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WEATHER REPORT: LOOK FOR HEAVY JAZZ SHOWERS
11/19/15

By Phil Gallo

Time has not been particularly kind to the jazz bands of the 1970s, most of them captained by former Miles Davis associates who often emphasized instrumental dexterity over melodic cohesion. Today most people would have a hard time coming up with bands beyond Chick Corea's Return to Forever, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters and Weather Report; ask someone to hum a tune from the era and you're probably limited to Corea's "Spain," Hancock's "Chameleon" and Joe Zawinul's "Birdland," the song that delivered a mainstream audience to Weather Report.

Four-CD set The Legendary Live Tapes: 1979-1981 (Sony Legacy) captures Weather Report at their commercial peak, driven by groundbreaking bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Peter Erskine redefining the role of a rhythm section behind keyboardist Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. These tapes reveal a commanding and fearless band, a boundary-free approach to music that borrowed from free jazz, Latin music and pop. The performances, sound-board recordings that would rate a B or B- in an audiophile magazine, are consistently intense, sometimes bursting – as in a  ferocious take on "Birdland" – and elsewhere pensive - an eight-minute-plus Zawinul/Shorter Duke Ellington-rooted exchange and  "A Remark You Made."

Discs 2 and 4 pull largely from performances in Japan in the summer of 1978, a time when melodies had an air of hedonistic happiness, signs that the band's competition was as much Earth, Wind & Fire disco and anything Hancock might record. There's a showmanship at play in Erskine's tropical rhythms, the ensemble's use of traditional as a springboard for unison improvisation and in  the manner the tune “Gibraltar,” from the first Pastorius-era WR album Black Market, is turned into an epic exercise, a21-minute suitable for dancing. The third disc with songs pushed pushed to between eight and 18 minutes in length, shows how elegantly the musicians could weave around each other, employing age-old jazz techniques as skillfully as they toyed with modern rock concepts.