They might be best know to the casual listener for their jazz-rock hit ‘Birdland‘, but in this article we’re going to dive deeper into perhaps the most influential jazz fusion band of all time: Weather Report.
Co-founded by keyboardist Joe Zawinul and saxophonist player Wayne Shorter, the Weather Report band was pioneering in its scintillating fusion of styles, that whilst leaning heavily into jazz, also incorporated elements of funk, rock and electronic music into its every evolving sound.
We’ve picked out ten albums by these masters of fusion that form the essential Weather Report listening!
Weather Report’s 1974 recording ‘Mysterious Traveller’ is their fourth studio album, and the last to feature founding member, double bassist Miroslav Vitous.
A signifier of the direction in which the band was heading, ‘Mysterious Traveller’ was the first Weather Report record to primarily makes use of the electric bass, and also incorporates elements of funk, R&B and rock, all of which would go on to become key elements of the band’s sound.
Highlights include the ferocious and joyful ‘Nubian Sundance’ (including synthesised crowd noises) and the contrasting stillness of ‘Blackthorn Rose’.
Voted as 1974’s album of the year by readers of Downbeat magazine, this is undoubtedly one of Weather Report’s finest records.
Weather Report (1971)
Weather Report’s debut album channels the spirit of Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way period (indeed, it features two alumni of Davis’ band in Joe Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter), with atmospheric sounds and floating dreamlike textures present throughout.
Joe Zawinul draws warm tones from his Rhodes electric piano, and makes use of a ring modulator to create interesting synthesized effects, whilst Shorter’s soprano sax cuts brilliantly through the rhythm section of Miroslav Vitous, Alphonse Mouzon and Airto Moreria.
Check out Shorter’s exquisite ‘Tears’ and Zawinul’s ‘Waterfall’.
Black Market is a 1976 album by Weather Report, and the first to feature virtuoso bassist Jaco Pastorius, who appears on ‘Cannon Ball’ (Zawinul’s tribute to recently deceased former bandleader Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley) and original composition ‘Barbary Coast’.
This was a period of transition for the band, foreshadowing what would prove to be their most popular period.
Whilst the record is notable for the introduction of Pastorius, bassist Alphonso Johnson who makes up the remainder of the tracks is of equal importance, his propulsive funk and soul grooves being a key part of the bands sound.
Johnson’s ‘Herandnu’ in 11/4 time is a highlight, as is Shorter’s use of the Lyricon, an electronic wind instrument manufactured in the early 1970’s.
Night Passage is Weather Report’s ninth studio album, recorded live in front of 250 people at The Complex studios in Los Angeles, and featuring what many to believe to be the definitive Weather Report line up:
- Joe Zawinul (keyboards)
- Wayne Shorter (saxophones)
- Jaco Pastorius (bass guitar)
- Peter Erskine (drums)
- Robert Thomas Jr. (percussion)
By their own standards, the album is relatively stripped back and straight-ahead, relying more on improvised solos and less on layers of overdubs added in post-production.
Highlights include Pastorius’ ‘Three Views of a Secret’ as well as their unique take on Ellington’s ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’.
I Sing The Body Electric
The eagerly awaited follow-up to debut album Weather Report, I Sing The Body Electric features an assortment of special guests amongst a re-shuffled core rhythm section of Zawinul, Miroslav Vitous, Eric Gravatt and Dorn Urn Romao.
The disc features a split of studio tracks, and live material (taken from a 1972 concert in Japan), with the latter perhaps being of more interest to the listener.
The band are on fire in Japan, playing with a ferocious freewheeling spirit as they blast through ‘Vertical Invader’ ‘T.H’ and ‘Dr. Honoris Causa’, though the studio tracks also offer plenty for fans of fusion, with Vitous’ rubato ‘Crystal’ standing out as a highlight.
Weather Report’s seventh studio album Heavy Weather would prove to be their most commercially successful, selling over half a million copies on original release, and catapulting them to prominence in the marketplace.
Whilst bassist Jaco Pastorius had featured on two tracks of their previous release Black Marke,t he was fully integrated into the band by the time Heavy Weather was recorded, and is as a crucial part of the record’s success.
