Greg Errico - drums; Dom Um Romao - percussion; Wayne Shorter - soprano and tenor sax; Miroslav Vitous - electric and acoustic bass; Joe Zawinul - electric and acoustic piano, synthesizer
When Weather Report formed, the credentials of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter were already well established. Both had been major contributors to Miles Davis' most groundbreaking and controversial albums, In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, both as musicians and composers. When they teamed up to form Weather Report shortly thereafter, it was they who most closely continued the musical aesthetic set forth on those landmark albums. The similarities to that music were immediately apparent on their first two albums, but there were also distinct differences. Like the work they recorded with Miles, they began fusing the dynamics of rock music into a jazz context, adding electronic instrumentation and exotic percussion elements to the musical pallet. However, Weather Report relied less on the bassist as an anchor and had a distinct ethereal electronic quality, primarily colored by Zawinul's eerie synthesizer embellishments. Their compositions were even more open-ended than their work with Miles, with more focus on free improvisation approaching the avant-garde. Weather Report's rhythm section, which included the brilliant bassist Miroslav Vitous and during this period, ex-Sly & the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico, who were given equal creative freedom to Zawinul and Shorter. This allowed them to break free of the rhythmic paradigm that anchored so much of Miles Davis' music during this era. Rather than soloing over an accompanying rhythm, the five musicians achieved an ongoing musical dialogue, where the dominant instrument was often changing or all instruments were soloing simultaneously. The fact that they could achieve this without degenerating into thoughtless noise is a testament to these highly accomplished musicians.
In 1973, when they began recording their third breakthrough album, Sweetnighter, Zawinul had consciously decided to change the approach. He wanted to expose the group's music to a broader audience without alienating the band's hardcore fan base. He was well aware that casual music listeners were often put off by the esoteric and self-consciously serious forms of jazz. The non-traditional rhythmic elements that characterized much of the group's earlier music were also difficult for many listeners to fathom. To begin overcoming these obstacles, he began introducing funkier rhythm and blues grooves into the soundscape. This was a vitally important ingredient that gave this new music a propulsive fluency and in the process made their esoteric music far more accessible. Although quite successful in terms of the album, this opened up a new set of challenges in live performance. As incredibly talented as Vitous and Gravatt were, they were not inherently funky musicians. This led to Errico replacing Gravatt, but there was still tension and struggle when the band began performing in a live context. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing, as it often led them into uncharted territory, much of it highly captivating.
Which brings us to this previously unheard live recording of Weather Report's set at Cornell University, opening for Mahavishnu Orchestra. This concert captures the group as they were integrating this new approach into live performance. There is still an abundance of free playing here but the rhythmic grooves are also becoming more prominent, thanks in no small part to the dynamic drumming of Errico.
The set begins with a percussion improvisation by Dom Um Romao. This features a variety of unusual elements, including Romao's own vocals as he hand drums on his own body as well as his instruments. His sense of humor comes across clearly, particularly on the talking drum sounds and one can clearly hear the delight of the audience as he humors them. This precedes a sparse but lovely improvisation on "Orange Lady," led by Zawinul. The music begins building in intensity as they venture into "Dr Honoris Causa." More rhythmically oriented than the version they released, this clearly shows the direction they would be heading in the future. Appropriately enough, this piece includes quotes from "Directions" toward the end, prior to them segueing into a jam on "Boogie Woogie Waltz." Bluesy melodic fragments surface over the hypnotic grooves. Zawinul interjects oddly placed modulations that often surprise the listener and propel the group along and Shorter becomes more prominent and adventurous. Zawinul's instincts, in terms of both placement and timbre, enhance the overall canvas of the music. Unfortunately, a tape change at the 30-minute mark leaves questions as to where exactly this went. When the recording resumes, they are headed in a distinctly different direction, with Errico's drumming clearly dominating the final 18 minutes of this performance. This may indeed be the continuation of the previous composition, but as the group picks up on Errico's propulsive rhythm, this soon becomes the most consistently exciting sequence of the show, featuring plenty of soloing from Shorter and the entire band playing in a far more aggressive up-tempo manner. Drummers will be astounded at the sheer stamina displayed here, as Errico doesn't let up for a second throughout this nearly 18-minute long improvisation.
As with most Weather Report performances prior to 1974, a look at the setlist doesn't begin to describe the musical content here, as this group is essentially improvising, with only a tenuous grasp on the original compositions. While this may be disconcerting to fans of particular album tracks, the open-minded listener will find much to enjoy here, as this lineup of the group was at their most creative and unpredictable. Although this particular lineup never recorded an album, many consider this to be the most exciting era to have caught the band live, as they were certainly blazing new territory and were playing with great spontaneity.