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Weather Report: Live and Unreleased

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illustration of Joe Zawinul

Formed in 1971, Weather Report was one of the most important bands in contemporary jazz-indeed, some have persuasively argued it was the most important group of the past 30 years. Weather Report’s range extended from French impressionism to free jazz, bebop to world music, electronic to acoustic, big band to chamber sounds. The band was a unique partnership between Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, and its range was, outside of Duke Ellington’s, perhaps the most diverse, inclusive and imaginative in jazz. That dedicated sonic searching has been a defining mark of Shorter and especially Zawinul’s careers.

Weather Report’s recorded output is well-enough known by now, and the new Live and Unreleased adds significantly to a widely admired and influential corpus of work. Recorded between 1975 and 1983, these 18 tracks come from what is generally regarded as Weather Report’s key years, with half of the songs including bassist Jaco Pastorius. For many, the Pastorius tracks will be the key recordings on the album, but Weather Report was always much more than a showcase for its most famous sideman. It was an integrated ensemble, amply illustrated by tracks featuring the band’s other bassists: “Freezing Fire” and “Cucumber Slumber” with Alphonso Johnson; “Where the Moon Goes” and “Two Lines” with Victor Bailey. Their bass playing may have not been in the bravura mould of Pastorius, but they allowed different facets of Weather Report’s subtle rhythmic interaction to be revealed. They both lock the groove without cliche or bombast, with Johnson especially impressive on “Cucumber Slumber.”

Zawinul participated in the selection of material on Live and Unreleased, which benefits from the inclusion of several lesser-known works, such as “Rumba Mama,” an overlooked track originally on the hit album Heavy Weather, and compositions from the keyboardist’s pre-Weather Report days in mini-medley form, “In a Silent Way/Waterfall” and “Directions/Dr. Honoris Causa,” which are new to the (non-bootleg) Weather Report discography. Shorter repeatedly finds the unexpected note and Zawinul the unexpected chord, the two reveling in a creative duality as spontaneous as it was enigmatic, making Weather Report simmer with inner tensions that produced musical excitement full of barbed subtlety but capable of reaching extraordinary highs. Weather Report’s finely judged balance between assertion (Zawinul) and suavity (Shorter) makes for an ensemble with wide expressive range, yet this did not mark the limit of its ambition. The band laid down serious grooves as well: “Night Passage,” here in a looser, hotter take recorded before the titular album version; Pastorius and drummer Alex Acuna driving “Black Market”‘s out choruses with heady abandon.

When Weather Report disbanded in late 1985, Zawinul-the ipso facto musical director-could be forgiven for thinking, “Where do I go from here?” After the short-lived Weather Update band, his response was 1986’s Dialects-defined in the booklet for the newly reissued and remastered CD as “Music for Solo Synthesizers and Voices”-featuring the keyboardist alone with his programmed synths and rhythm machines, using vocoders on his own vox and importing Bobby McFerrin’s improvised onomatopoetics and a vocal trio singing in a Zawinul-created language on other tracks.

What is immediately apparent on Dialects is Zawinul’s concern to embrace world-music influences within the broad sonic palette that utilized the latest synthesizer and studio technology. But world-music influences can sometimes swallow Zawinul’s identity. While he displays an enormous amount of musical skill in manipulating the wide spectrum of computerized sounds on Dialects, the album leaves the impression of a highly evolved musical intellect laboring long into the digital night-which in fact, he probably did.

I saw Zawinul at the 1985 North Sea Festival touring the solo project, and he resembled one of Ken Russell’s mad genius composer types, hunched over the keyboards presenting a startling array of sound as he wrestled with technology at the expense of meaning. In many ways it is the ends on Dialects that also suffer at the expense of the means since Zawinul’s totally synthesized environment (not withstanding the use of voices) is emotionally unfulfilling, despite the musical intellect brought to bear.

In 1988 the keyboardist formed the Zawinul Syndicate, and the band made three albums that amount to search parties attempting to find an aesthetically satisfying jazz-world synthesis-one that promised much but remained tantalizingly unfulfilled. The turning point came when Zawinul was invited to produce 1991’s Amen (Mango/Island), an album by Salif Keita. Zawinul has said it was the most important musical experience of his life.

