Miroslav Vitous – Music of Weather Report
ECM – 3772956. CD review by Rob Mallows
Before Jaco Pastorius, there was Miroslav Vitous.
So synonymous has Pastorious’ name become with the jazz-rock behemoth that was Weather Report that it can be easy to forget that it was Czech bassist Vitous who co-founded the group with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, and played in it until 1974, when Alphonso Johnson took over, with Pastorius becoming a fixture from 1976 onwards.
This new album – Vitous’ re-imagining of some of the group’s greatest tracks – serves to remind the listener of two things: that, in his early 60’s, when this album was recorded (he is now 68), Vitous’ creative juices still run freely. And that Weather Report created some memorable melodies.
Tracking them down, however, is part of the fun of this album.
The listener will not encounter a familiar Weather Report sound. This is because the line-up of players on this album and the recording technique used creates an unsettling, but compelling, reinterpretation of it which is opaque and demands an open ear.
Two drums, two saxes, two speakers – that’s the trick which let’s this album punch upwards. Recorded in the left channel, sax player Gary Campbell and drummer Gerald Cleaver. On the right sits tenor and soprano player Roberto Bonisolo and the other drummer, Nasheet Waits. In the middle sits Vitous with keyboardist Aydin Esen.
What does this do? It allows the group to throw each element of the tune up in the air and then re-order it, change the time signature – such as with one drummer playing 3/4, the other 4/4 – or even re-phrase certain parts. In a sense, they have been given a licence to partake fully in the expressive, “spontaneous arranging-in-the-moment” that was the hallmark of Weather Report.
It doesn’t make things easy. Birdland is one of the group’s most famous tracks, instantly recognisable. But on Vitous’ Birdland Variations, while the melody is present it’s been radically upgraded, the band moulding and stretching it beyond recognition like a Dali painting, setting the tune free from its earlier recorded structure.
Joe Zawinul’s Scarlet Woman, the opener, has also been metaphorically smashed apart and rebuilt, a new bridge having been composed by Vitous in F major which, he writes in the press notes for the album, “opens up the piece like coming through the mountains into a beautiful valley.” Just not the valley you were expecting to be in.
The impact of the duelling drummers and sax players is best experienced on the second track, Vitous’ composition Seventh Arrow from Weather Report’s debut album. The groove that Weather Report always had is there, but it’s stirred into a heady broth of oriental motifs (recalling the band’s 1972 In Tokyo album and oblique drumming that seems to shift between a whole host of time signatures and none.
In between each of the Weather Report track, Vitous records a series of short, blues compositions on which he exploits the competing pairs of musicians on tracks so that, with each pair playing radically different sounds yet connected, the effect he says is like “two planets or galaxies or universes pulling and affecting each other.”
These tracks were recorded in 2010 & 2011 but are only now being released as an album, with no clear explanation in the press kit for the hiatus.
Nevertheless, it’s worth the wait if you enjoy the output of this singular bassist and band. A storm recorded in real time, it’s challenging and uncompromising in the best ECM traditions, so don’t expect the album to reveal all its secrets on first listen.