The Legendary Live Tapes 1978 – 1981 captures Weather Report at their absolute zenith. The band was co-founded by Miles Davis alumni Wayne Shorter (saxophone) and the late Joe Zawinul (keyboards) in 1970, and there would be many shifts in personnel over the following 16 years. But the definitive lineup is the one showcased here, with the late Jaco Pastorius (bass) and Peter Erskine (drums).
This quartet became a quintet in 1980 with the addition of Chester Thompson (percussion), and the four compact discs are divided between the two groupings. In 1983 Zawinul called this lineup “one of the greatest bands of all time,” and he was absolutely correct. This set smolders.
A big part of their success was the 1976 addition of Pastorius. He was an incendiary performer, which is one of the things that makes Robert Trujillo’s JACO (2015) such a treat. If you have not yet seen the documentary, you probably will after listening to him here. I have never heard anyone play the bass the way he did, like a Brazilian Jimi Hendrix. It is only right that he often quoted Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” during “Jaco’s Solo.” There are actually two “Jaco’s Solo”s in this box, along with solo turns from the rest of the band.
It is testimony to the care in which this collection was assembled that all of the soloing never bogs down the proceedings. Thank curators Tony Zawinul (Joe’s son) and former W.R. drummer Peter Erskine for that. Everything from board tapes to anonymous bootlegs provided the source material. Erskine also wrote a song-by-song breakdown of the material, which is immensely helpful and often hilarious.
While the solo material is pretty great, the full band workouts on such LP cuts as “Black Market,” “Gibralter,” and “Madagascar” are where the group hit their stride. Their best-selling Heavy Weather (1977) is well represented with three of their finest tunes, “Birdland,” “A Remark You Made,” and “Teen Town.” The final track on the fourth disc is Zawinul’s “Directions.” Miles recorded this song back when Zawinul was with him, but it remained in the vault until 1980. The Davis version is very good, but Weather Report really nailed it.
In the late ’60s, nobody but Miles Davis could have gotten away with the “fusion” of jazz and rock, on albums like Bitches Brew (1969). But when he moved on to the serious funk of On the Corner (1972), most of his rock audience stayed behind. Actually a lot of them turned to the new band his former sidemen had just put together. For eight out of 10 “‘Me’ Decade” years, Weather Report topped either the Album of the Year or Group of the Year categories in the Downbeat Reader’s Poll.
That’s a hell of an achievement no matter who you are, because it is the fans who cast the votes. The Legendary Live Tapes 1978 – 1981 is a reminder of just how incredible this band could be onstage. Forget about this being the best Weather Report lineup, they were one of the greatest jazz bands ever.
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