Graded on a Curve: Weather Report,
Sweetnighter

For years people have been telling me how Weather Report is THE SHIT, how each of its musicians is a brilliant improviser and team player working together to further the noble cause of jazz fusion, but all I hear when I listen to Weather Report is dumbed-down Miles Davis Mood Muzak, albeit of a much higher quality than the rest of the other EZ listening jazz fusion out there.

Still, I don’t get the point of jazz fusion, never have, why listen to jazz with all the rough edges rounded off (which is what I hear) when you can listen to the real thing, I guess some people like it the way some people prefer purée to real solid food, because it saves you from having to do all of that annoying chewing.

So yeah, Weather Report, a buncha indubitably talented guys for sure, real players with real talent and impeccable credentials bringing jazz to the masses, their albums sold like hotcakes although they didn’t sell as many as Chuck Mangione or Kenny G, probably (or certainly) because they refused to sell out completely by going the total shlock route. Still there’s no denying that on albums like 1973’s Sweetnighter (their third) they ain’t exactly out to challenge so much as to cater to a middlebrow crowd looking for an easier, softer alternative to the more in-your-face free jazz beloved by your more hardcore jazz enthusiasts.

Then again, who says you gotta go the free jazz route or any other route? Last I checked jazz was once a form of popular music, music that your average person could listen to without screaming “Turn this shit off!” which is a not uncommon reaction to, say, John Coltrane’s Live in Seattle. Artists are expected to suffer for their art, listeners not so much.

The fact of the matter is that the relentless (and increasingly dissonant) experimentation that began in earnest in the early 1960s, with all its savage fury and atonal skronk, turned off lots of folks and ultimately made popularizers and mainstreamers like Weather Report inevitable. Musicians in the jazz vanguard like Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Sanders appealed to an ever diminishing and ever more rarified audience of theoreticians and noise junkies, and while I love ‘em I can understand why so many other jazz fans went in search of something less nerve-fraying.

Which brings us to Sweetnighter, which I expected to completely hate but don’t if only because, while I don’t hear anything groundbreaking going on, it at least works in the funk department. Keyboardist Joe Zawinul pushed the guys funkward on this one, and he almost succeeded; Weather Report doesn’t completely skirt the easy-listening abyss, but it certainly keeps things bubbling on the album’s two long tracks, LP standout “125th Street Congress” and “Boogie Woogie Waltz.”

The sinuous groove of the former is great, but what really makes this baby percolate and pop are its double drums and dual bassists, who are aided and abetted by a pair of percussionists. The sound is rich and it never lets up, and while it ain’t Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew by any means, it doesn’t send me into a coma either.

“Boogie Woogie Waltz” is more problematic. The sound is overly bright in my opinion, but it has this cool seventies TV cop show feel to it that helps to distract from the fact that none of the musicians involved do anything remotely resembling improvisation, and isn’t that what jazz is all about? The damn thing’s as relentless as a Swiss clock, every cog moving in perfect synchronicity with every other cog, and if there’s one thing cogs don’t do is step outside of said clock to do their own thing. In short “Boogie Woogie Waltz” is long on virtuosity and utter steely control but short on the individual spontaneity that is the very wellspring of jazz, and I’ll be damned if there isn’t something almost inhuman about it.

Wish I could think of some nice things to say about the LPs four shorter tracks, but only on LP closer “Non-Step Home” does the band generate even the least bit of excitement. Zawinul opts for freaky space tones while drummers Herschel Dwellingham and Eric Gravatt keep things very, very busy and Wayne Shorter goes for the plaintive on saxophone. And the results, while hardly clearing any new ground, are weird enough to keep me interested.

Which ain’t the case for “Manolete” (a slow bore on which Shorter demonstrates his mastery of technique but very little inspiration), “Adios” (a pre-ambient ambient yawn), and “Will” (mid-tempo mood music distinguished only by the percussion work of Dom Um Romão, and how great can a song be when the best thing about, indeed the only interesting thing about it, is the percussion work?).

I deliberately chose an earlier Weather Report LP because I wanted to be fair. Fact of the matter is they got much, much worse over time, and I could have done a real hatchet job on ‘em had I decided to review, say, 1980s Night Passage. It’s a case of St. Joseph’s Baby Jazz at its worst, so bad that it inspired The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau to quip, “Finally it is revealed: they want to be Henry Mancini. The perky title cut could be a title theme for your local meteorologist, and after that they demonstrate their aptitude for mood music.”

Not that Chrisgau had many nice things to say about Sweetnighter either. Nor do I in the end, really, because Weather Report’s entire career has been a compromise, a stepping back from anything truly daring and challenging, a conservative and reactionary tack towards the safety of the middle of the road.

Which is to say that while I could conceivably see myself spending an evening listening to Sweetnighter, I wouldn’t respect it in the morning. Or myself, either.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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