Tag Archives: Weather Report

Fifty Years Ago Today—Ishmael Wilburn Joins the Band

Dayton Daily News ad for Weather Report's Nov. 2 performance.
Okay, I’m a day late with this, but we need to commemorate Ishmael Wilburn’s first gig with Weather Report! It took place on Nov. 2, 1973, at the Palace Theatre in Dayton, Ohio, a 1920s-era movie palace that saw its share of live music going back to the heydays of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie.

The advertisements for the show listed Eric Gravatt as the drummer, even though Gravatt had left the band in June. Taking his place was Greg Errico, whose first gig I wrote about here. By October, Errico was preparing to leave the band, so Joe and Wayne began looking for a replacement.

Ishmael, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, was then in a local band that featured original material in a funky-jazz vibe with a female vocalist. Weather Report came to town on October 14. This was the night Joe and Wayne heard Alphonso Johnson play bass with Chuck Mangione, leading to Alphonso joining Weather Report. It was also the night that Wilburn got on Joe and Wayne’s radar.

“We had a guy who sort of managed our group, and I think he was somehow connected to Wayne Shorter,” Ishmael recalled. “He went down to the show to see them—I didn’t go to the show—and he let them hear a demo tape of some originals we were working on, and they liked the drumming. Joe liked my foot. That’s what I remember the guy saying when he came back. He said, ‘Hey man, those guys want to talk to you. They want you to do an album with them. Joe really likes your foot.’ I said, ‘Wow, my foot!'” [laughs]

I asked Ishmael what Joe meant by his “foot.” “My kick drum,” he explained. “How I play my kick drum. Where I drop and how I played my kick drum. He really liked the feel of how I played.” Going back to the recording of Sweetnighter, Joe was keen on finding a drummer with a powerful bass drum sound. Ishmael fit the bill.

Ishmael Wilburn in 1973-74. Photo courtesy Ishmael Wilburn.
I have to imagine that getting an offer to play with Weather Report, let alone record an album with them, was probably the last thing on Wilburn’s mind at the time. He was twenty years old and his experience was mainly limited to local groups. “I had done some things with local bands in Jersey, New York—small club stuff, maybe a big venue where we weren’t the main draw—you know, a doo-wop group or something like that. I had backed up a lot of doo-wop groups up to that point. That was the thing in Philly.”

Nor was Wilburn all that familiar with Weather Report’s music. “I had never really heard of Weather Report. [laughs] I was more into Cold Blood, Earth, Wind & Fire, Rare Earth, Chicago—that kind of stuff. I was coming from a gospel background.” Nevertheless, when the offer came, Ish was willing to give it a try.

Joe and Wayne wasted little time getting Wilburn to a gig. Ten days after they were in Philadelphia, Weather Report had a show in Washington, D.C., and they invited Wilburn to come down. “Somehow or another I was supposed to go meet them,” Wilburn told me. “They paid for me to go to D.C.; they were supposed to play at Constitution Hall. I took the Amtrak down and I think I was going to sit in or do something at soundcheck so they could get a feel for me. But something happened. They didn’t get into town and I was delayed, and it was getting late. I think the show was pushed back or something. Anyway, I didn’t meet them. So I came back to Philly and started doing my daily thing.

“And then I got a call from their manager, and he said, ‘Listen, they want you to play a gig with them.’ I said, ‘What? I have never even played with them. I have never met them. You’ve got to be kidding me.’ So I said okay.” Wilburn caught a plane to Dayton—he had never been on an airplane before—where he met the band for the first time. After checking into the hotel, he went to the Palace Theatre for soundcheck.

“I was actually playing on Greg Errico’s drums. He had these Ludwig clear acrylic drums—huge drums—and I’m not very good at playing other people’s drums. I hate that. I don’t like going and sitting in. But anyway, we did a soundcheck for about forty minutes, and I was nervous as hell.

“Then we did the concert. I had never played a room that size. Scared as hell. That was really something. It was a standing ovation. I really hadn’t understood how big they were in the jazz market. And afterwards Joe told me how great it was. Joe Zawinul was a character. Oh my God, man! He took a tape off the soundboard and gave me a cassette of it and said, ‘This is you. Listen to this. This is you!’ I didn’t even recognize me playing the drums with them. I said, ‘No, this is not me.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s you!'”

As I wrote in my book, so began a whirlwind that found Ishmael playing with one of the leading jazz bands of the day. A month later he was at Devonshire Sound Studio recording Weather Report’s fourth album, Mysterious Traveller. There’s no question that Wilburn’s playing was instrumental in creating the unique sound of that album, one of Weather Report’s best.

“Great memories for me out there,” Ishmael said of his time in Los Angeles. “We were out there recording, and I was staying in this little hotel bungalow. I had my own room. Dom Um [Romão] was like a mentor to me. I remember him cooking me lentil soup, stuff like that. I drove around L.A. a little bit, but I was twenty years years old. I got home sick. They flew me home for Christmas. It was weird being in L.A. with Christmas trees and Santa in shorts. I just couldn’t handle that.” [laughs]

There’s lots more about Ishmael’s experience with Weather Report and the recording of Mysterious Traveller in my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report. When I interviewed Ish for the book, I told him that Mysterious Traveller was one of my favorite albums, and that it must be gratifying to know that people are still listening to it decades later.

