Last year, Columbia/Legacy released a four-disc set of Weather Report called The Legendary Live Tapes, drawing on the band at their commercial peak: 1977-83. You know, the Jaco Pastorius years, when they toured records like Heavy Weather or Mr. Gone.
The thing is, this is a period that’s been well documented already. First on 1979’s 8:30 double LP, then on 1998’s Live and Unreleased. To be fair, this was when the band was at it’s most popular and, arguably, at their creative peak. In the liner notes to 8:30, Joe Zawinul said “every night was an event.” It was also when their music was, in a word, accessible: slick, poppy and funk-influenced. There’s a reason “Birdland” helped break the band to a new audience, after all.
But they weren’t always like this, especially on stage. You can hear snatches of it on their second record I Sing the Body Electric, the second half is drawn from a 1972 gig in Tokyo (later expanded for release as Live in Tokyo). But largely, it’s a grey area, unexplored in re-issues and mysterious to all but jazz buffs. Let’s dive in.
Weather Report formed in late 1970, with Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Alphonse Mouzon and Miroslav Vitous. They recorded their first record with Airto Moirera on percussion, but once they hit the road he’d been replaced by Dom Un Romao. Where their first, self-titled record sounds ethereal, almost mysterious, as a live act they quickly gelled into a dense, almost funky style of jazz.
One of my favorite examples of their early sets are the songs “Tears” and “Umbrellas,” often segued into each other when played live. This performance, taken from a November 1971 show in Vienna, gives a good example of their early power, with both Shorter and Zawinul playing off each other and Vitous going nuts on his upright bass, a thundering buzz giving their low end a punch and the band three different leads, with Mouzon keeps everything from going off the rails.
Weather Report :: Tears > Umbrella (1971)
In what would become a common move for the band, Mouzon left the band after this tour and was replaced by Eric Gravatt. Although Zawinul claimed he’d never heard him play before, he’d later say Gravatt was his “favorite drummer of them all.” Indeed, Gravatt quickly fit into the band, as the live sections of I Sing the Body Electric show – all the more surprising, given he’d only joined the band a couple of months prior.
By the end of 1972, the group was hitting its stride, expanding songs like “Unknown Soldier” and “Vertical Invader” to nearly 20 minutes apiece. But the biggest difference comes on older material, where Gravatt’s drumming gives their music jazzier edge and propels the band forward. A show at Cleveland’s Agora Theatre is a good example of this band, which had grown in confidence, giving their older material a boost, like this driving version of “Directions.”
Weather Report :: Directions (10-17-72)
However, this lineup was also short-lived. In 1973, during the sessions for Sweetnighter, Zawinul brought in new musicians to work with the band: drummer Herschel Dewllingham and bassist Andrew White. It coincided with a new direction in Zawinul’s writing, which was starting to dominate the band’s songbook. On more funk-influenced tracks like “Boogie Woogie Waltz” and “125th Street Congress,” Gravatt barely played if at all; White played an electric bass while Vitous played his upright.
However, when it came time to tour the record in summer 1973, Weather Report brought in a new drummer – Greg Errico, fresh out of Sly and the Family Stone – but kept Vitous in the fold. The group was all the better for it, as this lengthy performance of “Boogie Woogie Waltz” shows. Here, Errico’s drumming is more straight forward than either Gravatt or Mouzon’s, but finally gives their music the groove Zawinul’s composition hints at. With his steady backbeat, the group launches into a lengthy jam, well past the already lengthy performance released on Sweetnighter and gives Vitous, Shorter and Zawinul room to improvise. No wonder Zawinul said they stopped playing it live because nobody played it as well as Errico.
Weather Report :: Boogie Woogie Waltz (8-23-73)
More changes followed this tour. Errico split before recording with the band, and two more drummers were recruited: Skip Hadden and Ishmael Wilburn. And although Vitous was still around for some of the recording sessions for Mysterious Traveler, Alphonso Johnson was brought to play electric bass. Almost immediately his playing changed the group’s dynamic: listen to the difference between “American Tango” and “Cucumber Slumber,” two back-to-back tracks on Mysterious Traveler. It was a turning point for the group: a Rolling Stone review called it “their most complete and perfect statement.”
By early 1975, they were becoming a formidable live act, too, although one still in flux: Wilburn left in 1974 and they burned through a few more drummers before settling on Chester Thompson (fresh from a stint in Frank Zappa) for a tour the following year. His style harkens more to their jazz roots, but with Johnson’s furious basslines, has as much power as a freight train. Listen closely and you can hear seeds of what was coming down the pipe on live performances like this one, taken from a show in Paris in November 1975: Thompson holding down a furious rhythm and Johnson’s driving, fast-paced bass, often answering Zawinul’s keyboard workouts.