18. Weather Report, Mr. Gone
In 1978, the seminal jazz fusion act Weather Report was charged will following up their biggest hit to date, the previous year’s Heavy Weather. This being jazz fusion, blockbuster status was still fairly modest: topping the Billboard Jazz Album charts for the first time and having enough sales to go gold. They also snared a five star review from the influential jazz magazine Down Beat, making them generally celebrated as the standard bearers for this new wrinkle in the classic American music, one that many felt was the true next wave of the art form, as legitimate as, say, hard bop. In some ways, it surely seemed like the one that held the greatest promise to keep the music commercially viable, given the way it operated with some of the same audio textures as prog rock, which of course what all the cool kids were buying and listening. Well, maybe it was just the stoned kids, but jazz had always counted on them, too.
Their 1978 studio album, Mr. Gone, was their ninth overall. While this was considered a strong stretch for the band, thanks in part to the recent addition of bassist Jaco Pastorius to a line-up that also included Wayne Shorter, Peter Erskine, and Joe Zawinful, there was also perhaps something of a backlash settling in. Down Beat took a stance on Mr. Gone that was very different from their celebration of its predecessor, slagging it as too commercial and famously (or infamously) leveling a one-star review. It requires someone with a far more intimate knowledge of jazz in the waning years of the the nineteen-seventies than me to weigh in on the validity of that criticism, but Mr. Gone certainly doesn’t sound challenging, innovative, or interesting to my ears. I’ll admit that maybe it’s some three decades of hearing fusion jazz reappropriated for the most generic of soundbeds, but most of the album is dull as can be.
For example, “Young and Fine” sounds to me like it was created with the express intent of providing background to a Sunday morning airing of a largely disinterested television station’s community calendar listings. There certainly must be those who find the airy rapidity and restless intricacy of “Punk Jazz” intriguing, but I mostly thought about how it didn’t really sound like either of the words in the title. And with something like album opener “The Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat,” it sounds like Weather Report is auditioning to score the latest tepid, confused Hollywood stab at a sci-fi freak out. Some of these avenues may have yielded something interesting had the band rigorously pursued them, but Mr. Gone instead sounds like a series of diversions, a sense only compounded when the odd live track crops up. Maybe Down Bear was right given that the only coherent message of the album was that there was a iron that was sufficiently heated for striking.
In general, Weather Report definitely wasn’t lax about stocking the jazz section in record stores. The group officially lasted less than ten more years, with plenty of line-up tweaks (Wikipedia lists no fewer than twenty-nine people as “Past Members”). In that span, they released six more studio albums and a live album, before heading off to the in perpetuity of vault raiding that jazz artists often enjoy, although their history seems to have been picked over far less than some of their contemporaries. And listen, man, somebody out there still puts on this record, dips their head low, swings to the rhythm, and can’t believe how much this thing grooves.
–26: Darkness on the Edge of Town
–25: Give Thankx
–24: Caravan to Midnight
–23: Next of Kihn
–22: 52nd Street
–21: Crafty Hands
–20: Luxury You Can Afford
–19: Some Girls