wax Poetics
Edit of Sweetnighter back cover.

Syncopated Turbulence

After wrapping up Weather Report’s second studio album, bandleader Joe Zawinul took stock of a sales drought and a flash flood of criticism, and sought a new, funkier direction for their planned third album, Sweetnighter. The stubborn and mercurial front man’s decision to bring in new talent to achieve his new sound created heavy weather in the studio, ultimately crafting a masterpiece but splitting the band apart.

published online
By Curt Bianchi

I just know nobody played that beat before I did. Joe Zawinul
<i>Sweetnighter</i> promotional photo. Courtesy of Columbia Records.
Sweetnighter promotional photo. Courtesy of Columbia Records.

The following is an excerpt adapted from Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report by Curt Bianchi, published by Backbeat Books (© 2021).

 

At the end of 1972, Weather Report took its first extended break since finishing its second album, I Sing the Body Electric, the previous spring. Wayne Shorter took advantage of the time to relocate to Los Angeles. He was enticed there by Herbie Hancock and his wife Gigi, who left New York that summer. They extolled Southern California’s mild climate as well as its lifestyle. “In New York, no matter how much money you have, you’re just surviving,” Herbie told Wayne. “Come out to California and start living.” It didn’t require much arm-twisting. Beyond the obvious benefits, the New York City jazz scene that Wayne grew up with had largely drifted away. He considered himself lucky to have seen “the change of hands” from the original beboppers to the avant-garde modernists, but now the old clubs were gone, along with the appeal of hanging out in them. So the Shorters made the move at the end of 1972, temporarily living with the Hancocks until they found a house of their own to rent.

Joe Zawinul used the break to appraise the band. He was pleased to see Down Beat’s end-of-year issue, which brought the news that the magazine’s readers voted Weather Report their favorite jazz group—a title they wouldn’t relinquish for thirteen years. But Joe also found some things he didn’t like. He was well aware of what was written about the band, including the not-infrequent criticism that it played for itself more than its audience. For instance, the New York Times’ Don Heckman, who saw the band earlier in the year, wrote that while the music was “magnificently executed,” he “couldn’t help but feel that it was more enjoyable to the musicians than to the listeners.” This didn’t sit well with Joe. “For me, happiness has something to do with getting across to people,” he said.

Joe was also frustrated by the creative tightrope the band walked, dependent on the illusive nature of collective inspiration. When it was right, it was thrilling. But trying to maintain that edge night after night could be exhausting. “Many nights it was incredible, but if the magic wasn’t on, it was a catastrophe,” he said. A pair of Down Beat concert reviews neatly encapsulated the hit-and-miss nature of their music. Bob Protzman caught one of those magical nights, calling it “one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever heard.” A few months earlier, Jim Szantor found them groping in the dark. “A postmortem discussion with Zawinul indicated that the magic, brought about by inspired interplay and so plentiful and joyous the previous [opening] night, was most elusive this night. And with a group like Weather Report, if the rabbit doesn’t appear, all you have left is an interesting-sounding hat.”

The second incarnation of Weather Report (<i>I Sing the Body Electric</i> and <i>Sweetnighter</i>) before turbulence broke the band apart. (left to right) Eric Gravatt, Dom Um Romao, Miroslav Vitous, Wayne Shorter, and Joe Zawinul. Photo via Echoes/Redferns.
The second incarnation of Weather Report (I Sing the Body Electric and Sweetnighter) before turbulence broke the band apart. (left to right) Eric Gravatt, Dom Um Romao, Miroslav Vitous, Wayne Shorter, and Joe Zawinul. Photo via Echoes/Redferns.

Then there was the question of finances. Near the end of 1972, Joe was asked how things had gone so far. “It was rough,” he admitted. “We starved half to death.” To compound matters, Weather Report’s deal with Columbia Records was far from secure. Columbia’s measuring stick for success was not five-star reviews, but record sales, specifically those of Miles Davis. By this time, Miles Davis’s album Bitches Brew had surpassed 400,000 units sold, on its way to gold. It was the reason Columbia was willing to sign unheard both Weather Report and John McLaughlin—not to mention modern jazz luminaries Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett, all of whom joined the label at around the same time as Weather Report.

