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The reissue we've been waiting for...
on October 24, 2012
We tend to think of the '60's as the decade during which pop music exploded miles beyond past boundaries, beginning with The Beatles and (for some of us) ending with Hendrix's almost unfathomable stretch of the sound of an electric guitar in Machine Gun with the Band of Gypsies at the Fillmore East on New Year's Eve, 1969/70.
This almost incredible burst of expansive creativity was also boiling up in the jazz world, to a large extent incubated in the studios and live with Miles Davis's seemingly almost traitorous (to traditionalists) embrace of electrified instruments in all their glory during the Bitches Brew period. Weather Report was one of the most significant bands that came out of this early '70's experimentation, and this box brings together their first 6 albums in one well-remastered package with an excellent essay by Bill Milkowski, and including some additional tracks not on the original albums.
First, let's talk about the sound. I spent some close time with the first CD in the box, Weather Report's first release, called simply "Weather Report." It was first released on CD in the dark ages of digital, and it was not hard to tell the difference between the CD version and the LP (especially on more revealing gear such as is available now); by comparison, the CD sounded compressed or rolled off at both ends of the frequency range (much as was the early CD issue of Bitches Brew, which came out about the same time), and the result was an unsatisfactory listening situation except perhaps in the car. The remastering in this box represents a major improvement. (Strangely, vitually nothing is said on the box or in the booklet about this or any other remastering in this box; however, the Sony Legacy website mentions that the albums in the box have been remastered.)
I thought back in the '70's, and still believe today, that this first album represents one of the great treasures of the jazz discography. Joe Zawinul figured out early on how to draw the most affecting sounds from a Fender Rhodes electric piano -- he did not treat it in any way as an "electrified" piano, but as a wholly new instrument from which he could paint with a broad palette, from simple and delicate ostinatos to dense washes of expansive harmonies. Wayne Shorter was in the process of moving from a virtuoso technician to a musician who could say a great deal with a few notes. But one of the real treats of this record is the bass playing of Miroslav Vitous. Later, Zawinul became somewhat critical of Vitous because Vitous could not (or would not) "play the grooves we wanted." Fair enough. But what Vitous did play was stunning -- his technical facility was daunting, his pitch dead on, and his note choice was often uniquely melodic -- and rather un-bass-like. The group improvisitory interplay -- which included first-rate fleet and light interaction from drummer Alphonse Mouzon and an assortment of colorful South American and African percussion instruments from Airto and others -- made this album an amazing crossover that included elements of fusion, free jazz, Brazilian jazz/pop, world music, and European influence (from Vitous and Zawinul).
I Sing the Body Electric represents a broadening of the approach of the first album and, on its studio tracks, is somewhat less improvisational and includes additional wind players, vocalists, and a phenomenal (but brief) appearance of 12-string jazz guitarist Ralph Towner. Half of the album is live, and the next record (a 2-CD set called Live in Tokyo, originally released, as I recall, only in Japan) is more like the first album. (The live material on I Sing the Body Electric comes from Live in Tokyo.) Milkowski describes how the band during this period (except Vitous) was beginning to reach out to find a new approach, a funkier approach with broader appeal. (Given Zawinul's long apprenticeship with Cannonball Adderly, this seems hardly surprising.) In the fourth album, Sweetnighter, the somewhat conflicting direction is at times palpable. I Sing the Body Electric and Sweetnighter have their moments and are certainly worth the listener's time, but are transitional and, for me, don't hold together with consistency.
However, Mysterious Traveler is a masterpiece, fully on par with the first album, but with a new feel. As I listen now, 37 (!?!) years later, I hear the first album as being almost dominated by Miroslav Vitous's magnificent but rarely settled bass-playing. Mysterious Traveler represented Zawinul's moment -- he finally got his funk feel, but then applied an extraordinary atmosphere over the rhythm: multicolored hues of synthesizer (Zawinul became an early master), motifs repeated, altered, reappearing, manipulated crowd noise (in Nubian Sundance), the world-music feel, voices singing wordless harmonies. I've mentioned in other reviews that I was in music school in the '70's, pursuing a never-fully-realized passion for electric jazz; Mysterious Traveler was a lightening jolt that reverbrated through our stereos and practice rooms in a way that left many of us forever changed. To hear it again now and find it so reinvigorating is such a pleasure.
After Mysterious Traveler, the last album in this box, Tale Spinnin', almost couldn't be anything other than a bit of a let down. It's actually quite nice to listen to...sort of a Mysterious Traveler lite.
If any of this sounds remotely interesting, I can only say, race out and pick up this box. For fans, it's worth it to replace the older CD remasters (though Mysterious Traveler was reissued in much better sound a few years back). For others, I'd be quite surprised if these 7 CDs (one album being a 2-CD set, remember!) didn't provide quite a bit of rewarding listening.