Weather Report - Night Passage

Sony

Release date: 1980

Night Passage cover


Personnel:

Joe Zawinul (synthesizers, electric piano, Fender Rhodes)
Wayne Shorter (soprano and tenor saxophones)
Jaco Pastorius (bass guitar)
Peter Erskine (drums)
Robert Thomas Jr. (percussion)

Tracks:
1.Night Passage; 2 Dream Clock; 3 Port Of Entry; 4. Forlorn; 5. Rockin' In Rhythm; 6. Fast City; 7. Three Views Of A Secret; 8. Madagascar

Review:

"Night Passage" makes it to 100 Greatest Jazz Album status ahead of the more obvious choice "Heavy Weather" (their half million selling breakthrough album) since it is the more complete realisation of the breakthroughs in jazz made by Weather Report.

"Weather Report" was the name for the fifteen year collaboration between Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter that began in 1971 when they left Miles Davis' band after completing the "In A Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew" sessions. They were to retain much of the Miles Davis vibe in all that followed. During Weather Report's fifteen years, the co-leaders employed 21 different additional musicians (in the bass, drums and percussion slots). Of all those permutations over the years it is the band here on "Night Passage" (which also features on "Mr Gone" and the excellent Grammy winning live album "8:30") that really gells.

Jaco Pastorius had written to Joe Zawinul to say that he was "the greatest bass player in the world": when he auditioned it was clear that this was true. Whereas he has been somewhat peripheral on "Heavy Weather" on all but the beautiful "A Remark You Made", on "Night Passage" and "8:30" he has taken centre stage, playing tumultuous, riffing bass as much as a lead as a backing instrument.

Peter Erskine had been recruited following "Heavy Weather " and had solved the riddle of who was best to play drums in the band; his direct, powerful rock inspired but rhythmically astute playing gave the flowing drive that had always been needed. Robert Thomas Jr. completed the picture with powerful but understated additional percussion. This then, is the definitive Weather Report set up.

Much of the follow on from Miles Davis' sixties music (Weather Report, Headhunters, Return To Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Lifetime, whose leaders all played with Miles Davis) came to be labeled "fusion". As a superficial statement – that jazz had somehow taken on qualities from "progressive" rock in addition to the use of electric instruments and had largely dropped the syncopated beat that had originated with tap –so far so good. However, much is concealed by such a label and while most fusion quickly degenerated into gimmick and overstatement that sounds almost embarrassing and un jazz-like today, the music of Weather Report was fusion of a different order and is certainly jazz of the highest order.

So what if different about this music. "We always solo and we never solo", Joe Zawinul's statement on the band's first album is material. The music is not mainly (or even often) an opportunity for the band members to show their virtuosity by soloing. Indeed, the change in Wayne Shorter's playing in comparison with his John Coltrane – like approach in the great quintet with Miles Davis or on his own solo albums for Blue Note in the '60s led to accusations that his playing had "disappeared" in Weather Report. In fact he was part of a pioneering new approach.

Writing about jazz in general, Marc Sabatella points out:

"Most jazz since the bebop era is based on a form that is actually quite similar to the sonata allegro form from classical theory: an optional introduction, the exposition or theme (possibly repeated), the development section, and the recapitulation, possibly followed by a coda. In jazz terms, these sections of a piece would be called the intro, the head (possibly repeated), the solo section, the head out, and possibly a coda or tag ending".

Odd then that jazz, often confusingly cited as the "only truly indigenous American art form", should be structured so strongly on classical forms known to Vivaldi and Bach.

Weather Report, following Miles Davis, largely dispense with such structure. As Wayne Shorter told Alan Leeds in 2002 for the liner notes to "Live and Unreleased" this music is more like: "Sagas, musical saga. Dialogue with more theatre going on in the music". As Alan Leeds notes: "Shorter's and Zawinul's compositions for the … band were complete stories rather than mere frameworks for blowing".

Each composition develops under its own inner logic, taking on whatever structure is appropriate. In so doing, the music, following the breakthroughs of Miles Davis, signposts an opening out of jazz that is at the same time radical and yet approachable in a way the departure that leads to free jazz so seldom is. (Miles Davis was convinced that free jazz was a conspiracy to make jazz unpopular)

Added to this, the Weather Report approach retains the central tenet of jazz, learned from the blues, that this is a music of performance above all else. In their fifteen years together, most were spent on the road – the original 'never ending tour'. They played in large, stadium or concert hall based venues to mainly young and ecstatic audiences. As is widely reported, the cost of staging jazz in this way meant that they hardly made any money, the record sales subsidizing the costs of keeping a sixteen man show on the road. But performance was key. Resisting the temptation of all those electronic effects that could be overdubbed in the studio, the albums retain the great strength of being largely real time performances of music worked out on the road, retaining the essence of jazz, retaining that essential spontenaeity.

The title track "Night Passage" is an opener featuring driving bass and strong invention by Wayne Shorter. It sets up a feeling for the whole album that the various pieces are aspects of a journey.

It's not too difficult on "Dream Clock" and "Forelorn" and "Three Views Of A Secret" to imagine a Dali-like landscape with strange incongruities leading off to a distant horizon. The bass of Jaco Pastorious is every bit as much a lead instrument here as Wayne Shorter's sensual sax playing and Joe Zawinul's keyboards. "Port of Entry", taken from a live performance, quickens the pace and introduces more exotic themes. "Rockin' In Rhythm" is a crazy Duke Ellington big band inspired synthesizer-led work out that is a near cousin to "Birdland". "Fast City" seems almost to pick up where "Port Of Entry" left off, continuing a headlong journey into the unknown. The closing "Madagascar" is an inspired ten minute foray pointing to Africa that shows, as with the whole album, that these five musicians have arrived at that high point in a collaboration where the balance, understanding and creativity of the whole is so much more than anything they could have achieved alone.

Joe Zawinul came to the US on a Berklee College scholarship in 1958 from his home town of Vienna, Austria (where he had studied piano at the Vienna Conservatory). He played with the Cannonball Adderley band for nine years, writing "Mercy, Mercy" and "Country Preacher". Recording with Miles Davis, he wrote "In A Silent Way" and, for "Bitches Brew", he wrote "Pharoh's Dance". He is one of only a handful of European musicians to have earned an internationally recognized place in jazz (a list that includes: Django Reinhardt, Victor Feldman, Marian McPartland, Dave Holland, John McGlaughlin……).EJN credits Joe Zawinul with bringing "swing, gospel, R&B, African and South African elements, classical music and other ideas" into modern music. Many credit him with a pivotal role in the development of World music.

The partnership with Wayne Shorter, one of America's finest (though often insufficiently recognized) composers and musicians brought together two great musicians at the height of their creativity. It is unsurprising that the music they made will long stand the test of time.

Joe Zawinul died aged 75 on September 11th, 2007.


Joe Zawinul obituaries:

The Guardian

World Music Central

New York Times

Washington Post

Related reviews: Wayne Shorter "Speak No Evil"    Wayne Shorter "Beyond The Sound Barrier"  Wayne Shorter "The Soothsayer"   Miles Davis "Nefertiti"



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