After ‘I Sing The Body Electric’, Weather Report’s new album comes as something of a disappointment; but it’s a relative disappointment which doesn’t dislodge the band from its top position among American ensembles in terms of unprecedented textural sophistication.
The guilty party is Zawinul (his christian name now reverted to its ethnic spelling) who dominates each side with percussive epics which suffer from a bout of the Miles Davis’s. Zawinul may be a very fine pianist, but leadens these compositions with short riffs to the accompaniment of percussive instruments which were too great in number to list in the credits: Moroccan clay drums, splash cymbals, Roller Toys, Israeli Jar drums, Chucalho, Pandeiro, Cuica, Caxixi, Castanholas, gongs, Vaibis-stones, Chinese tom-toms . . .; anyway, the result is that Shorter gets to say very little, Vitous is stifled from any creative function and is forced into a position of funky link-man between Zawinul and the aforesaid percussionists; and Gravatt plays only on the introduction to 125th Street Congress before retiring, and leaves the drumming in Boogie Woogie Waltz to Dwellingham.
Both these Zawinul compositions are aberrations as far as Weather Report is concerned – it’s just not what their music is about. Nevertheless, they’re not completely wasted and both have their moments, particularly Boogie Woogie Waltz, which blossoms into a funky drums and bass line after five minutes, and flowers into a beautiful theme played by Shorter on an electronic tenor after about ten minutes.
Vitous’s Will at once stands out as pure Weather Report. White and Shorter intone a langorous melody line which glides above Zawinul’s spacey, echoed electric piano – which he used to such great effect on the first record – and Vitous’s deep-throated bass. Manolete is a delicately romantic track in Shorter’s true style: his top notes linger magically, while Zawinul and Vitous take off in unison to the background of tasteful synthesizer and Roller toy.
However much Weather Report load themselves up with advanced electronics, they remain the most sensitive of bands – a move which usually induces a certain sterility in most groups. Witness for instance Non-stop Home. Huge pealing bells and the biggest organ in the world working flat out are in reality starbursts from an electronically doctored sax and piano; a synthesizer slaying out chords and single notes echoed into distortion until a sudden cut-off work up, with the drumming of Gravatt and Dwellingham into a huge emotional upheaval along the lines of Unknown Soldier on ‘I Sing The Body Electric’. In Zawinul’s words: ‘Our music is sort of a little fairy tale’.
‘Sweetnighter’ does fall below expectations, but the music and atmosphere are as superb as ever, and as such, will remain of vital interest in what is a fairly crucial stage of American music.
Boogie Woogie Waltz; Manolete; Adios (21 min) – 125th Street Congress; Will; Non-Stop Home (22½ min)
Josef Zawinul (el-pno/pno/syn); Wayne Shorter (sop/ten); Miroslav Vitous (bs); Eric Gravatt (dm); Dom Um Romao (perc); Muruga (perc); Herschel Dwellingham (dm); Andrew N. White III (Eng-hn/bs).
(CBS 65532 £2.17)