When you hear the phrase “weather report” I’m sure that for most of you the first thing that comes to your head is what the forecast will be for the next few days. However, for me (and maybe a few of you) I usually think of the jazz fusion group. It’s also likely that most of you don’t listen to much jazz, and for that matter fusion. This is understandable; yet still a shame in my eyes. Jazz is one of the most expressive and artistic forms of music, if only because it is based around improvisation which is fueled by the emotions and ideas of the artists performing, and not notes that are written down on paper.
But I’m getting (slightly) off the point.
Weather Report was one of the first true jazz fusion group and probably the most successful and acclaimed of all fusion bands. Anyone who played in a junior high or high school jazz band knows their infamous hit, “Birdland,” even if they were unaware of the fact that it was even a Weather Report song. What also made the band unique was that unlike most of the other seminal 70s fusion groups, there wasn’t a single perceived leader. Mahavishnu Orchestra had John McLaughlin, Return to Forever had Chick Corea, The Tony Williams Lifetime had, well, Tony Williams, and the Headhunters were essentially Herbie Hancock’s backing band. Instead, Weather Report was founded and led by keyboardist Josef Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The group was notorious for changing personnel, and though bassists Miroslav Vitous and Jaco Pastorious were incredibly impactful on the group (especially the latter), it was always Zawinul and Shorter’s group.
To take a second to clarify what jazz fusion is, for those of you who don’t know, it is a style of music that fused jazz and rock together. It was born out of the late 1960s work of Miles Davis, particularly In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. For the most part, the music is mainly instrumental and heavy on improvisation and soloing (like jazz), but incorporated rock instruments like synthesizers and electric guitars and basses, along with having rhythms that were less swung. In my mind, this genre of music is where musicians really show their chops, because if you can play true jazz fusion, you can play almost anything.
So now that I’ve given a brief synopsis of jazz fusion, we can move on to the album at hand.
Mysterious Traveller was the band’s fifth record (fourth recorded in the studio) and was recorded at a time when the band was in the middle of massive changes, both musically and personnel-wise. Musically, the band was already moving away from it’s initial sound of being more experimental and free, and more towards rock and funk, both in sound and structure. This is not to say that the band was giving up on jazz, because that is far from the case. It is just that the band was creating songs that were more structured, and adding more grooves in the song. With this change in style, original bassist Miroslav Vitous left the group, replaced by Alphonso Johnson (who would be replaced by Jaco Pastorious a few years later). With this replacement the band’s future sound was solidified, and Mysterious Traveller was the first step towards the band’s ultimate ascension to greatness.
The album opens with the bombastic, and slightly chaotic, “Nubian Sundance.” Filled with instrumental and vocal overdubs (though no lyrics), the song is driven by the relentless drum beat from Ishmael Washburn (which is doubled by session player Skip Hadden) and the frenetic percussion playing of Dom Um Romao. But as is the case in most Weather Report songs (especially those written by him, as is the case) the keyboards and synthesizers of Joe Zawinul dominate. Of course, this is far from being a negative, since Zawinul is able to intertwine and layer melodic lines that fit perfectly with the percussive chaos that fills the air. Alphonse Johnson’s bass work is less of a backbone and more musical decoration, while Wayne Shorter’s saxophone can be heard sporadically at the beginning and end of the track.
The slower, more ethereal “American Tango” follows. Co-written by Vitous (along with Zawinul), it is his swan song with the band, playing upright bass on the track (his only appearance on the album), and it’s a pretty damn lovely one. All of the members of the band do any excellent job creating musical lines that dance and play with each other, creating a strangely beautiful feeling, which is only interrupted by a seemingly out of place bridge that delves a bit into a harder, funkier groove for a small time.
The third track, “Cucumber Slumber,” is the funkiest on the album, and my favorite. Co-written by Johnson and Zawinul, this track does a great job of showing off all three melodic players’ chops, especially Johnson, who lays down some incredibly tasty and funky grooves that are strengthened by Washburn and Romao. Shorter is given almost free reign to play over the first half of the song, while Zawinul gets the second half. This type of soloing anchors the tune in the jazz realm, which makes it super fun to listen to as it intermingles with the funky backbeat.
The Shorter composed “Mysterious Traveller” follows and presents an incredible mix of funk and jazz over through several time signature changes, creating a very alien vibe. The song builds through the repeating heads (aka verses), until the chorus hits when the melodic players are once again given space to have an improvised conversation. The intricacies and layers of sounds that are skillfully placed in this song are amazing, adding true depth to the song.
The next two songs, “Blackthorn Rose” and “Scarlet Woman,” are both beautiful ballad-esque pieces. The first is a duet performed by Shorter and Zawinul, in which both musicians’ talents and mastery of their instruments shine brightly. “Scarlet Woman” is a little more aggressive than its predecessor, adding Johnson into the mix, and a guest timpanist, by the name of Steve Little, into the mix. A few wonderful things about this song is that you hear how beautiful Zawinul’s synthesizer arrangements can be, and there is a few seconds of fuzz bass, something extremely rare in jazz.
The album closes with “Jungle Book,” another piece by Zawinul. The song truly makes the listener feel like you are a child running through a jungle, playing around the fauna, taking in as much of the scenery as possible. Guest musician Don Ashworth’s ocarina is absolutely gorgeous, complimenting Zawinul’s playing. This song also foreshadows how Zawinul’s career would head towards world music after Weather Report broke up.
All in all, Mysterious Traveller is a fantastic album by Weather Report and I would think (or at least hope) that jazz lovers would truly enjoy it. However, if you aren’t already a big fan of fusion, jazz, and/or world music, it may not being something you will readily enjoy, and would suggest getting Black Market, Heavy Weather, or the live album 8:30 to ease into listening to Weather Report. Yet, I still think that it is worth a listen, especially for true music lovers. There is so much depth and beauty in each song, and at some points so much groove, that it’s an album that can be listened to many times, with each listen being a new experience, truly making it a piece of art.