Book Review: Elegant People (A History of the band Weather Report) by Curt Bianchi

‘The baddest shit on the planet’ – that was Weather Report keyboard player/co-founder/chief composer Joe Zawinul’s assessment of his band’s music.

He wasn’t alone – many credit them as the greatest jazz/rock unit in history, pretty impressive considering they developed out of a ‘scene’ that also included The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever and Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters.

Curt Bianchi has run the acclaimed Weather Report Discography website for many years and now expands his study to create the excellent ‘Elegant People’, an elaborate history of the band which features a myriad of exclusive interviews, photographs and information.

It has Brian Glasser’s effective Zawinul biography ‘In A Silent Way’ in the rear-view mirror but emerges as a very different proposition. Bianchi initially looks in detail at the formative years of Zawinul and co-founder/saxophonist Wayne Shorter, with sobering tales of the young Zawinul’s experiences in wartime Vienna and fascinating insights into Shorter’s extended periods in the bands of Maynard Ferguson, Art Blakey and Miles Davis.

The sections on Weather Report’s formation around 1970 are fascinating. Columbia’s marketing of them as a ‘progressive’ – rather than ‘jazz’ – band led to some interesting dichotomies; Shorter and Zawinul were already established superstars in their field but often had to engage in fairly menial/minor promotional work just to get a foot in the door with rock audiences. We also learn about the other potential band names that hit the cutting-room floor before ‘Weather Report’ appeared.

Bianchi then expertly traces the group from those early days as a kind of ‘chamber’ jazz/rock unit to their status as a ‘power’ band around the arrival of bassist Alphonso Johnson and drummer Chester Thompson in 1975, and the subsequent boost with the recruitment of Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine.

Bianchi brings the albums to life with great gusto. There’s a rare photo from the Night Passage sessions at The Complex in Los Angeles, and the last-ever photo of the Jaco/Erskine band taken at the Power Station in NYC, with Jaco almost a ghost at the back of the shot (shades of that famous final Syd Barrett photo with Pink Floyd). Elsewhere there are ticket stubs and even session track sheets.

And fans of Weather Report’s 1980s music can rest assured that Bianchi doesn’t give that era short shrift – there’s just as much about the last few albums Sportin’ Life and This Is This (and many of Zawinul and Shorter’s post-Weather Report projects) as there is about commercial breakthroughs Black Market and Heavy Weather.

‘Elegant People’ is surely the ultimate Weather Report book – it’s an absolute must for fans and those wanting a deeper dive into the band’s music.

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