CD REVIEW: Weather Report – The Legendary Live Tapes 1978–1981

Weather Report – The Legendary Live Tapes 1978–1981
(Columbia/Legacy 88875141272. 4-CD Set. Review by John L Walters)

In the mid-1970s, Weather Report, the band created by ex-Miles Davis sidemen Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, made a magnificent run of studio albums – including Mysterious Traveller, Tale Spinnin’, Black Market and Heavy Weather – performed by an ever-changing line-up of bassists, drummers and percussionists. By the end of the decade, the personnel had become more stable, with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Peter Erskine, and their live concerts were the stuff of legend – though the live double album 8:30 (1979) was oddly disappointing compared to the magnificent gigs I witnessed at London’s New Victoria Theatre and Hammersmith Odeon (which Joe Zawinul once told me was a ‘holy place’).

A much better live album, Live and Unreleased, came out in 2002, long after the band’s mid-1980s split and Pastorius’s tragic death. This double-CD set [see my Guardian column from Jan 2003], stands as a great testament to several different versions of the band in a period spanning 1975, when Alphonso Johnson was on bass, to 1983, when the band included drummer Omar Hakim and bassist Victor Bailey.

Now we have an even more extravagant gift in The Legendary Live Tapes 1978–1981, a four-CD compilation of recordings mostly taken from the mixing desk during one of the band’s most cohesive periods. The only line-up changes over these tracks were the inclusion or omission of percussionist Robert Thomas Jr. The core band, shown in an evocative black-and-white cover photograph taken by Shigeru Uchiyama at a Japanese airport, comprised founders Shorter and Zawinul, then in their 40s, with young guns Erskine and Pastorius.

We have Erskine to thank for this treasure trove; he produced the compilation and contributes a long liner note explaining the tracks’ provenance. These are sonically limited compared to earlier releases. Most of the songs were recorded by long-time sound engineer Brian Risner on a Sony cassette recorder – more for reference than for posterity – and the remainder are bootlegs made by audience members.

Mixing desk recordings rarely represent the gig the audience heard. The applause is barely audible, and you get little sense of the sound of the venue, of air moving in acoustic space. You get a curiously inverted mix, in which Pastorius’s ferociously inventive bass and Zawinul’s electric keyboards sit right in the foreground, while the acoustic drums, percussion and Shorter’s magnificent saxophone lie somewhere behind them in sonic space. If you compare the Night Passage (1980) version of Madagascar with the one on The Legendary Live Tapes you’ll get the idea. The former is a fine, conventional mix of a live recording made in Osaka; the latter, made at Hammersmith the same year is messy and distorted in places, but good enough to appreciate as a different and much longer performance of the classic Zawinul tune.

Erskine’s notes document the era with a sweet mixture of musicianly detail, anecdote and emotion: here’s a passage from his final paragraph: ‘If I had to sum up the overall tone and/or importance of this collection of music – its raison d’etre – it would be this: WEATHER REPORT was a JAZZ BAND. The time period between the summer of 1978 and 1981 saw the group evolve to a quartet and back to a quintet, with more pointed references to Ellington and the band’s musical father Miles Davis than at any other time in WR’s output. These … tapes confirm the band’s roots.’

Sure, The Legendary Live Tapes are just a bunch of cassette recordings. But they are full of prime Weather Report! Sure, they were mixed on the fly, but the guy doing it was Brian Risner, a man in possession of some of the best ears in sound engineering! And even tracks ‘recorded by someone in the audience’, such as Continuum / River People, bear repeated listening for their passionate energy and musicality.

Four CDs is not too much. The collection is packed with classics such as Boogie Boogie Waltz, Birdland, Black Market, Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ In Rhythm, Scarlet Woman, Teen Town, etc., etc., and there’s a breathtaking 21-minute version of Gibraltar. The result is golden. Precious metal that’s a bit scuffed and battered, but genuine musical gold nonetheless.

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