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Weather Report: The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981

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It’s no great insight to suggest that Weather Report was primarily a studio band. The legendary fusion ensemble was too reliant on electronic instruments and innovative production techniques to quite come off on the stage, even as they attained arena-rock status during the Jaco Pastorius-Peter Erskine years. In fact, their 1979 live album, 8:30, was heavily edited and overdubbed before release.

Now we learn that there are soundboard-quality documents of Pastorius-Erskine Weather Report (1978-81) in concert, primarily from Japan and the U.K. and recorded on Erskine’s cassette machine. At first glance, the very fact of their studio primacy, and the lack of the visual spectacle the band used onstage, makes The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981 mainly a piece for diehards and collectors. But there are some real discoveries to be made from listening to this four-disc set, for better and for worse.

In the “for better” category, we get to hear unaccompanied solo pieces by saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist Pastorius and drummer Erskine. (Coleader/keyboardist Joe Zawinul’s feature comes in a mostly-piano duet with Shorter on “Come Sunday”; percussionist Robert Thomas gets left out.) Shorter’s, featuring him on soprano sax and captured via an audience recording, sounds like a rhythmically lopsided classical recital. Erskine and Pastorius have two solos each. Both of the former’s performances overkill the chops, though his use of timpani on the 1980 solo is intriguing. But Pastorius’ solos are set highlights, particularly the imaginative and spacious 1978 spot in Osaka (on which he quotes his first album’s “Okonkole y Trompa”).

Then there’s the simple matter of energy and immediacy. The miking and acoustics of a live concert mean constant prominence for Pastorius and Erskine, reaffirming what often got lost in the studio-that Weather Report could swing like hell. A 1978 read of their signature hit “Birdland,” sped up and without studio gloss, hits hard as well. The in-concert intensity can even propel them at times past their records: A 1980 rendition of “Brown Street” and 1978 takes on “Black Market” and “A Remark You Made” are superior to their studio counterparts.

However, the set also portrays the worst of Weather Report’s (and fusion’s) excesses. A medley of “Badia” and “Boogie Woogie Waltz” and a long jam on “Madagascar,” both from 1980, vamp mindlessly on one chord, and a 1979 workout on Pastorius’ “Teen Town” hews close to a bad hip-hop record. The latter also exhibits a trait that appears throughout the music, including the aforementioned “Sightseeing” and an undated take on “Fast City”: warbling, wavering notes that could either be a bug or a feature. Zawinul’s techno-gimmickry always made for wild sounds (witness the warped arrangement of Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” both on the Night Passages album and in the undated performance here). Yet on these documents it can be hard to tell what we’re hearing: Are they experiments with dense, unstable harmonies, à la Andrew Hill? Or just the pitfalls of outdated synthesizers and 35-year-old tape?

Finally, the same miking and acoustics that put such a wallop into these performances can also have the opposite effect. Zawinul often gets short shrift by way of the other musicians’ volume, and on “Three Views of a Secret” he’s nearly wiped out entirely. And “Forlorn,” treated as a quiet ballad, loses any subtlety at Osaka in 1980. As good as the highlights of these discs are, they contain very little, aside from those few record-besting performances, that listeners can’t find on Weather Report’s studio albums. Thus the first impression is correct: The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981 is the stuff of collectors and WR fanatics. (Pastorius fanatics as well, with his solo features and a brilliant melodic-yet-funky turn on a medley of his “Continuum” and “River People.”) The music is impressive and insightful but not essential.

Originally Published