About a year after its release, CBS publicly pegged sales of Weather Report’s first LP at 40,000 units, while also stating that the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut album, The Inner Mounting Flame, had surpassed 50,000 copies in less than two months. Miles’s albums could blow past that amount in one week, Columbia claimed (although Davis would never make another gold record after Bitches Brew). To put those numbers in perspective, Joel Dorn, Joe’s old Atlantic producer, put the average sale of a jazz LP in 1972 at 35,000 (though straight-ahead jazz efforts were lucky to crack five figures).

In other words, sales for Weather Report were better than the average jazz album, but not by much, and lagged behind both Miles and Mahavishnu. This would have been welcome news at an independent label, but a major label like Columbia—the major label at this point—hoped for better, and it’s doubtful that it was breaking even on the band. One contemporaneous analysis indicated that record companies made about seventy cents per unit sold. Given that, Columbia would have generated about $28,000 in revenue on 40,000 units—probably not enough to offset its contractual advances and production costs.

Wax poetics
Wax poetics

When Clive Davis talked about artists “using their skills, using their ideas to communicate to new audiences,” he expected it to translate into increased sales, specifically to young people. Asked if he would drop an underperforming jazz artist, he said no, “unless [they] were not willing to grow on their own.” He used the case of rock musician Edgar Winter to illustrate his point. Winter’s first album sold just 20,000 copies, but his latest had sold 60,000 in its first four weeks. “He learned,” Davis said. Columbia’s ultimate response for artists who didn’t learn was to give them their release, and in the coming year it unceremoniously dropped Coleman, Mingus, Evans, and Jarrett—reportedly all on a single day. The same fate awaited Weather Report if things continued on the present path.

Joe took all of this into account and resolved to change the band’s direction. He later explained that while I Sing the Body Electric was “a good record, we had to make a living. I have a big family and Wayne has a big family. Somehow we had to survive. I had come out of Cannonball’s band, and naturally, I wanted to play a little funkier than we were playing at the time.” In January, the band spent a week rehearsing new material at Tom Di Pietro’s studio in New York City—“ten hours a day for five days straight,” according to drummer Eric Gravatt. Everyone brought in some music, including Gravatt, who was encouraged to do so by Joe and Wayne.

But in the two weeks between the rehearsals and the recording date, Joe decided that he wasn’t happy with what was going down, and he specifically cited Miroslav Vitous and Eric Gravatt for failing to deliver the funkiness that he wanted. As Zawinul put it, “Miroslav, being a great bass player in one way, was not the bass player for other things we wanted to do.” Joe also complained about Gravatt’s drum sound. “I needed a low bass drum. Eric had one of those long small little things, that went ‘boop.’” When Gravatt suggested that he “could make my little bass drum sound just as big as anything, [that] it was just a matter of tuning it,” Joe remained unconvinced.

So to make the music come off, an entirely separate rhythm section was brought to the studio: Herschel Dwellingham, a funky drummer who led the house band at Boston’s premier soul venue, the Sugar Shack; Andrew White, the bass player for the Fifth Dimension who had also played English horn with Weather Report; and versatile percussionist Steve “Muruga” Booker. The rest of the band didn’t know they would be shadowed, and it doesn’t take much imagination to realize how it went over with them. “It was an awkward situation,” Joe later acknowledged. “Here we had a band and we had to hire outside musicians to play instruments, which were already supposed to be played by the members of the band—it started getting weird.” That the music wasn’t well fleshed-out beforehand only added to the sense of unease. An air of tension pervaded the studio as the band went through reel after reel of tape, trying to create the feel that Joe heard in his head. More than once, he and Wayne holed up in the engineer’s booth listening to playbacks, frustrated that the music wasn’t coming together.

Andrew White and Miroslav Vitous at Connecticut Recording Studio recording <i>Sweetnighter</i>. Photo courtesy of Andrew White.
Andrew White and Miroslav Vitous at Connecticut Recording Studio recording Sweetnighter. Photo courtesy of Andrew White.

