Review Summary: With the inclusion of Jaco Pastorius, The Weather Report begin to formulate a sound that focuses on being more accessible and less experimental.
The Weather Report has often been categorized as an acquired taste among Jazz Fusion. Since their inception, the group has focused on elaborate musicianship and extensive improvisational methods to compose their sound. Though as opulent as their performances may have been, with all of their dextrous grandeur and innovative techniques, they required a sincere commitment to really appreciate their spectacles. There was always so much happening within their songs, featuring layers upon layers of unconventional melodies and sounds that existed merely for the sake of being experimental and unique. Though ambitious as their artistic aspirations may have been, their albums often alienated the listener because instead of simply enjoying the music, we had to decipher the concept behind the eccentricity, which needless to say, made the listening experience all the more strenuous. In Sweetnighter
and Mysterious Traveller
, we saw a major change in style within the group's usual dynamic. Rather than offering us a typical batch of abstract Jazz songs, we found them handing us something much more intriguing. Both albums introduced a rather accessible sound, displaying a newfound fascination with the catchy harmonies of Funk music. But what made those two albums so enjoyable was the fact that The Weather Report were able to comprise a style that was adventurous in its own way, but emphasized on deploying melodies and rhythms that preferred to be mellifluous than overly extravagant.
In their previous album Tale Spinnin'
, as well as moments in Mysterious Traveller
, we saw The Weather Report beginning to incorporate both African and Eastern instrumentation into their typical Jazz Fusion repertoire. As if The Weather Report's progressive tendencies didn't already complicate their sound enough, the group continued to expand on their appreciation for world music and it's surprising that its role isn't reprised again here in Black Market
. This album is a much more focused one, as we see the band ignoring all other aspects and concentrating solely on the Jazz and Funk elements of their sound. The eponymous opener, "Black Market", begins the album on a truly magnificent overture. This song is all about the synergy between keyboardist Joe Zawinul and bassist Alphonso Johnson who start the song off on one of the most inviting musical arrangements that The Weather Report have ever contrived. Alphonso Johnson carries along the rhythm with some invigorating basslines, while Joe Zawinul compliments the scene with dulcet synthesizer notes. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter also enters the spotlight in the latter portion with some high notes of his own on. The first thing that the listener will notice is how traditional the composition feels, there are no adventurous segments of unnecessary soloing, it's just the bare essentials. This is exactly what Jazz fans have been waiting for The Weather Report to do for years, delivering music that is instantly comprehensive.
Throughout the band's lifespan, The Weather Report have been relentlessly plagued with constant line-up changes. Some were disappointing, others were for the best, and in this album we witness the introduction of perhaps the most acclaimed bassist in The Weather Report's roster, Jaco Pastorius. The recording sessions for Black Market
was a transitional period for the band as Alphonso Johnson was beginning to head out and Jaco started moving in. There are only two songs in the album that feature Jaco, and our first impression of the legendary bassist lies in "Cannon Ball". This song has a much more diverse musical landscape than the previous song, opening with a gentle atmosphere before evolving into a complex structure of alternating moods. This song is primarily driven by both the eruptive and psychedelic nature of Joe Zawinul's synthesizer deploys, as well as drummer Narada Michael Walden who alternates his rhythms to fit whatever change Joe Zawinul throws at him. Jaco is not his usual charismatic self in "Cannon Ball", merely serving in the background to augment the rhythm rather than being the center of attention. Alphonso Johnson is actually the one who delivers most of the energetic basslines in the album, particularly within songs like "Gibraltar" and "Herandnu" that showcase his exceptional prowess and dexterity. But Jaco does get his time to shine in his own contribution to the album, "Barbary Coast".
"Barbary Coast" depicts Jaco's signature style of playing, his notes are very euphonic and often flowing along an enticing groove that is just irresistibly seductive. But what makes him such a proficient musician is that he willingly dwells into rather complex and technical solo passages, while operating with funky harmonies that leave the listener mesmerized by every sound that expels from his bass. Although far less famous than the great Jaco Pastorius, Alphonso Johnson is a just as effective bassist, and that argument can be justified by this album alone. "Gibraltar" and "Herandnu" are perhaps the two main highlights in the album, and one of the reasons for it is Alphonso Johnson's dominating basslines that give each song an enrapturing level of excitement. An intriguing aspect of both songs is that they are very elaborate in structure, as we see the band descending into their familiar progressive voyages, yet it sounds nothing like the experimental songs of their previous albums. The finale, "Herandnu", for example, is agile, cosmic, and exquisitely opulent in its performance. And yet, there are no wasted notes here. Every solo and every melodic theme serves a purpose, and that purpose is to be as engaging as possible. For the first time in their career the band is putting the interest of the listener before their own creative aspirations. In the past, The Weather Report would normally engage in excessive solo work and inventive compositional methods during the midsection of their songs, which were only added for the intention to appear galvanizing, but not here. And Black Market
is a better album for it.
We can honestly feel a more intimate connection to the music, because for once, The Weather Report are actually choosing to be lucid and appealing. There's no enigma to solve within these songs, just pure enjoyment waiting to be experienced. And even though this is their most accessible album yet, this is rather unfamiliar territory for the band, and in a way, that makes Black Market
their most experimental album because of it. Jazz Fusion has often been stereotyped as a genre that focuses on technically complex instrumentation arranged in lengthy compositions. And while that may be true in most cases, it's often nice to see groups deviating from that standard and embracing a more euphonic approach. I highly recommend this album to any enthusiast of Jazz music, and especially anyone looking to get into The Weather Report. It's a marvelous coalescence of their finest attributes, from mild psychedelic flourishes to the emphatic funk rhythms, there is no better starting point in The Weather Report discograhy than this album.