The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981

Weather Report

Legacy, 2015

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


"Weather Report was a JAZZ BAND!"

So say the somewhat defensive liner notes from drummer Peter Erskine. Not that Weather Report's jazz credentials were ever in question, given that the band was born out of Miles Davis' Bitches Brew. That album was pretty much the creation (or establishment in the popular conscious) of fusion jazz, a subgenre that earned some derision from purists because of how rock, funk and pop elements were added to the standard jazz sound (a sound Davis helped develop, it should be noted).

Sax wiz Wayne Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, who both played on Brew, formed Weather Report in 1971 and remained the only constants in the lineup for the next 15 years. The early days were more freewheeling; latter albums were a little more composed and mature, wearing some of the pop influences of the day, culminating in the "classic lineup" and the classic Heavy Weather.

This four-disc, four-hour collection draws exclusively from that 1978-1981 lineup and a variety of live shows performed in that time, both as a quartet and quintet in the '80s. Rather than offer a straight concert, the set jumps back and forth between years and gigs, giving the listener a complete overview of the band's live prowess in this four-year span. 

For fans, it's a tremendous treat. Alternate versions of this material were on the 8:30 album but not to this extent, and the songs range across the band's history in addition to five solo pieces that allow each band member a chance to shine. For non-fans or casual fans only familiar with "Birdland," this is a my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 lot of material that is of varying quality at best.

When this band was at its best, they were phenomenal ("Elegant People," in particular, is a standout). Shorter and Zawinul have the cred, Erskine is solid and the late Jaco Pastorius is considered one of the finest bass players of all time, let alone in the jazz realm. One would expect a lineup like this to show off, but outside of the occasional solo spot, the band plays with intensity and as an ensemble...just like a jazz band is wont to do.

The "fusion" elements of Weather Report's sound are downplayed here, not because of Erskine's insistence as producer but because that was only a small part of who they were. Zawinul was a composer, not a rock star (Jaco, on the other hand...), who seemed classically trained and learned from Miles Davis. "Birdland," in this context, seems like a one-off, an attempt at a fun hit single that proved fusion was both commercially viable and still considered jazz, but given the quality of other songs here it feels almost like a novelty (especially those corny ‘70s TV show horns...yikes). 

"Rockin' In Rhythm," a shorter Duke Ellington piece, was introduced into the band's repertoire after Zawinul weathered (ha!) criticism of his band's musical approach from old-timers and conservative fans. The piece is quite good, retaining the signature Weather Report sound while paying homage to the past and proving the band's jazz credentials. "Badia/Boogie Woogie Waltz" shows its Bitches Brew inspiration, "Gibraltar" is a fantastic 20-minute epic (and Erskine's second show with the band) and "Fast City" not only shows off some stellar, lightning-quick drumming but hearkens back to the original Weather Report sound. "Madagascar" is here and runs a bit long at 17 minutes, while "Night Passage" sounds similar and was one the band phased out after a while, making this a rare find for fans.

Not every song here is worthwhile, but the integrity of each one is astounding; Weather Report made no secret of adding overdubs on studio records, and Bitches Brew was as much a product of production edits as stellar playing, but the songs here are undoctored, exactly as played. Adding to the credibility is the tape hiss on some of the songs; Erskine's excellent liner notes talk about the various soundboard and personal tapes on which these songs were unearthed. Again, "Birdland" is here and still sounds a bit corny and dated given the quality of, say "Gibraltar" or "Continuum/River People," which are much closer to the real Weather Report sound and approach.

Maybe that's why Erskine wrote his liner notes in such a manner. These guys were not simply a fusion band, or those guys that wrote "Birdland," or Bass Whiz Jaco and some other dudes from Miles Davis' band, but their own potent jazz combo. For newcomers, starting with a hits collection would be a better introduction, but for fans this is a treasure – a box set with purpose, logical sequencing and four hours of truly rare, unheard music.

Rating: B

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2015 Benjamin Ray and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Legacy, and is used for informational purposes only.