50 Years Later: Revisiting Weather Report’s Atmospheric Self Titled Debut

Alongside Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Weather Report was one of the defining bands of the jazz-rock fusion era. Certainly, it was the most prolific, releasing albums on a regular basis for virtually the entire duration of its sixteen-year career, notably a much longer lifespan than any of those aforementioned peer groups

Active from 1970 to 1986, the band was founded (and initially co-led) by Austrian keyboard player Joe Zawinul, American saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and Czech bassist Miroslav Vitouš, all of whom had collaborated with Miles Davis in the years just prior to coalescing as a unit. Upon the departure of Vitous and throughout most of its remaining existence, the band was a quintet consisting of Zawinul, Shorter, a bass guitarist, a drummer, and a percussionist, the personnel of which–high profile names including bassist Jaco Pastorius, drummer Peter Erskine, and percussionist Airto Moreira, among others–reflected the sound on their string of successive studio albums. 

From its very inception winning numerous awards, despite criticism from the old school of fans and writers, Weather Report always retained a modicum of avant-garde and experimental electronic leanings. And that premise held true even as their sound became more rhythm-oriented in later years, especially after the mainstream breakthrough of 1977’s “Birdland” from Heavy Weather. But the outline for their long-term evolution is more evident than ever now on the group’s half-century-old debut album (released 5/12/71): the opaque, atmospheric elements seem clarified with extended retrospect.

The dense but nebulous likes of “Milky Way” and “Orange Lady” have readily discernible antecedents in The Man with the Horn’s albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Yet Weather Report is bound and determined to launch its own cycle of stylistic reinvention:  Zawinul, Shorter, and Vitous, with the help of drummer Eric Gravatt and percussionist Dom um Romao, retain only the most fundamental sketches of melody and rhythm on eight tracks including “Morning Lake.” This earliest of Weather Report music is all about suggestion. 

It is nonetheless an emphatic declaration of breaking boundaries. During “Eurydice,” the quintet only skirts accessibility, preferring to leave more rather than less for the listener to interpret. Still, as the three principals merge their respective melodic patterns, they do not venture into so-called free jazz: the compositional sense they share generates structures, even if only implied, the shapes of which become further consolidated through the authoritative but no more literal-minded interactions generated by the two-man percussion section, .

The almost subliminal framework that is “Tears,” for instance, sounds like nothing so much as an excerpt from a lucid improvisation, captured at the moment it happened, then further clarified for the purposes of recording and, in turn, as a jumping-off point for the stage. Still, there’s a built-in fluidity and flexibility in the material, best exemplified by eighteen minutes-plus of “Orange Lady” that begins the second half of Live in Tokyo, a double live album initially released only in Japan (three tracks of which appeared on the sophomore Weather Report LP I Sing The Body Electric).

The late Zawinul’s observation on the elastic approach inherent in this shape and sound-shifting ensemble has never more apropos than with the 20/20 hindsight of fifty years: “no one solos, everyone solos.


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  1. It is nonetheless an emphatic declaration of breaking boundaries. During “Eurydice,” the quintet only skirts accessibility, preferring to leave more rather than less for the listener to interpret.

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