They were one of the bands who, along with Chick Corea’s Return To Forever, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and John McLaughlin‘s Mahavishnu Orchestra, took Miles Davis‘s late-’60s jazz/rock blueprint and ran with it, progressing from playing nightclubs to concert halls and football stadiums.
Their famous credo – ‘we always solo and we never solo’ – was as much a challenge to the jazz traditionalists as a guide to listening to their music.
Weather Report was formed in 1971 by two former Davis collaborators keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter (as well as bassist Miroslav Vitous), and their brand of fusion which took in elements of jazz, rock, funk, Latin and world music reached its peak on the 1977 Heavy Weather album with its killer lead-off tune ‘Birdland’.
Zawinul sadly died in 2007, some 20 years after the band had called it a day, but in 2011 his estate approved the release of a series of CDs and DVDs to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Weather Report’s formation. The first of these, ‘Live in Berlin 1975‘, featured the band’s complete and unedited appearance at the Jazztage.
And it’s a totally absorbing watch, catching the band at an interesting point where they were developing from the impressionistic unit of their early years to the powerhouse, ‘stadium fusion’ group of their middle and later years. Drummer Chester Thompson – fresh from his work in one of Frank Zappa’s finest ever groups – deserves a huge amount of credit; his relentless grooves inspire all the players, though he would only stay in the band for a year.
Alex Acuna supplies some electrifying percussion – I could listen to his hook-up with Thompson on ‘Scarlet Woman’ all day – while Wayne is absolutely fascinating. He broods, fidgets, grimaces and then unleashes some of the most spine-chilling soprano sax of his career, particularly on the opener ‘Freezing Fire‘. He also plays piano on his own classic composition ‘Mysterious Traveller’, bashing out the main riff with almost Monk-like urgency.
Alphonso Johnson shows why he is a true pioneer of the fretless bass, sometimes overshadowed by Jaco, and Zawinul constantly delivers the sound of surprise, investing epics like ‘Badia‘ with an other-worldly quality before stunning everyone with a pastoral acoustic piano interlude.
Those who have ever wondered how exactly he gets his sounds will appreciate the close attention given to the master at work here, hands and feet in constant motion, moving between different keyboards, oscillators and foot pedals. And it’s a real thrill to experience the ebb and flow of a Weather Report gig in its entirety.