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.)
From Sweetnighter, however, emerges a very different band. This one plays with more structure and hard-funk grooves-even long jams like “125 Street Congress” are more Sly Stone than Miles Davis. It’s the first WR album to sound truly dated; Zawinul was assuming control of the band, which he wanted to make more commercial. It was all too much for founding member Vitous, who, along with Gravatt, left shortly afterward, paving the way for the even more pop-inclined (and dated) Mysterious Traveller. It’s a schizophrenic release: While Zawinul dominates the frontline throughout, the first side comprises contagious funk à la “Mysterious Traveller” while the second includes mellow, delicate soundscapes like “Jungle Book”-the roots of new age.
Tale Spinnin’, the collection’s final album, follows the latter path. Shorter is increasingly a color commentator, with obbligati on “Lusitanos” that foreshadow smooth jazz, while the keyboards receive complex, layered arrangements. Rhythm hasn’t entirely faded-“Freezing Fire” is a jazz-funk tour-de-force-but even that cut features synth lines that could only have come from 1975.
The following albums would, of course, change direction again with the arrival of bassist Jaco Pastorius. Examined independently of those, and well after the fact, 1971-1975 is a fascinating document of jazz fusion moving from the cutting edge to the middle of the road. But that shouldn’t detract from the music’s quality. Weather Report did fine work at all points on the commercial spectrum; that it came to so reflect its time just shows the band’s vast influence.