“Legendary” might be a bit much to describe The Legendary Live Tapes: 1978-1981, a new four-disc assemblage of previously unreleased concert recordings from the glory years of jazz-fusion juggernaut Weather Report. But the music, gathered and produced for release by the band’s then-drummer, Peter Erskine, is nonetheless remarkable. Promoting quartet and quintet lineups of the fabled ensemble, it presents fusion music that drives with the bluntness of a rock outfit and swings with the unshakeable groove of a jazz combo but also thrives in the exciting, nebulous areas in between, where global and prog inspirations play key roles.
The performances captured on The Legendary Live Tapes come just after group founders Josef Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, along with electric bass renegade Jaco Pastorius, found crossover success with their album Heavy Weather and its unexpected instrumental hit Birdland. Erskine was on board by 1978, when the band temporarily whittled itself down to a quartet.
The quartet performances here are thrilling, from the way the neo-disco groove piloted by Pastorius for River People grows out of the rubbery bass clang of Continuum (on the second disc) to a 1978 version of the pre-Jaco Scarlet Woman (on the fourth disc) that operates as a sonic playground for keyboardist Zawinul’s arsenal of outer space synths and the eerie cosmic starkness of Shorter’s saxophone.
The first and third discs represent the true gems of The Legendary Live Tapes. By adding percussionist Robert Thomas Jr. in early 1980 to re-establish Weather Report as a quintet, the band ignites concert versions of works from two of its most underrated albums: 1979’s 8:30 (a double-vinyl concert record that devoted one side to new studio works) and 1980’s Night Passage.
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The 8:30 tune Brown Street (on disc one) avoids the space travel of the rest of the set with a world-beat groove that has Zawinul chattering away on keyboards under a tenor sax lead by Shorter that sets up a summery profile of Weather Report at its most luminous.
The third disc is devoted exclusively to Night Passage songs (mostly from London concerts in November 1980) full of startling variety. Zawinul’s synths blast away like a horn section under the rich swing of Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ in Rhythm, while the 18-minute Zawinul original Madagascar is Weather Report at its most ingenious and volcanic, rising from Asian-esque chatter of percussion to a bouncy groove full of crafty runs by Shorter, monstrous fills by Pastorius and wonderful ensemble dynamics.
The Legendary Live Tapes 1978-1981 doesn’t represent fusion music in any conventional sense. Instead, it offers powerfully panoramic music indebted to jazz tradition but with ears keenly attuned to the voices and times of the world.