WEATHER REPORT Black Market (Columbia/Legacy)
WEATHER REPORT Mysterious Traveller (Columbia)
"Black Market" is Weather Report's 1976 album, now given the full Legacification by Sony. It was recorded in a time of relative turmoil in the band, featuring two drummers - Narada Michael Walden and Chester Thompson, the latter en route from Frank Zappa's band to being a touring member of Genesis - and two bassists (Alphonso Johnson and Jaco Pastorius). It must be some kind of testament to the band's togetherness that their revolving door rhythm section failed to sap the power and coherence from "Black Market" - in fact, the title track even manages to withstand being spliced together from performances featuring both drummers.
And therein lies at least a suggestion of Weather Report's directions in music. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboard player Josef Zawinul were both part of Miles Davis' legendary ensemble as the 60s became the 70s, playing on such genre-defining works as "In A Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew". Those albums were as notable for bringing conventional amplified rock instrumentation and rhythm into jazz as they were for being the products of substantial and judicious post-performance editing. Given such previous form, it's slightly surprising to report that "Black Market" is far funkier, friendlier fare than the often astonishing but frequently taxing music Shorter and Zawinul worked on with their former employer.
Start with the title track, for example. It's neither dry numerical experiment nor simpering supper jazz - it's music bursting forth and blooming with life and vitality, saturated with gentle, teasing invention. The muted, distant, yet still explosive-sounding fireworks at the close of the piece summarise the exotic, good-natured vibe marvellously. "Cannonball" is dedicated to the then recently departed altoist Julian Adderly, a more laid-back, gentle and flowing thing soon borne aloft by Shorter's craggy saxophone exploration. Perhaps that's the attraction of the best of Weather Report's music: they have the dynamics at their disposal to subtly shift the mood of a composition, casually pulling the rug out from under the listener's preconceptions of where a tune is going and what it's about.
Lapping waves and faraway foghorns open "Gibraltar", the serene calm soon shattered by some jagged group improvisation. The final few seconds demonstrate the motorik power the ensemble are capable of when locked into a tightly-focussed groove. The opening slide into "Three Clowns" is probably rather more familiar as the introduction to Portishead's "Pedestal", leading to another springboard of melodic possibilities that could leap off in any direction at any moment. "Barbary Coast" is a few short minutes' worth of cyclical funk shrouded in train whistles, before the album closes gloriously with "Heradnu", a full-blooded flowering of melodic complexity and feeling, with the groop getting soulful in 11/4.
Miles' electric legacy might have spawned a great deal that is unpalatable and unpleasant in the name of fusion, but "Black Market" is dazzling entertainment without the earbashing that some artists might prefer to indulge in. In dreary old rock terms, think of it as Frank Zappa's "Hot Rats" spun wildly and crazily out into the ether.
"Mysterious Traveller", the band's 1974 album, is a far less enticing proposition. Some of its relative lack of appeal can be attributed to the clangourous sound quality of my Canadian-sourced CD - an earlier incarnation than the recent Legacy reissue - whose harsh and thin sonics make the album something of an aural assault compared to the balmy beauty of "Black Market". The boxing match effects that soundtrack "Nubian Sundance" seem rather contrived, and some dated production touches and Zawinul's weary synthesiser voices combine to make "Mysterious Traveller" sound older than its timestamp might suggest (again, especially compared to the dewy freshness of "Black Market").
"American Tango" has some endearing brightness to it, but you'll be beaten back again by those synth sounds, which unfavourably colour the music in a fashion that acoustic keyboards might not have. Even the gentler pieces such as "Blackthorn Rose" (and don't all these two word song titles seem rather deliberate?) have a nervous, jittery intensity to them that means the listener can never really relax in their company. The album's saving grace, however, is the closer, "Jungle Book", a muted keyboard-driven piece that brings a few buckets of Enoesque ambience to the party. Otherwise, "Mysterious Traveller" might well be honest-to-goodness creative jazz rock, but it also does absolutely nothing to ingratiate itself with the listener.WEATHER REPORT Live & Unreleased (Columbia/Legacy)
Does stadium jazz sound like a pejorative term? It's not meant to, but that's what keyboardist Josef Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter play on this double CD of previously unreleased live material. Accompanied by an ever-shifting rhythm section and, taped at concerts in London and the USA between 1975 and 1983, so consistent is their sound that it seems scarcely credible that the whole album wasn't performed in a single sitting.
These long, complex pieces often come over like an aural game of Ker-plunk, the band setting up intricate webs of sound in preparation for the eventual glorious payoff riff. "Plaza Real", for example, features a gently insistent sax motif that emerges from the random fusion fog. "Portrait Of Tracy" is six minutes of bass solo, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it otherwise arranged such is the orchestra of colour the legendary Jaco Pastorius coaxes from his instrument. Perhaps due to familiarity it's the easy flow exotica of "Black Market" that really impresses, seemingly capturing Weather Report at their warmest and most humane. "Where The Moon Goes" shocks subtly, finding them attempting a 'proper' song with lyrics and vocals and everything, but rest assured this is emphatically not pop music, percussive fusillades scattering beats like shrapnel. A fragmentary, elegiac, if brief "In A Silent Way" celebrates the Miles Davis moment where arguably all of this began, and "Port Of Entry" is practically the archetypal Weather Report tune, where, after three minutes of noodling, a killer melody insinuates itself into proceedings.
Unlikely to do damascene things to the unconverted, "Live And Unreleased" is nevertheless nicely kitted out - booklet notes are by the Grammy award-winning annotator of the James Brown "Star Time" box Alan Leeds - and contains at least a few moments of startling, shape-shifting musical experience.