On my way to work this morning, I asked Siri “what’s the weather report?” and instead of telling me “cloudy and 35 degrees” I got “Birdland” by the jazz-fusion group Weather Report.
I was not disappointed.
This is one of my favorite tracks of all time. As much as Steely Dan defined the sound of the late 70s and early 80s for me, Weather Report – and specifically “Birdland” – was right in that mix. There’s so much going on in the studio recording; it’s jazzy and funky and boppy one after the other. The chord runs are amazing.
I found this 1978 video recording of a Weather Report concert in Germany at the Stadthalle Offenbach and learned for the first time that the high-pitched notes at the beginning of the piece, which I always assumed was an electric guitar was bassist Jaco Pastorius plucking his electric bass close to the pickups while fingering it like… well, like an electric guitar. Pastorius also provides the high-pitched vocals, which I also never realized. Both he and drummer Alex Acuña go shirtless as well, which is pretty unusual for a jazz performance.
This live performance has more of a swing feel to it than the studio recording, but it’s still very cool:
Pastorius was quite a character. As he was recording his first solo album, he attended a Weather Report concert and afterwards introduced himself to the band with “I’m John Francis Pastorius the Third, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” When the bass spot opened up when Alphonso Johnson left, he became Weather Report’s second bass player just in time to record “Birdland,” which was written by keyboardist Joe Zawinul. Unfortunately, a combination of drug and alcohol abuse and the discovery that Pastorius was bipolar led to a series of bizarre events that ultimately resulted in his death in a bar fight in 1987 at the age of only 35.