Greg Errico - drums; Dom Um Romao - percussion; Wayne Shorter - soprano and tenor sax; Miroslav Vitous - electric and acoustic bass; Joe Zawinul - electric and acoustic piano, synthesizer
When Weather Report formed, the credentials of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter were already well established. Both had been major contributors to Miles Davis' most groundbreaking and controversial albums, In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, both as musicians and composers. When they teamed up to form Weather Report shortly thereafter, it was they who most closely continued the musical aesthetic set forth on those landmark albums. The similarities to that music were immediately apparent on their first two albums, but there were also distinct differences. Like the work they recorded with Miles, they began fusing the dynamics of rock music into a jazz context, adding electronic instrumentation and exotic percussion elements to the musical palette. However, Weather Report relied less on the bassist as an anchor and had a distinct ethereal electronic quality, primarily colored by Zawinul's eerie synthesizer embellishments. Their compositions were even more open ended than their work with Miles, with far more focus on free improvisation approaching the avant-garde. Weather Report's rhythm section, which included the brilliant bassist Miroslav Vitous and during this brief period, ex-Sly & The Family Stone drummer Greg Errico, was given equal creative freedom to Zawinul and Shorter. This allowed them to break free of the rhythmic paradigm that anchored so much of Miles Davis' music during this era. Rather than soloing over an accompanying rhythm, the five musicians achieved an ongoing musical dialogue, where the dominant instrument was often changing or all instruments were soloing simultaneously. The fact that they could achieve this without degenerating into thoughtless noise is a testament to these highly accomplished musicians.
In 1973, when they began recording their third breakthrough album, Sweetnighter, Zawinul had consciously decided to change the approach. He wanted to expose the group's music to a broader audience without alienating the band's hardcore fanbase. He was well aware that casual music listeners were often put off by esoteric and self-consciously serious forms of jazz. The non-traditional rhythmic elements that characterized much of the group's earlier music were also difficult for many listeners to fathom. To begin overcoming these obstacles, he began introducing funkier rhythm and blues grooves into the soundscape. This was a vitally important ingredient that gave this new music a propulsive fluency and in the process made their esoteric music far more accessible. Although quite successful in terms of the album, this opened up a new set of challenges in live performance. As incredibly talented as Vitous and Gravatt were, they were not inherently funky musicians. This led to Errico replacing Gravatt, but there was still tension and struggle when the band began performing this new music in a live context. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, as it often led them into uncharted territory, much of it highly captivating.
Which brings us to this previously unheard live recording of Weather Report at The Lenox Music Inn during the Sweetnighter Tour of 1973. This concert captures the group as they were integrating this new music into live performance. There is still an abundance of free playing here but the rhythmic grooves are also beginning to surface much more on this tour.
The set begins very sparse and atmospheric. The music slowly begins to build in intensity. The basic stucture of "Dr. Honoris Causa" is at the core of this 24-minute opening piece, but it is primarily one monumentally exploratory improvisation. Bluesy melodic fragments surface over hypnotic grooves. Zawinul interjects oddly placed modulations that often surprise the listener and propel the group into new directions. Throughout this tour, Zawinul's sophisticated application of electronic sounds is a notable improvement over previous Weather Report tours. Unlike the hideous sounding synthesizers that were primarily responsible for giving jazz-fusion a bad name, Zawinul's instincts, in terms of both placement and timbre, only enhance the overall canvas of the music.
The track from Sweetnighter that follows, "125th Street Congress," is another lengthy exploration. This begins as a percussion piece featuring drums, shakers and cymbals primarily, which gradually builds into sounds of commotion on the street. Dom Um Romao begins playing cuica and one can clearly hear the delight of the audience as he begins humoring them with his ability to imitate the human voice on this percussion instrument. Zawinul and Vitous begin developing a spacey improvisation that stays relatively tranquil for several minutes. This improvisation begins dissolving and Zawinul begins introducing a funkier groove, while Vitous generates unusual sounds on bowed bass, which is processed through a wah-wah pedal and delay units. When Shorter eventually joins in, a great jam on the actual theme develops. To end the piece, they play an unusually staggered riff on "Directions," which will immediately follow, but in nearly unrecognizable form. Here, "Directions" begins as another percussion solo that eventually develops into a heavier funk jam that continues to build in intensity, ending with a grandiose orchestral-like sound.
Here the performance distinctly changes, as the next piece is primarily a solo piano vehicle for Zawinul. It begins with eerie outer space sounds emanating from Zawinul's arsenal of keyboards, occasionally seasoned with dissonant piano chords. After this brief freeform section, Zawinul takes off into an phenomenal piano solo that is both mesmerizing and jawdropping in its diversity, complexity and fluency. Near the end, Shorter joins in as they dissolve into "In A Silent Way," which is lovely. Only Zawinul and Shorter could bring this much freshness to such a distinctively tranquil piece of music. Zawinul was the composer after all, but it is Shorter who brings out subtle melodic nuances here and his playing is nothing short of beautiful. After a brief break, the set continues with the rest of that classic Miles Davis album side, as the group explores "It's About That Time" before concluding with a brief touch of "Boogie Woogie Waltz." Again, it's hard to imagine anyone adding to the former other than Miles himself, but again the group takes the basic theme and takes it into unexplored territory. This is one of the most consistently exciting pieces of the show, particularly for Shorter, and other than the proceeding piece, likely the most accessible to newcomers.
It should also be mentioned that soundman Dinky Dawson is literally a 6th musician here, with Zawinul and Romao as his primary instruments. Dawson's presence is felt not only in his overall mix for the venue, but in his use of the stereo P.A. system, which was not that common at the time. Dawson has Zawinul's synthesized sounds swirling around within the mix and Romao's percussion embellishments bouncing from side to side, adding a significant sense of spacial dynamics to the performance. Headphone listening is highly recommended!
One of the interesting facets of Weather Report during this early era is that they existed between categories. There are elements here that will grab a jazz audience, a classical audience and a rock audience. At times they sound similar to Miles Davis' work at the time, but there are just as many times they recall early Pink Floyd! The fact is Weather Report are none of these things. They were truly a band that defied categorization. Open-minded listening is the key to this music. It was an essential prerequisite for the musicians but is just as essential for the listener. A look at the setlist of this show doesn't begin to describe the musical content here, as much of this performance is essentially improvisational, with only a tenuous grasp on the original compositions. While this may be disconcerting to fans of these tracks or the Sweetnighter album, the open-minded listener will find much to enjoy here, as this lineup of the group was at their most creative and wouldn't be around much longer. The struggling factor is certainly present, but that tension only adds to the spontaneity within the performance, which more often than not is thoroughly captivating.
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