“It is,” he replied. “That’s my claim to fame. Every musician wants to be associated with an album like that.”

Fifty Years Ago Today—Greg Errico Joins the Band

Melody Maker review of Weather Report's Jul. 6, 1973, performance.
On July 6, 1973, former Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico made his debut with Weather Report. The band’s performance was part of the Newport Jazz Festival, which had been transplated to New York City the previous year after a near-riot forced the cancelation of the festival in 1971. Festival events were spread across the city in multiple venues over multiple days, group in themes. In Weather Report’s case, it appeared at Philharmonic Hall on a double-bill with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever.

Errico replaced Eric Gravatt, who had been the band’s drummer since October 1971. Gravatt was a truly great jazz drummer, but with Weather Report’s third album, Sweetnighter, the band began moving in a funkier direction that demanded a different approach from the rhythm section. This was made clear by the fact that Joe Zawinul brought in an R&B drummer for the recording session, replacing Gravatt on several of the album’s tracks. That, coupled with some interpersonal issues with Zawinul, made it increasingly clear that Gravatt’s days with the band were numbered. He soldiered on for several months, but behind the scenes Zawinul began looking for a replacement.

Meanwhile, bassist Miroslav Vitous had been introduced to Errico by mutual friend Doug Rauch, who was the bassplayer in the rock group Santana. Miroslav and Errico got along well, jamming together when they had the opportunity, and even talked of doing an album together. So When Zawinul mentioned that he wanted to make a change, Miroslav asked Errico if he would be interested in going out with the band. He was.

“When Mirsolav asked me to join them, I think it was like a week or two before the tour was going to start,” Errico told me when I interviewed him for my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report. “They wanted me come back to New York and rehearse a little, meet everybody, meet Joe, and I said fine. I went back a couple of days early, and I remember Joe lived in a loft. So I went there and for the first time I met Airto and Flora [Purim]—they were hanging out with them. And Jan Hammer, met him. It was a whole different circle of people in relation to where I had come from. It was very refreshing and I enjoyed it. And we did a couple of rehearsals and we hit.”

Adding Greg Errico must have raised eyebrows within the jazz community—and the rock community, too. It would have been an unmistakeable signal that Weather Report was making a more overt effort to combine elements of rock and funk into its music. “Well, you know, there was a lot of that happening,” Errico told me.

Up to then, the jazz world had always been segregated. I remember growing up in San Francisco and there was a lot of jazz around here, and they had their own club, and that was it. But this time period [the late-sixties/early-seventies] was when Miles [Davis] got turned on to us [Sly and the Family Stone]. He came up to the Newport Jazz Festival and hung out with us the whole weekend. And so the jazz world wanted some of that new audience, that bigger audience. They wanted to reach out to bigger audiences and younger people to sustain, to continue to be. Because I think in the fifties and the early-sixties, they were the thing. They had the world watching there for a while, and they saw this new thing happening, these huge audiences, which was new for everybody, even in the rock world. It was like a phenomenon that was happening. The music changed the world, from the Beatles to Woodstock, and all these things that were happening socially all around the planet.

So they wanted some of that, and they started listening and looking, and finding things that they could connect with, to latch onto—like something they could grab onto to get catapulted and pulled into this thing. I mean, they didn’t just go get whatever pop tune that was number one for a week; they were looking for something valuable. And there were things. There was a lot of great writers and creative people, like Sly himself, the Beatles, the arrangements, and some of the things that were happening musically. It was real music. It wasn’t just Tinker Toys. So that was happening a lot during that time period.

Look at what Miles was getting into. And Herbie [Hancock]. I mean, there was a lot of passing the ball around, everybody trying out each other’s things and doing something with it. Those were very interesting times. The stuff that came out of the late-sixties and early-seventies still lives today, recreating itself through young audiences five generations removed. So there’s something there. Obviously, there are elements that connect with people that weren’t around then. And it keeps on connecting.

Errico’s tenure with Weather Report was relatively short-lived. He toured with the band for about four months, going to Japan and Europe, in addition to performing numerous gigs in the United States. Joe always said that Greg played “Boogie Woogie Waltz” better than anyone before or since.

“Musically, it was like he threw me the keys to the car, and I just had a lot of fun,” Errico told me. “It was challenging, but it all worked. The Chemistry was good. And sometimes Dom Um [Romão] would jump on the drum set, too. He was a percussionist, but he had a small set of traps up there and once in a while he would jump on them.”

“I really enjoyed traveling the world with them,” he told me. “Whether it be the musical experience or the exposure to different audiences, it was a whole different vibe, a whole different paradigm. I really enjoyed it.”

Fifty Years Ago This Month—Weather Report at Ronnie Scott’s

Melody Maker, July 22, 1972.
Fifty years ago this month, Weather Report performed in London for the first time, holding forth for two weeks at Ronnie Scott’s Club. Their visit was highly anticipated. Melody Maker, Britain’s leading music weekly, called the band the “undisputed leaders at the crossroads where jazz meets rock,” and their engagement “possibly the most important date in London this week.”