A dazzling, naturally gifted musician who was equally at home laying down earthy grooves as he was thrilling audiences with his virtuosic talent, Pastorius introduced listeners to new sounds with his unique status as a bassist equally at home in both the jazz and rock worlds.
The album contains perhaps their best known hit, Zawinul’s ‘Birdland’ as well as Pastorius’ iconic ‘Teen Town’.
Further developing the bands’ reputation for exploring different world music’s, Tale Spinnin’ is the bands fifth studio album, recorded and released in 1975.
Featuring Latin-tinged jazz/funk, African percussion and wordless vocals, Tale Spinnin is an eclectic mix and features some of Weather Report’s most-loved material.
The neatly arranged ‘Man in the Green Shirt’ (Zawinul) is a great example of the direction in which the band was travelling, with a greater emphasis placed on composition, and a tighter ensemble sound.
‘Five Short Stories’ lives long in the memory, a delicate duet featuring Shorter on tenor saxophone and Zawinul on piano, organ and ARP 2600 string synthesizer.
Whilst the bulk of the Weather Report discography is made up of studio albums, they had a well established reputation for giving explosive live performances.
8:30, the bands tenth album, was recorded live at the Santa Monic Civic Auditorium and features the iconic quartet of Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius and drummer Peter Erskine on scintillating form.
A high-octane rendition of Pastorius’ ‘Teen Town’ is followed up by the poignant and emotive ‘A Remark You Made’ before launching into the crowd pleasing ‘Birdland’.
Side four was recorded in early 1979 in the studio, and contains the title track, as well as ‘The Orphan’ (featuring a Los Angeles children’s choir), and the record went on to win the Grammy award for the best jazz fusion performance of 1979.
Weather Report’s third studio album Sweetnighter captures the band in a transitional moment, as they shift from their more open, improvisation based earlier style, towards a more structured composition focused sound.
Herschel Dwellingham provides deeply funky grooves on drums, whilst Andrew White contributes on Cor Anglais on Miroslav Vitous’ Latin-tinged ‘Will’.
Dwellingham is joined by fellow drummer Eric Gravatt on Zawinul’s bubbling ‘125th Street congress’, on a memorable outing for the band well worth checking out.
The follow up to Heavy Weather, Mr. Gone was recorded in early May 1978 and leant further into the electric sound the band had been developing.
Awash with rich textures and layers of synthesisers, the album very much feels a studio project, and was not universally popular among critics (Downbeat giving the album a one star review).
The compositions however, are well put together, (Zawinul’s ‘Young and Fine’ being a highlight) and Pastorius shines brightly on ‘Punk Jazz’.
Whilst it somewhat divides opinion, Mr Gone is well worth checking out.
Thanks for checking out this deep dive into the band Weather Report.
Of course, there’s plenty more great music from this jazz fusion band to check out, so head over to Youtube, Spotify or your local record store to get more!
Before we go, we thought it might be useful to highlight one more thing…
Weather Report Band Members
Whilst there were a few core members that stayed largely consistent, there were various constellations of the group of the years:
- Airto Moreira (percussion)
- Alex Acuña (percussion)
- Alphonse Mouzon (drums)
- Alyrio Lima (percussion)
- Andrew White (horn, electric bass)
- Barbara Burton (percussion)
- Chester Thompson (drums)
- Chuck Bazemore (drums)
- Darryl Brown (drums)
- Dom Um Romão (percussion)
- Don Alias (percussion)
- Eric Gravatt (drums)
- Greg Errico (drums)
- Herschel Dwellingham (drums)
- Ishmail Wilburn (drums)
- Jaco Pastorius (electric bass)
- Joe Zawinul (keyboards & pianos)
- John Scofield (electric guitar)
- José Rossy (percussion)
- Leon “Ndugu” Chancler (drums)
- Manolo Badrena (percussion)
- Mino Cinélu (percussion)
- Miroslav Vitouš (bass)
- Muruga Booker (percussion)
- Narada Michael Walden (drums)
- Omar Hakim (drums)
- Peter Erskine (drums)
- Robert Thomas Jr. (percussion)
- Steve Khan (guitar)
- Victor Bailey (bass)
- Wayne Shorter (saxophones)