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Arts + CultureMusicRIP Wayne Shorter—and long live the legacy of Weather...

RIP Wayne Shorter—and long live the legacy of Weather Report

Here's 4 songs from the saxophonist's seminal, jam-ready band that will never die.

While saxophonist Wayne Shorter died on March 2 at the age of 89, his career’s legacy carries on, here in the future. In his wake, the music world is rightly shining a megawatt spotlight on the musician’s six-decade, 10-time Grammy award-winning career. His influence on American classical music from the second half of the twentieth century remains unmistakable.

Shorter’s musical genius developed from his early days with Art Blakey’s and Miles Davis’ bands—both of which were known for nurturing young talent—up to his moments collaborating with Joni Mitchell, Carlos Santana, and lifelong friend and fellow Buddhist Herbie Hancock. Shorter turned in guest spots on Steely Dan and Don Henley tracks, and even contributed to James Newton Howard’s score for David Mamet’s film Glengarry Glen Ross.

Nicknamed “Mr. Gone” at a young age, Shorter could lead, juggle (wiggle), and complement the beat. Yet it was his ability to forecast (stemming from a combination of excellent hearing and on-the-spot composition) and step toward the undefined in the span of a nanosecond that made his career—at times—advance jazz into modern constructs.

Shorter made world music, art-rock, R&B, pop, funk, and electronic. Today, young lions like Nubya Garcia and Theon Cross pull inspiration by way of sound system culture, hip-hop, and underground bass music driven arrangements—a fusion whose prototype flew from Davis’s mouthpiece decades before Garcia and Cross got grown.

“Wayne, do you get tired of playing music that sounds like music?” Miles Davis once posed in one of his word honeycombs. Shorter heard his call, quickly forming a new band based on that query.

The resulting Weather Report, co-founded by Shorter and Austrian keyboardist Joe Zawinul in 1970, took the fantastic route of abandoning the traditional “soloist/accompaniment” song structure of straight-ahead jazz. Spaces were built into songs to accommodate spontaneous improvisation by every member of the group. (Davis actually established this model on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, on which both Shorter and Zawinul played.)

Until 1986, Weather Report consisted of Shorter and Zaqinul, plus a bass guitarist, and a drummer-percussionist. But the band had over 20 rotating members by the time it disbanded. Alongside fellow supergroups Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters (all of which had members inspired by and partially responsible for Miles Davis’s fusion-era work), Weather Report is regarded as a standard bearer for the genre.

A quick listen to Weather Report’s wildly impressive pastiche was enough to know that it was most def fonky (yes, with an “o.”) Zawinul was never shy with the synth-work, always advancing the notes and concepts he had studied at Miles’ altar.

The vibes now carried by Stones Throw, First Word, BBE, Brainfeeder, International Anthem, and certain periods of the drum and bass imprint Reinforced Records can all be heard in this group’s work from decades ahead. Here are a few examples of how Shorter’s archetypal ensemble left breadcrumbs for future sounds and types of music to build on 40 years ago.

“125TH STREET CONGRESS” (1973)

Let’s get this one out of the way quickly: Portishead stole Shorter’s horn at the start of “Elegant People” from the Black Market album for the UK band’s intro on “Strangers.” But Weather Report’s groove-bomb that is “125th Street Congress” from the 1973 album Sweetnighter has been endlessly repurposed, chopped up, and laid out by Pharcyde, DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, Organized Konfusion, Chubb Rock, Del The Funky Homosapien … the list is quite exhausting. Zawinul deserves credit for finding a groove, latching onto it, and allowing Shorter the shape to traverse with his sax. It’s a heavy jam from a group that produced many.

“RIVER PEOPLE (LIVE)” (1978)

Welcome to Weather Report’s era of Jaco Pastorius, a dominant force within the band during his tenure who put his foot directly on the funk, with bass in your face. Hear his touch on 1978 album Mr. Gone, which gained notoriety after receiving a one-star review from Downbeat magazine. Band members claimed that all of the new bells and whistles were just experiments—but had they actually been courting a more “disco-fied” audience?

It remains criminal that a fusion band caught hell for trying new things.

I’m reminded of the reviews of Miles Davis’s On The Corner, back when he was leaning into the influences of Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and James Brown, yearning to court a younger Black audience who had abandoned jazz in the early 1970s for funk and rock and roll. Decades later, many on the periphery—not jazz purists, mind you—referred to that record as an innovative musical statement and a forerunner to funk, jazz, post-punk, electronica, and hip hop.

But back to “River People,” which easily moves as some kind of proto-house construct, glaring keys shooting beams of light over the top of the composition before it even takes off. The incremental color chord structures leads up to the breakdown, aided with hand claps, 4/4 rhythms, and Shorter’s lazy-day house vibes.

Close your eyes and imagine the track projecting out onto the dancefloor at Paradise Garage, or at our own Sweater Funk party. I’d even put up with a Roisin Murphy vocal wandering around on an extended edit. This fusion outfit discovered something so unusual, so singular that it scared the squares. Decades later, J Dilla and Madlib were on deck to morph this joint into indie beat-head gold.

“SWAMP CABBAGE” (1984)

The first half of this piece off the Domino Theory album is built around a drum and bass structure that meets a pitched-down broken beat with simmering push-pull. Shorter shadows Zawinul’s melodic keyboard work in an arrangement that could easily fit into a Dego or Kaidi Tatham DJ set.

“ICE-PICK WILLY” (1985)

Weather Report’s 14th album Sportin’ Life, released near the end of the band’s career, features Bobby McFerrin on vocals and drummer Omar Hakim, who revitalized the band before joining Sting’s jazz outfit in its Dream of The Blue Turtles-era with Branford Marsalis.

“Ice-Pick Willy” is a synthy drum machine affair that transports listeners to the dance orchestras of the 1940s big band era. Shorter easily paints an audio picture with swinging eighth note runs, while McFerrin provides over-the-top vocal punch for stretches. Or perhaps, it sends you to a tech-heavy future world, something like the 1980s film Blade Runner in which the technology is modern, but the setting rests on the laurels of a previous era.

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John-Paul Shiver
John-Paul Shiverhttps://www.clippings.me/channelsubtext
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.

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