History has not been kind to the jazz-fusion movement of the 1970s, and for the most part that vilification is justified. Listening back to the top acts of the genre — Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams Lifetime, Al Di Meola, various Chick Corea projects — reveals a reliance on dazzling technique that often renders the music bloodless, at times vapid. These decades later, most of it sounds as dated as a maroon velour shirt.
It should be noted that all of the above acts featured stellar musicians, but their fusion material — most of it, at least — is not their finest hour.
There is, to my mind, one exception, one shining star amid the fusion morass.
A new 4-CD boxed set, The Legendary Live Tapes: 1978-1981, only strengthens the argument. The collection’s 28 tracks have been culled from board cassettes and artfully cleaned up under the supervision of drummer Peter Erskine.
The band formed in 1970, the brainchild of keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter, both graduates of Miles Davis’ electric (proto-fusion) bands. Those two were the only constants during Weather Report’s 16-year tenure. The band featured a revolving door of drummers, percussionists and bassists. As a result, the group stayed in a near-constant state of artistic evolution, while retaining a signature style that combined jazz, rock and R&B, with doses of world music and expansive jams that were a genre unto themselves.
Legendary Live Tapes chronicles Weather Report’s most popular, and arguably best, lineup: Shorter, Zawinul, Erskine, percussionist Robert Thomas, Jr. (who appears on two of the four discs) and the all-time wunderkind of electric bass, Jaco Pastorius. During this period, Weather Report had ascended to near-rock star popularity — thanks largely to 1977’s gold-selling Heavy Weather LP and its hit “Birdland” — and routinely played in major concert halls throughout the world.
Zawinul, the band’s de facto leader, was fond of saying “we’re always soloing; we’re never soloing” (or words to that effect), meaning that Weather Report had dispensed with jazz’s melody-then-solos convention. This required heightened telepathy between the players, which Weather Report had by the bucket load. Superior musicians — locked in, listening, reacting, exercising their individuality within the group context.
As these unedited tapes bear out, Weather Report further departed from small-group jazz custom by performing the melodies as advertised and, even more impressive, sticking quite closely to the often complex, overdubbed arrangements concocted in the studio. This required discipline and dexterity (especially by Zawinul, who covered a lot of layered parts with his bank of keyboards).
So yes, Live Tapes listeners get to hear the tunes. But more important, we get heaps of what the studio versions cannot provide:
Like a 17-minutes-plus version of “Madagascar,” which percolates over strolling swing, feinting and jabbing with the angular melody throughout, elegantly weaving in solos, group improvisation and heading down enticing alleyways.
Like the sinfully gorgeous ballad “A Remark You Made,” played faithfully, but with more heart than the original.
Like a voluble Shorter — especially on tenor, eschewing the minimalistic approach heard in much of the recorded work.
Like Pastorius’ bottomless supply of surprise, not to mention his liquid tone and chops to burn (and occasional plunges into Hendrixian bedlam).
Like synthesizer solos — before they were shunned. In the pre-digital era, Zawinul wrenched more sounds from his keyboards than anyone. He steered clear of the metallic whininess and pitch bends used by his peers, infusing his synths with warmth and humanity.
Like Erskine’s band-comes-first aesthetic, but never letting you forget that he’s a flat-out monster.
Weather Report was the fusion scene’s beacon, but three-and-a-half decades later, it is abundantly clear that the band was unclassifiable. (Out today, Fri., Nov. 20, via Sony Legacy)
Critics' Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars