I’ve been fortunate to have seen some memorable concerts in my time – the first Basie visit in ’57, an Ellington show that ran until almost 1am at the old Finsbury Park Astoria in ’63, and in more recent memory Gil Evans at the Festival Hall, plus countless other smaller occasions. But Weather Report at Hammersmith in November ’80 has got to be one of the most stunning experiences ever.
Oddly it was the first time I’ve seen them live and reviews of earlier visits of the “once great band running down the slippery slope of dry ice and light shows” variety did little to prepare me for what was to come.
The bare facts are all I can report. First, five gigantic musicians meshed into the kind of empathetic unit one imagines jazz to be all about. Second, total commitment and ferocious energy input into a programme that continued virtually non-stop for over two and a half hours. Third, near perfect sound balancing that made one aware of every subtlety of internal balance and group interplay; and yes, own up, brilliant use of lights and stage sets that positively enhanced the music.
Apart from Birdland all the material was fresh and the players were clearly enjoying every moment and though the typical British jazz buff would damn WR as jazz/rock, what was surprising was that apart from the Afro and Latin inspired rhythm structures, all the material was straight-ahead surging jazz in swing time, with nary a nod to funk all evening.
The low-keyed duets between Shorter and Zawinul were breathtaking, the walking four bass lines of Jaco coupled with the swinging ride cymbal of Peter Erskine and the general doffing of caps to, and Shorter’s evident enjoyment of, the bebop tradition were a revelation.
When they went into Rockin’ In Rhythm against an ever changing kaleidoscope of photographs of Bird, Basie, Billie, Lester, Louis, Miles, Bean and others it’s as if they were telling the audience “This is where all this comes from and the music we are playing is jazz”.
I wanted to stand and cheer. Actually, that’s what everybody did after Birdland which marked the end of the set. Then they played another inspired 30 minutes as an encore.
Tremendous; most other things seem to pale into near pipsqueakery by comparison.