Weather Report: Forecast: Tomorrow

Prior to digging into Forecast: Tomorrow's three CDs (nearly four hours) and two-hour DVD, one wonders why it took twenty years for a definitive Weather Report box set to appear. Is it that a sufficiently long interval has passed, enabling the woeful taint fusion accumulated in its final years to dissipate? For a genre that exploded with such promise when the premiere triumvirate—Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return To Forever, and Weather Report—emerged out of Bitches Brew's shadow, fusion flamed out quickly, done in by indulgent grandstanding and tiresome complexity. But while the lifespan of the first two ensembles was relatively brief, Weather Report hung on until 1985. It was never a fusion group anyway in the strict sense, as co-leaders Josef Zawinul and Wayne Shorter always retained some degree of ‘jazz' essence in the group's sound, no matter how through-composed its pieces became, and today the group's exalted standing in the jazz-rock firmament appears set no matter which way the critical wind blows.

The 37-song CD collection anticipates the group's formation by opening with Zawinul's serene “In a Silent Way” from Miles' 1969 album, a surprising yet fitting move as it connects the dots between the band's leaders while acknowledging their debt to Davis. Nods to Shorter's celebrated solo career (Super Nova 's title cut, notable as much for the fiery interplay between guitarists John McLaughlin and Sonny Sharrock as Shorter's blistering solo) and Zawinul's stint with Cannonball Adderley set the stage for 1971's Weather Report debut. The remainder of disc one highlights the group in its early incarnations, like the looser and more purely jazz-oriented ensemble featuring bassist Miroslav Vitous that's heard on I Sing The Body Electric and Sweetnighter. At this stage, the material sometimes references music outside the group: Shorter's “Eurydice,” for instance, is closer in spirit to Filles De Kilimanjaro than anything else. “Orange Lady,” on the other hand, is Weather Report fully-formed, while Sweetnighter's funky “125th Street Congress” provides a perfect bridge to the definitive second disc.

An incendiary 1974 Chicago live take of Mysterious Traveller's “Nubian Sundance” initiates disc two and, from then on, it's one classic after another. Late fretless bassist Jaco Pastorius first appears here on Black Market's “Cannon Ball” (Zawinul's tribute to his recently-deceased former boss) and strongly asserts himself in his own “Havona” while one-time Maynard Ferguson wunderkind Peter Erskine makes his drumming debut on Mr. Gone's funky “Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat.” The celebrated Pastorius-Erskine lineup lasted until 1981, forcing the group to rise from the ashes with the Procession-era unit featuring Omar Hakim and Victor Bailey. Disc three pieces like Shorter's “Plaza Real” and “Face On The Barroom Floor” prove that, for a while, this outfit upheld the standard but, by the time the Shorter-less This Is This appeared in 1986, it was clear the time to retire the project had arrived.

A modest amount of unreleased material is included but doesn't constitute a major selling point. There's fine small group take of “Directions” from 1971 and two live versions (the aforesaid “Nubian Sundance” and “Port of Entry”), plus an entirely unnecessary makeover of “125th Street Congress” by turntablist DJ Logic; a remix in another context might be an enhancement but, here, the original material hardly needs additional support. The three discs clearly track the group's evolution from an initial free-flowing style to a tightly-structured—some would say overly-constricting—approach that incrementally gained the upper hand. One also witnesses a corresponding growth in the richness of the group's sound over time as more and more instrumental textures are added. Invariably, quibbling over selections arises: Why “125 th Street Congress” and not Sweetnighter's more definitive “Boogie-Woogie Waltz”? Why only one from Tale Spinnin' but three from Domino Theory? Even so, there are countless moments to cherish: the jubilant splendor of “Black Market” is still chill-inducing, and time hasn't diminished the rapturous joy of the “Birdland” chorus or the beauty of Pastorius's poignant waltz “Three Views of a Secret.”

Often in these kinds of affairs, the DVD is a mere adjunct to the music, but that's not the case here. It presents a single, two-hour concert (Offenbach, Germany in September 1978), first of all, and does so with a refreshing simplicity and clarity; it's also invaluable for being the only professionally videotaped concert of the band with Pastorius and Erskine. Needless to say, Zawinul and Shorter execute their parts with professional dispatch (Shorter's soprano voicing of the “In A Silent Way” theme is especially stirring) and we're reminded of how phenomenal the bassist's playing could be (witness the tasteful restraint he shows on “A Remark You Made”) but the DVD also spotlights Erskine's pivotal role, with the drummer's endlessly buoyant swing driving “Black Market” among others. (We also learn that singing was never a Weather Report strong suit and that Erskine sans shirt is one frighteningly hairy dude.) Too much space is devoted to solo spots but it's an invaluable document nonetheless.

One of a box set's implicit goals is to heighten awareness of a particular group's cumulative accomplishment and, on that count, the collection clearly succeeds. Though some swear by the Erskine-Pastorius model, others the founding Vitous-Alphonse Mouzon outfit, whichever one you prefer, they're all here. Broached in its entirety, Forecast: Tomorrow amounts to a remarkable portrait of a visionary collective and the wondrous music it gave us.

November 2006