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Weather Report: The Columbia Albums 1971-1975

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Weather Report’s first six albums, as Bill Milkowski reflects in the notes for Columbia’s collection thereof, saw the fusion legends move from “an electric avant-garde band that appealed strictly to the cognoscenti” to “a ferocious groove-oriented juggernaut that packed large theaters.” Thus The Columbia Albums 1971-1975 is pristine-attractively packaged and never sounding better, no mean feat since they were state-of-the-art recordings in their day-proof that yesterday’s avant-garde becomes today’s mainstream, and mainstream becomes anachronism. If Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, et al., were uncompromising, 40 years on compromise seems unnecessary.

1971’s Weather Report is long on texture and atmosphere, short on conventional forms and orchestrations. But where Miroslav Vitous’ fuzz bass (“Umbrellas”) and Shorter’s studio-processed soprano (“Orange Lady”) were once ugly anathema, today they feel warm, sexy, even inviting. 1972’s I Sing the Body Electric follows a similar course, with greater ambition. The album’s signature tune, Zawinul’s “Unknown Soldier,” features an electrified chamber orchestra; though driven by Eric Gravatt’s martial drums and Zawinul’s eerie synthesized effects, melodic passages burst from the haze. Sing‘s second side is heavily edited from a Tokyo concert, which appears in its entirety on the double-disc Live in Tokyo. Simultaneously their boldest and most conventional album, it removes studio trickery from their alchemy; the result is starker and less warm, but also more direct, with its opening medley spotlighting Zawinul’s gorgeous acoustic piano playing and its second disc including the band’s swingingest setpiece, Shorter’s “Eurydice.” (It also appears in a studio version as one of the box’s seven for-completists-only bonus tracks.)

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