In times like these we could all use a little fusion. Crossing over into different genres and borrowing elements from diverse cultures have always been key elements in jazz composition and improvisation. Fusion takes many forms in jazz, whether it is the incorporation of classical style in the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet, or John Coltrane’s jazz interpretation of My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music movie soundtrack.
Jazz Fusion in the 70’s most commonly referred to the melding of jazz and rock elements and instrumentation. Bands like Return To Forever, and artists like Larry Carlton represented the progressive philosophy that filled the ‘RVR playlist. The band that may have best defined “fusion” was Weather Report.
Weather Report was built on a solid traditional jazz foundation. At the time the group was formed in 1970 it featured Austrian-born keyboardist and composer Joe Zawinul who was best known for his 1966 composition Mercy, Mercy, Mercy while he was a member of Cannonball Adderley’s band. Mercy, Mercy, Mercy was a rare jazz live recording that became a crossover hit and got extensive airplay on popular stations across the country. It peaked at #2 on the Soul chart and #11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. I vividly recall this tune from my childhood.
The other cornerstone of the group was Wayne Shorter, already an impressive figure in jazz as composer and saxophonist for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ seminal fusion quintet. Shorter’s sound was greatly influenced by the hard tenors he grew up listening to such as John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins, but he soon developed his own unique style–spare and penetrating. His approach to soloing was in sync with Joe Zawinul and formed the philosophy of the Weather Report sound. As Joe Zawinul noted, “No one solos, we all solo. Even solo sections merge solo line with other melodic parts.”
Perhaps the most enigmatic member of the group was bassist Jaco Pastorius who lost his fight with personal demons and met an untimely death at the age of 35 after sustaining injuries in a fight outside of a south Florida music club. He left behind a legacy of unique bass solos both with the group, as a headline performer, and in other jazz settings that influenced the generation of electric bassists that followed. Joe Zawinul would often double Jaco’s bass riff on synthesizer creating a more cosmic aura. The Pastorious composition Teen Town, from the 1977 release Heavy Weather, features Jaco on drums as well as bass; he recorded the drum part first before overdubbing the bass line. He is accompanied on percussion by Manolo Badrena and Alex Acuña.
Finally, from the same album, A Remark You Made which showcases the individual strengths of the band members and includes a thoughtful, brooding solo by Wayne Shorter supported by Jaco’s restating and doubling of the theme on his bass, and punctuated by contrasting bright tones from Joe Zawinul.