Listen to this track by jazz-rock innovators with a rotating line-up Weather Report. It’s “Birdland”, a bona fide hit single as taken from their 1977 album Heavy Weather. The record was a smash success, selling loads while also impressing the reviewers at Downbeat at the same time.
In particular, the album showed off the dynamics of the band and where they’d pushed the boundaries of jazz as a form, coupling it with many strains of music that included rock, funk, and electronic music. This is perhaps a reflection of the group’s leadership under keyboardist Joe Zawinul and his “partner in crime” saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Both men had come up in other bands in the sixties under Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis respectively, with each of those being musicians who also sought to escape the rigidity of jazz as a form in order to put across musical visions using a wider palette. This certainly set the stage for Zawinul and Shorter to do the same.
Here on this song and on the rest of the record, this is evident. But it’s not just about redefining the boundaries of jazz in terms of texture and style. It’s also about form, with a specific element for which jazz is known largely left out of the equation.
The title for this song was inspired by the club established in 1949 on 52nd Street in New York City named in honour of jazz great Charlie Parker, known in jazz circles as “Bird”. By 1977 when the song came out as a single, Birdland remained closed, which it had been since 1965 after a rent increase. It would open again in another location by 1985 where it remains today in New York’s theatre district on the west side of midtown, Manhattan. But in the meantime, this tune was a tribute to that golden period in jazz history when the music was an open frontier for musicians like Zawinul and Shorter to discover and innovate.
As such, it’s no wonder that this song is so full of brightness, positivity, and youthful vigour. One thing it isn’t full of is extended solos by any one musician, even if there are some strikingly memorable parts laid down by band members. For me, that’s really the key to its success. It sounds and feels more like a symphonic piece even more so than it does something that is just rock or funk oriented. It has a widescreen, cinematic quality to it that draws in the listener, with shifting themes and varied textures to keep it interesting the whole way along. Very importantly, the musicians are committed to delivering a statement as a band, and not just a group of musicians who happen to be playing on the same cut. That’s a pretty big difference and a pitfall that not all jazz fusion groups avoid.
That’s what made Weather Report the top of their tree by 1977 when it came to jazz fusion. With “Birdland”, they’re delivering the song together as it moves from phase to phase, focusing on feel and emotional content more so than intricate solos and musical athleticism for which a lot of jazz fusion is known. They also push textural variation to the forefront too, with a triumvirate of Zawinul’s keyboards, Shorter’s saxophone, and bassist Jaco Pastorius’ talkative basslines that also demonstrate his incredible dexterity and control over bass harmonics, all without being too showy and taking away from the group’s collective effort.
All of these elements contributed to what made “Birdland” a hit, released as a seven inch and twelve inch single, and later to be covered by many, including Maynard Ferguson’s Big Band, a large ensemble which had once included Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter when they were young musicians by the end of the 1950s. After the Heavy Weather record went platinum during a time when jazz-inflected rock was very commercial, other cover versions of this song would follow, including a 1980 version by Manhattan Transfer that would add lyrics.
In the meantime, Weather Report continued to blur the lines between the rock world and the jazz world, with Pastorius’ connection to Joni Mitchell also forming a creative bond with Wayne Shorter, who would become a frequent collaborator of Mitchell’s for many years afterward. This included his involvement with her Mingus album along with other members of Weather Report. That album is also a celebration of a golden period of jazz as well as being a tribute to one of its prime movers in the same manner that “Birdland” celebrates Charlie Parker and the club named after him, both of those symbolizing a period of musical history never to be repeated.
Weather Report dissolved in 1987 after an over sixteen-year run. Joe Zawinul died in 2007. But Wayne Shorter is an active musician today. You can learn more about him at wayneshorter.com.