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 far more focus on free improvisation approaching the avant-garde. Weather Report's primary rhythm section, which, at one time, featured, among others, the brilliant bassists Jaco Pastorious and Miroslav Vitous, as well as, ex-Sly & the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico, who all were given creative freedom from 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 group formed 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 fanbase. 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 was also difficult for many listeners to fathom. To begin overcoming these obstacles, he began introducing funkier rhythm and blues grooves into the soundscapes. 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.
One of the interesting facets of Weather Report is that they existed between categories. There are elements that will grab a jazz audience, a classical audience and a rock audience. At times they sound similar to Miles Davis' work, but there are just as many times they recall early Pink Floyd. The fact is Weather Report are none of these things. They were truly a band that defied categorization. Open-minded listening is the key to this music. It was an essential prerequisite for the musicians but is just as essential for the listener.
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