Thursday, 26 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #83: Heavy Weather (1977)

At number 83 is the only entry from jazz fusion pioneers Weather Report, with the album which is most consistently rated their masterpiece. Like many of the 1970s supergroups, Weather Report had already gone through their fair share of lineup permutations by the time Heavy Weather came out. The band had gradually evolved since its creation in 1971, abandoning the heavy emphasis on improvisation that had marked their initial efforts by the time of their third album, Sweetnighter (1973). After this the band moved through funk - on their breakthrough Mysterious Traveller (1974) - on to incorporating synthesisers on the follow-up Tale Spinnin' (1975), and then rock with Black Market (1976). With keyboardist Joe Zawinul and sax player Wayne Shorter the only core members, the band's line-up, particularly on the drums, constantly changed. Black Market was the first Weather Report album for bassist Jaco Pastorius; his addition would prove all the difference.

We begin with 'Birdland'. What more can be said about this legendary track? This song, about a jazz club in New York, became a jazz standard for the likes of Buddy Rich and orchestras the world over, and achieved the kind of commercial success in America matched only by the mighty Herbie Hancock. And it's easy to see why. Zawinal's genius is there from the very start, with the simple yet disticntive seven-note opening. Pastorius is loud, vibrant and highly entertaining, and the jazz drumming from Alex Acuna is precise, simplistic and subtle. Everything about this track makes it a classic, from the panache of the individual instruments to the ease and skill with which they all slot together. It's an unadulterated masterpiece.

And from one masterpiece to another. 'A Remark You Made' is more understated, quieter and not half at catchy - but, since this is jazz, that is not an issue. Whereas on 'Birdland' relied on Zawinul and Pastorius to set things off, this is from the outset Wayne Shorter's song. He plays the saxophone with unrivalled precision and passion. And all the time the rhythm section is relaxed and equally accurate - Acuna plays with an acquired gentleness and sensitivity, and Zawinul switches from the rapid chords of 'Birdland' to the slow building harmonies on here. Pastorius plays beautiful, and the whole thing has a fantastic feel to it.

On 'Teen Town', things start to rock up a bit. Pastorius was described as "the Greatest Bass Player in the World"¹ by this point - though this title was entirely self-proclaimed, he wasn't wrong. Even fans of John Entwistle are likely to sit up and take notice. Backed only by an easily executed hi-hat and snare combination, 'Jaco' runs riot, feeding Shorter and Acuna invariably and pleasantly complex phrases on the bass which become much greater than the some of their parts. At only 2:51 this hardly qualifies as an epic WR song, but it is living (and hearing) proof of the talents of the ensemble.

'Harlequin', at least to start with, shifts the focus back to Zawinul. This time on piano, he rambles and swings around the keys like a very composed lunatic, staving on Pastorius' resonating bass work in another good piece. This, however, does not have the same focus or clarity of purpose that the previous tracks had. Although Shorter's skills as a composer are not in doubt, this ends up being a little too disorganised even for jazz. Certainly Acuna's drums towards the end become way too heavy on the cymbals, so that we can make out very little else.

The bottom really plummets out through on 'Rumba Mama'. A live track, supposedly, it could almost be considered a world music track. The first half is characterised by loud shouting from Manolo Badrena in a language that this difficult to discern, intersperced only by odd and awkward-sounding drumming from Acuna. The drumming aspect continues as the shouting decreases, and like John Bonham playing samba, it's too chaotic and overcooked to work, putting a damper on the whole project.

Thankfully, the slump doesn't last and 'Palladium' fights, literally, to restore the albums fortunes. And it does a pretty good job, since all the ingredients are here - Pastorius alive and loud on bass, Shorter on form on the sax, some more restrained and thoughful percussion from Acuna. Zawinul completes the picture with some delightful and thoughtful melodies in the higher registers, completing any 'comeback' with unrepentant ease.

'Birdland' and 'A Remark You Made' both set the benchmark very high, but on 'The Juggler' Zawinul almost surpasses both to create what could be regarded as the epitome of jazz fusion - though, considering the success of 'Birdland', maybe that's a little too strong. This is a more minimalist piece, with what seems like mixed time signatures, relying on Acuna to deliver - and he does, intelligently. But this is predominantely a Zawinul vehicle - his repeating keyboard riff - first heard at about 1:16, is absolutely to die for. All the performers are at the top of their game, and the result is brilliance.

'Havona' is the album's closer, and tragically it doesn't quite live up to the very high expectations set by the previous tracks. On this occassion, the keyboards are too electro and in-your-face for it to constitute a proper jazz song - an ambitious early-80s soul number, perhaps. Shorter and Pastorius do their utmost to resurrect this song, but on this rambling, bloated occassion they act and play in vain.

Weather Report's catalogue is a rather uneven one, if investigated carefully. All four albums from Mysterious Traveller to Heavy Weather won the prestigious Album of the Year rating by jazz magazine Downbeat. However, on closer inspection a lot of this earlier output is decidely hit-and-miss, as if the band were searching for a sound. This seems even closer to the truth which we look past 1977; their follow-up, Mr. Gone (1978) was panned by Downbeat, in what became the jazz equivalent of Rolling Stone's famous review of Bob Dylan's Self-Portrait (1970) - which began with the words, "What is this shit?". Taken historically, then, it would appear that Heavy Weather is the only time when Weather Report, or at least this incarnation, hit the mark. Not only that, it set the tone for jazz just as Steely Dan had done with Pretzel Logic (1974). Heavy Weather is by no means a perfect album - but it is a very important achievement.

3.75 out of 5

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