memoir of a gathering storm

Music DVDs tend to try my patience. Only seldom do they provide any serious clue to the intensity or innovations of an actual performance, operating instead as cloying snapshots. But in an historical context, when a great band from the past is presented in concert, DVDs become archival finds – unassuming keys into the workings of an artist.

And so we have a magnificent new find: a 1971 television performance presented initially for Germany’s famed Beat Club program by the groundbreaking jazz fusion ensemble Weather Report.

Titled simply Live in Hamburg 1971, it presents to us the earliest available live glimpse of the band. This was far from the beefy fusion and electronics showcase that marked Weather Report’s music, exemplary as it was, in the latter part of the decade. It instead presents a group that is less than a year old and still clinging to the atmospheric and heavily improvisational air initiated by Miles Davis’ landmark In a Silent Way album.

The DVD is a crisp video chronicle of what is nearly the band’s original lineup in concert. Only Airto Moreira is missing, having been recently replaced by the outstanding Dom Um Romao. In the Weather Report timeline, Live in Hamburg 1971 presents a band preparing its second album, I Sing the Body Electric, with a young Alphonse Mouzon nearing the end of his tenure. Czech-born Miroslav Vitous still handles bass – acoustic as well as electric – alongside the members who would become Weather Report’s chief meteorologists – keyboardist Josef Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter (both veterans of In a Silent Way, by the way).

The Hamburg studio is stark and applause-less, providing the 48 minute performance with a profound intimacy, from Mouzon’s merry grooves on the opening Umbrellas to Shorter’s very studied lines on tenor and soprano saxophone during Waterfall. His solos eventually collide exquisitely with the organic grooves set forth by Vitous’ acoustic bass bounce and Rumao’s eager percussive chatter.

Zawinul, as always, is the wily one. His keyboard arsenal is limited mostly to Fender Rhodes piano, which provides a light but ominous ambience that bubbles like lava under the very Miles-esque propulsion of Seventh Arrow. But at the beginning the 10 churning minutes that make up the improvisations surrounding Dr. Honoris Causa, Zawinul summons darker, punctuated keyboard drive – an evil twin, almost to the Rhodes’ animated lyricism – that could pass for clavinet if the resulting music wasn’t so thick and, well, nasty.

Zawinul and Rumao have since left us. But their abundant musical cunning abounds on this magnificent bit of musical time tripping, a slice of artistic invention that lands us back in the eye of a jazz hurricane already in devilish, unstoppable motion.

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