These gigs, which began on July 17 and concluded on the 30th, came on the heels of a busy month for Weather Report. Bob Devere, the band’s new manager, kept them on the road for most of June, 1972, with week-long stints at the Jazz Workshop in Boston, the Esquire Show Bar in Montreal, and the Lighthouse in Southern California’s Hermosa Beach.

Melody Maker dispatched its lead jazz writer, Richard Williams, to review the London performances. He also interviewed Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, resulting in feature articles of both in the coming weeks.

Williams’s review reads as follows:

Weather Report is quite plainly one of the most effective bands of its type in the world. Where fusions are concerned, they operate seamlessly and effortlessly in the limbo between the electronics of rock and the creative improvisational interplay of jazz.

Their opening sets at Ronnie Scott’s Club, London, on Monday night obviously impressed the audience—indeed, who could fail to be moved in one way or another by the extreme facility, empathy, and power of this quintet?

They moved through sequences of highly sophisticated compositions with a practised ease which made it hard to define where writing left off and improvisation began, and there’s no doubt that they managed to create a far more spontaneous atmosphere than the Mahavishnu Orchestra or the Miles Davis groups, both of which seem rigid by comparison.

Individually, all five are masters. Joe Zawinul comes over as the leader, intentionally or not, playing with fuzz-tone and Echoplex to produce alien sonorities on the Fender piano. I do wish, sometimes, that he’d make use of the instrument’s softer tonalities—as he’s done on record in the past, to great effect.

As it was, his hard sound often blotted out the unassertive qualities of Wayne Shorter’s soprano sax—although when Shorter’s bitten-off phrases did cut through, the sound was marvelous. His tenor-playing is rather more aggressive, with a wholly personal tone and a method of phrasing which at first sounds crabbed but later reveals itself as astonishingly subtle.

Miroslav Vitous is a young giant of the bass, and it would have been good to hear more of him, too—particularly that incredibly emotional arco tone. Drummer Eric Gravatt impressed me much more than previously: he’s a neat, compact player who responds immediately to the musical needs of the other players, and who can also steam away at the head of the group when required.

Brazilian percussionist Dom Um Romão added a lot to the rhythmic and tonal palette, and seems much more group-conscious than his better-known contemporary, Airto Moreira. His playing is completely organic to the group’s overall sound, and his traditional melody on the berimbau, incorporating a little dance, was one of the highlights.

But still, I found that they left me a little cold for long stretches. Perhaps it’s the element of electronic sophistication which puts me off—or maybe Zawinul should just go easy on the volume pedal. Whatever, Weather Report have no peers in their ability to create extraordinary textures, and they should certainly be heard.

There are a number of interesting observations in this review. Regarding Zawinul’s “hard sound,” Joe was at the time using a harsh, distorted sound on his Fender Rhodes electric piano, as can be heard throughout the Live In Toyko album, recorded six months earlier. That would change with Weather Report’s next album Sweetnighter, and in the ensuing years Joe would produce among the most expressive bodies of work ever produced on the Rhodes electric piano.

Miroslav’s “arco tone” was a reference to his playing acoustic bass with a bow, something he did to beautiful effect on “Orange Lady” from Weather Report’s debut album. Coupled with Wayne’s soprano, it was a sound that Down Beat editor Dan Morgenstern described as “quite beyond description.”

As for Dom Um Romão, many reviewers of Weather Report’s shows singled out Romão for praise, even if they didn’t know what instruments he was playing. The berimbau, for instance, was an instrument that most American writers were unfamiliar with at the time. In addition to his musical sensibilities, Romão added some showmanship to the band’s performances, often walking though the audience while playing the berimbau.

Lastly, there’s Williams’s observation that Weather Report “left me cold for long stretches.” He wasn’t the only one to write something like that in 1972. Perhaps, as Williams suggests, it was those harsh—and loud!—Fender Rhodes tones that presumably led to ear fatigue among listeners after a while. But maybe there was more to it than that, because at the end of the year Zawinul would move Weather Report in a new and funkier direction.

Fifty Years Ago Today—Beacon Theatre Redux

On this day fifty years ago, Weather Report returned to the Beacon Theatre in New York City for the first of three nights over Thanksgiving weekend, serving as one of the opening acts for Ike and Tina Turner. Also on the bill were Banchee and the Quinames Band. The printed program indicated that the Herbie Hancock Sextet would also participate, but reviews of the shows do not mention him.

Unlike Weather Report’s previous appearance at the Beacon in support of Dr. John, these shows were sold out. However, a ticketing snafu and confusion about the show’s start time led to an overbooking situation. That, coupled with the long wait to see Ike and Tina Turner, caused the audience to boo when Weather Report took the stage. It was, in Variety‘s words, a “rude response.”

It would be almost five years before Weather Report returned to the Beacon, headlining a show with John McLaughlin’s Shakti as the opening act.

Below is the program for the Ike and Tina Turner shows at the Beacon.