes an extensive discography and index.

Weather Report: Electric Red (2011) by Ken Trethewey

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The following is an excerpt from Weather Report: Electric Red (2011) by Ken Trethewey:

Despite solo careers that most jazz musicians would envy, both Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter will forever be associated with Weather Report, a band that Cook described as, “the first superstar group to emerge from the jazz-rock era.” [136] Wherever we look amongst knowledgeable opinion, there is nothing but praise for the band’s contributions to music. One of the most authoritative voices, Nicholson, described Weather Report as “…the most individual band to emerge in the jazz-rock explosion.” They were also, he said, “without doubt, the most successful, all of their albums charting in the top 200 in the USA thanks to a broad stylistic output that embraced classical, impressionist, free jazz, bebop and World Music.” [137] From 1971 to 1986, the band made a series of records that Nicholson described as “…one of the most significant bodies of work in post 1960s jazz.” [138]

The variation in the band’s popularity over time was Gaussian, centred on 1976-7, when the band finally hired Jaco Pastorius, and when Heavy Weather became an outstandingly popular commodity. Early Weather Report records were, “comparatively tame mixes of modal playing, freeish passages and rockish vamps,” said Cook. [139] Mark Gilbert wrote, “Early Weather Report dealt in haunting, impressionistic textures and fierce up-tempo interaction which often seemed like an extension of the early fusion experiments of Miles Davis.” [140] With its monochord vamps and strong polyrhythmic content, Weather Report music was more influenced by the Miles Davis formula than, for example, Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, or Herbie’s Headhunters. Matthew Garrison referred to the Miles Davis philosophy of “living in the moment” when he spoke of “…this music, which sounded like it was being created in the moment, and where it could have these themes that came infrequently, but were made more special because of these long periods of ostinati… the music could always be fresh because it had evolved – or devolved – to a simpler form. It created a new kind of freedom.” [141] On the other hand, Weather Report music also contained a discipline and strong compositional content that was missing from Davis’s recordings. It gave Weather Report records the hooks that attracted fans in a way that Miles couldn’t. Nicholson said that the “…group’s albums were beautifully tailored in their studio surroundings.” [138] Wayne described Weather Report’s music as “Sagas, musical sagas. Dialogue with more theatre going on in the music.” [92] Both descriptions were not applicable to Miles Davis records, and this is why Weather Report was more successful. The consistently high quality of the compositions by Wayne Shorter kept the album content fresh and challenging. Joe’s work was stridently different from Wayne’s: capable of bridging across to the popular genre. All albums contained a good mix of material.

Although Miroslav Vitous was unquestionably a founding member, he was soon found to be dispensable. It was the firm partnership of both Joe and Wayne that survived throughout the band’s existence. Yet it was a marriage of the unequal. To achieve success, it seemed that the powerful force of Wayne Shorter as a leading exponent of ‘difficult’ jazz had to be reduced. After all, he had been a consistent member of Miles’s Second Great Quintet throughout the period when it had achieved unparalleled artistic success. But to make the transition to the land of commercial prosperity, it was Joe’s bridge that was needed. Most relationships of this kind end in divorce, with the aggrieved minority partner feeling short-changed, but Wayne’s inner strength and moral philosophy was, uniquely, unchallenged by Joe’s dominance.

The band’s best-known motto, “We all solo and no-one solos,” coined by Joe, tells us a great deal, for this was, indeed, a significant part of the formula for success. The band had to play together without losing themselves in the essence of post-bop jazz, as defined by Miles’s music in the 1960s. Free jazz was unquestionably poisonous to sales. Likewise, long, complex solos, no matter how brilliantly they were conceived, were anathema to both purveyors and fans of pop music. So the immense power of Wayne as a soloist had to be diluted, something that many regretted. The well-regarded jazz historian, Ted Gioia wrote, “Zawinul preferred to submerge the individual musicians into the total atmosphere of his pieces. In time, Wayne Shorter’s fans began to grumble that one of the great saxophonists in jazz was being relegated to occasional fills and interludes.” [142] It was Joe’s band. “The more jazz-inclined members of the audience were dismayed that Shorter seemed to be increasingly marginalized as the group went forward, but this was really Zawinul’s band…” [139] “Wayne Shorter’s role as a soloist in Weather Report gradually diminished.” [140] Mr. Gone?