The first track on Sweetnighter is “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” the centerpiece for where Joe wanted to take the band. It’s a thirteen-minute groove grounded in Dwellingham’s drumming. He raps out every beat on his snare drum, while his bass drum never deviates from emphasizing the and-one, giving the tune its forward momentum—ba-BOOM-two-three, ba-BOOM-two-three. On top of Dwellingham’s beat is a layered polyrhythm thanks to Muruga’s hand drumming, Herschel’s cymbal work, and Dom Um Romão’s shakers.

As for preparation with the new rhythm section, Dwellingham claimed there wasn’t any. “They just started. He gave me the count off and I played what I was going to play. The only thing he told me he wanted me to do was a side stick in ‘Boogie Woogie Waltz.’ That’s all he told me about. There were no rehearsals, no nothing. Just, this is the song, we’re going to do it, and we did it. It was so natural and spontaneous—that’s what made it so great.”

“‘Boogie Woogie Waltz’ was very interesting,” Muruga remembers. “Joe had these funk lines and these charts that had numbered signals with Wayne Shorter, and each number meant a different lick, so they had those kinds of signals. They didn’t even tell me it was in 3/4. See, this was put together so fast and we were smoking joints, you know. So I’m listening through earphones and I hear boom-boom, boom-boom. Everything else was pretty vague, so I just followed the bass drum. It was so funky I thought it was a weird way of playing four, so I started playing 4/4 on my Moroccan clay drums against Herschel’s boom-boom, which put it three against four, which is what Africans do. It happened because I didn’t hear where it was!”

The Japanese single of “Boogie Woogie Waltz.” Courtesy of Brian Risner.
The Japanese single of “Boogie Woogie Waltz.” Courtesy of Brian Risner.

The group jammed until the tape ran out, then the engineer mounted another reel, and they jammed some more. “To say we made multiple takes is an understatement,” White recalled. Nor is what we hear on the LP a single take. Brian Risner, who spent much of the sessions in the control booth, remembered there being a lot of editing to create the composition after the fact.

Anchoring side two of Sweetnighter is Joe’s tune, “125th Street Congress,” named for the street in Harlem where the Apollo Theater is located. Like “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” it’s a long (twelve-minute) groove, with Joe’s motifs darting in and out as he and Wayne improvise over the constant, funky rhythm. “I wanted the band to get stronger rhythmically,” Joe said of this tune. “Even stronger than Cannonball and Miles and all those. But there was just one thing, I just didn’t like the backbeat, that two and four backbeat, it destroys [any] sensibility of rhythm because it is not rhythm, it is time, and time and rhythm in music are two different things. A groove is a groove, but time doesn’t give you a groove, time gives you a certain exactness. ‘125th Street Congress’ is a groove and that is what I wanted—I come from Cannonball, I come from Dinah Washington, everything I ever grew up with and liked about jazz is in there.”

Until this point, Weather Report’s rhythms had been firmly rooted in the jazz aesthetic in terms of improvisation, dynamism, and complexity. Now Joe felt that traditional jazz rhythm patterns were “old stuff.” Nevertheless, he still wanted it to swing, even if not in the jazz sense. To do that, he had a specific feel in mind. “The beat which I used on ‘125th Street Congress’ and also on ‘Boogie Woogie Waltz,’ but in three-four, is a beat I never heard nobody play before, and nobody else heard,” he later said. “And it has such a groove if it is played correctly—with another little hump in the beat, which takes away what you have to always play with backbeats. It depends on where you place the bass drum and where you place your snare drum. It’s not something you can really write down. The bass is a little earlier than it is written, and the snare is a little later. It’s a feeling thing. And a lot of people don’t have that; if you don’t have the rotation in your being, that shuffle rotation, you cannot play it.”

To later Weather Report drummers, it came to be known as the “Zawa beat,” the joke being that whenever Joe was unhappy with a drumbeat, he’d get on the drum set himself to demonstrate what he wanted, only to play the same beat every time. “It was this kind of boogie-woogie groove,” Peter Erskine said, “and it took me a while to figure out what he was trying to get. I’d go, ‘Well, Joe, that’s a different tempo.’” Omar Hakim experienced the same thing and realized that it was “the attitude he was trying to lay on us, more than the groove.”

Funky drummer Herschel Dwellingham, circa 1972. Photo courtesy of Herschel Dwellingham.
Funky drummer Herschel Dwellingham, circa 1972. Photo courtesy of Herschel Dwellingham.