Sadly, the changes in Zawinul’s music in this period are not documented on record, with 1992’s vocals-heavy My People (Escapade) only hinting at the new styles he was investigating. But live, the Syndicate generated a buzz over the course of the ’90s with a sound refined night after night on the bandstand, developing a successful jazz-world amalgam through the strength of its collective musical personality-less world-jazz, more Zawinul music. Something of the in-person excitement the Zawinul Syndicate generated during its world tour in 1997 was captured on 1998’s World Tour (ESC), yet in the intervening years the band continued to grow and broaden its range.

Zawinul’s current band includes Paco Sery, who is among the world’s finest drummers, teamed with the astonishing bassist Etienne Mbappe (Zawinul considers him more of a phenomenon than Pastorius), guitarist Amit Chatterjee, percussionist Manolo Badrena (formerly of Weather Report) and the otherworldly voice of Maria Joao. These are the key players who participate in Zawinul’s new Faces & Places CD, and they are permutated throughout the various tracks with a range of additional musicians, including former Syndicate bassists Victor Bailey and Richard Bona, former Weather Reporter Alex Acuna, plus guitarist Dean Brown and, from time to time, a selection of horns. Yet the basic Zawinul sound remains largely impervious to these comings and goings; thicker ensemble textures and more color, yes, but all remaining firmly within Zawinul’s overall sound conception.

Faces & Places is conceived as a series of tourist recollections of people and places in the manner of Ellington’s “Far East Suite”-a jazz equivalent of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” or Copland’s “El Salon Mexico.” What emerges is a series of eloquent programmatic accounts of places, such as “Cafe Andalusia,” named after a cafe in Tunisia. Like the language he created for Dialects, “world” effects are as Zawinul hears them without regard for idiomatic accuracy; i.e., the Tunisian voices are merely his impression of how the language sounds. Elements of simplicity and purity are often impressive in their momentary effect, such as Joao’s pitch-perfect voice on “Barefoot Beauty,” a composition dedicated to her habit of performing sans shoes, or Zawinul’s accordion-sound synth on “Borges Buenos Aires Part 1.”

The CD builds on World Tour’s more reflective and impressionistic tracks, such as “Success,” which included church bells taped in Germany and a spoken word recitation of a poem by Erich Fried, or the solo piano reflection on Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Nat “King” Cole called “When There Was Royalty.” Faces & Places’ tribute tune is the wholly absorbing “The Spirit of Julian ‘C’ Adderley,” dedicated to the alto saxophonist with whom the keyboardist played from 1961 to 1970. It makes no attempt to emulate soul jazz or Adderley but instead conveys Zawinul’s love and affection for a man whom he continues to admire. The result is a piece of vivid contemporary impressionism, with Zawinul’s vocoder blending with the wordless vocals of four female voices in haunting echo of the keyboardist’s synthesizer chord voicings.

It’s often forgotten that a young Zawinul was selected for the Vienna Boys Choir, which he did not pursue as it prejudiced his keyboard studies. On Faces & Places, he achieves a seamless marriage of voice and instruments, with the vocals meticulously built up through multitracking. The voices form an integral ingredient in Zawinul’s ensemble sound, though sometimes they emerge solo-although “Familiar to Me,” a pure vocal track from Richard Page, is perhaps the least successful song.

On the final track, “East 12th Street Band,” saxophonist Bobby Malach, bassist Bona and percussionist Acuna join drummer Sery and guitarist Chatterjee for a song that represents something close to the live sound of Zawinul’s working band. If it was not already clear from the rest of the CD, then this exuberant closing piece reveals how Zawinul has arrived at another peak in his career.

Zawinul has refused to be overwhelmed by his achievements with Weather Report, or succumb to the temptation of reiterating big hits like “Birdland” or “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” Instead, the keyboardist has remained true to his muse as a creative artist, willing to cut ties with his distinguished past work in order to forge a new musical identity by responding to fresh challenges-even if for a while conquering those challenges seemed beyond him. Very few jazz musicians ever achieve this-think of the mere handful of swing musicians who reinvented themselves as successful beboppers-and Faces & Places is testimony to a remarkable transition and musical rebirth. It’s one of the most original, inclusive and thought-provoking albums to appear in years.