Weather Report were one of the earliest jazz fusion groups to emerge at the beginning of the ’70s, who were unique in that they didn’t have a guitarist to light the fire and excite the audience alongside the likes of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever, instead relying on pure instrumental virtuosity and intelligent compositions. The band’s founding members were none other than Joe Zawinal and Wayne Shorter, two exceptional musicians who had already made considerable contributions to Miles Davis’s continuing evolution throughout the 60’s, to the extent that some of the great trumpeter’s most pioneering achievements might not have even been possible without them.
Now almost forty years after the event, Heavy Weather was the group’s first commercial breakthrough, and arguably their finest album ever, and one which succeeded in breathing new life into a genre that was finding it hard to compete against the latest pop rock fads occurring at the time. It was also the last instance of a jazz ensemble managing to break into the billboard charts.
Part of the LP’s success, it must be said, owed itself to the enlistment of John Francis Pastorius, bassist extraordinaire, a man who forever altered people’s perception of the instrument itself, whose self-titled debut, issued in 1976, caused such a sensation that many considered it at the time to be one the greatest bass albums ever recorded.
First song, “Birdland,” features some wondrous keyboards and smooth as silk Soprano and Tenor sax. One of the aspects of this record which differentiates it from so many of its intellectual cousins is that it was jazz fusion one could groove to, removing the need to sit on the couch with an expensive glass of wine and naval gaze over every note being played, while at the same time snubbing their nose at those musical Neanderthals next door. In other words one doesn’t have to analyse it in order to enjoy it.
“A Remark You Made” is a darker, less radiant number, with some reflective playing by all involved, especially Shorter, whose saxophone is exquisite throughout, as Pastorius plucks away in a soulful and intimate fashion. In one word, perfection.
“Teen Town” is Pastorius’s vehicle to blow, where he displays his not inconsiderable talents, including the drums. Shorter and Zawinal provide an attractive melodic background, to what is the shortest track of the album, and one which is relaxed and yet tense all at the same time.
“Harlequin,” the final song of the first side, is also fairly short at only four minutes. Still, it packs a subtle and cerebral punch as only jazz fusion can, where Jaco’s bass is melodically uplifting, alongside Alex Acuna’s multi-dexterous drumming, and of course Zawinal and Shorter’s own inventively complex contributions.
Side two kicks off with a live recording of Manolo Badrena shouting out in Spanish followed by some intense drumming and percussion. Fortunately it only lasts for two minutes, before we’re back in the studio with the funky and multifaceted “Palladium,” where the boys really get to show off their instrumental abilities. There are lots of congas, spacey keyboards, and some extraordinary playing in general. “The Juggler” is the sort of thing which might have resulted if Jethro Tull and Return to Forever had have jammed together, where Zawinal even imitates the sound of the flute through his synthesiser (perhaps one of the reasons to dislike it. Give this listener a real flute any day). The final track has everyone sounding like they’re in a supersonic sprint, except for Shorter, who offers a brief interlude, bringing things down a bit, thus allowing Pastorius to flex some finger muscles, before they fly off again down the jazz fusion highway as if in a serious attempt to break the sound barrier.
Heavy Weather was a landmark achievement. Not only did it revitalise a sophisticated musical movement, but gave it energy and made it more accessible to a public who were about to be bombarded by a new wave of psychological warfare, otherwise known as disco. What this album did was pump new life into a commercially decaying art form, offering those who required something a bit more challenging than Kiss or the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. As if to prove that quality music didn’t have to be plastic in order to be popular.