According to Joe, Dwellingham didn’t initially feel the rhythm, either. So Zawinul sung it to him until he had it. If only things were that simple. As Muruga told the story, “We did this one tune [‘125th Street Congress’] and Joe said, ‘Give me a rhythm for this.’ So Herschel had this really cool, funky rhythm. And being from Detroit, I associated, and so we laid that down. And Joe said, ‘No, do something else.’ And he took us on a half-hour to an hour tangent looking for another rhythm. And you know, after about forty minutes of grueling rhythms, Herschel came up and whispered in my ear, ‘Hey bro, you remember that beat that we did in the beginning, the first one that he didn’t like?’ I said, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘Let’s lay that motherfucker on him again. We’re going to lay that same beat on him.’

“So we gave him the first rhythm again and Joe said, ‘That’s it! That’s the rhythm I want, man! That’s perfect!’ And Herschel just stood up and yelled, ‘You motherfucker!’ And he started running and rushed him right through the center of all of the instruments, right through the whole studio and up against the wall. And he said, ‘Look, motherfucker! You ain’t telling me what to play anymore! We gave you that an hour ago and you made us go through all that shit and waste our time. You could’ve had that track done!’ And I was just cracking up, because Herschel is twice as big as Joe, and I saw that Joe was a domineering person. Joe said, ‘Okay, man, we’re cool! I know! You’re right, man! Everything’s cool!’ Joe listened to Herschel a little bit better after that.” [laughs]

Andrew White observed the interactions between Joe and Herschel, and while Joe was funky in his own way, White is quick to point out that it had nothing to do with the genre of music known as funk. “Joe had a feeling, he had ideas,” White recalled, “but he did not have any indoctrination into funk at all; he was pulled into that by Herschel. And they had many, many minutes together with all of us in there—and this was during studio time—working this out, and working that out. Wayne was trying to figure out what Joe was talking about, and I was sitting there laughing because in the funk community, we don’t say nothin’ about funk; we just do it.”

Weather Report performing in 1972. This lineup would continue in 1973 without the studio musicians recruited for <i>Sweetnighter</i>. However, it struggled to achieve the funkiness that Joe Zawinul wanted, and both Eric Gravatt and Miroslav Vitous would be out of the band by the end of the year. Photo courtesy of Columbia Records.
Weather Report performing in 1972. This lineup would continue in 1973 without the studio musicians recruited for Sweetnighter. However, it struggled to achieve the funkiness that Joe Zawinul wanted, and both Eric Gravatt and Miroslav Vitous would be out of the band by the end of the year. Photo courtesy of Columbia Records.

Despite such birthing pains, Joe must have gotten what he wanted, because he forever took credit for the beats on Sweetnighter. And when hip-hop artists started sampling “125th Street Congress” many years later, Joe’s penchant for self-promotion led him to grandiosely claim that he invented the first hip-hop beat. “It was [the first hip-hop beat],” he told me in 2004. “When rap became really something big, a lot of rap groups used that soundtrack of ‘125th Street Congress’ from Sweetnighter. And I think I have about fifty recordings of that, fifty CDs by rap groups, and I just know that nobody had done that before. Everybody else knew that, too. And if it is not so, I don’t care either. I just know nobody played that beat before I did.”

With Sweetnighter, Weather Report evolved from its freewheeling, avant-garde roots into a grooving juggernaut that combined elements of jazz, funk, and rhythm and blues to create a style of music that was wholly their own. Record sales mushroomed, saving Weather Report’s contract with Columbia and setting the stage for the band’s success that followed. But the transition also came with casualties. The studio musicians were a temporary fix. On the road, Miroslav and Gravatt struggled to cope with their roles in the band’s new music. The chemistry the group enjoyed the previous year was permanently damaged, and Gravatt wouldn’t last the summer. As a partner in the band’s contracts and businesses, Miroslavs situation was more complicated, but he, too, would be forced out by the end of the year.

Wax poetics

For more information on Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, visit Curt’s website at https://www.weatherreportdiscography.org. His book is available at Amazon and booksellers everywhere.

Copyright 2021 by Curt Bianchi. Reprinted with permission from Backbeat Books. All rights reserved.

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