Thursday, May 23, 2013

My Favorite Album - Der Thobaben's Contribution

Weather Report – Heavy Weather (1977)

When Evan asked me to write about my favorite album, I spent about five days coming to the realization that I don’t quite have one. I have an album that most frequently mimics my natural emotional state (Genesis, Wind & Wuthering, 1976). I have an album that, while not the best, was paramount in turning me on to classical music and, in turn, going to Conservatory (Werner Haas, Debussy: Complete Piano Music, Vol. 1, 1994). There are albums for when I’m feeling existential (my Mahler/Bernstein DVDs),albums for feeling pretentious (Yes, Close to the Edge, 1972), and albums for feeling British (Field Music, Field Music (Measure), 2010).

It’s the word “favorite,” though. None of these are my favorite. Some of them, in fact, make me feel sort of awful. Certain pieces often remind me of the times in which I sought refuge in them. Music has been at best my therapy, at worst my retreat. There is one record, however, that returns me to perhaps the best and smallest moment of my life.

I listen to Weather Report’s Heavy Weather maybe once a year. Maybe. If frequency of experience is a barometer of “favorite,” then this album hasn’t been a favorite of mine since 2001. The reason I don’t listen to it often, however, is because I can hear it in my head just as clearly as I could in my headphones. The number of times I hear Heavy Weather per year is startling and almost subliminal. I hear bits of this album hundreds of times a year, and in thinking about this essay, I’ve realized why. My subconscious mind remembers something very important and powerful about the album and it really, really wants my active mind to remember as well.

For the uninitiated, let’s talk about the band and album for a minute. Weather Report was a jazz fusion powerhouse that, like most others in the genre, came out of the Bitches Brew sessions under Miles Davis. Joe Zawinul (keyboard instruments) co-founded the group with Wayne Shorter (saxophones).

Their music began as sprawling, esoteric, atmospheric funk jams and gradually became more melodic. In 1976, they recruited Jaco Pastorius to fill the bass chair. Jaco had made a name for himself playing with Pet Metheny and Joni Mitchell. I could go on and on about this guy, but suffice it to say that Jaco is the greatest electric bass player who ever was, and if you don’t know, you should.

Heavy Weather, released in 1977, was their first with Jaco on every track. It was a commercial success, largely because of the Zawinul-penned “Birdland.” The song, and its cover by Manhattan Transfer, launched the record all the way up to #30 on the Billboard Charts, which is unheard of territory for a jazz fusion group. “Birdland” is catchy and worth a YouTube, but is not my favorite.

The thing that fascinates me most about the album is its extreme use of space. The amount of space is vast, both horizontally (time) and vertically (texture/sonority). The second track “A Remark You Made” begins with a soupy synthesizer mix. The first chords, once played, simply hang in the air like mist while they dissipate. It is a sound that makes me feel alone. Not lonely; solitary.

This type of sound can be found in many places. “Teen Town,” the bass showcase, is a favorite of mine, less because I am a bass player but again because of the comfort the band has with space. “Harlequin,” “Palladium,” and “The Juggler” all do similar things. The music, even when loud, fills me with quiet somehow. “The Juggler,” in particular, is a great example of how a band with so many 1970s patch cable synths can remarkably sound like a rain forest. Wooden, watery. This music anticipates and bests the “world music” aesthetic that many 80s pop acts would adopt.

The final track, “Havona,” was written by Jaco and features his best solo. The notes throughout the entire piece come fast and furious, and something interesting happens here. Most times, fast music sounds manic and tense. Sometimes, with a gifted compositional touch, fast music sounds ebullient.

Rarer still, a composer or group will understand how to make fast music sound like air, or like water over a rock. Steve Reich accomplishes this in his seminal Music for 18 Musicians. This type of aesthetic takes time to form, time to write and arrange, and it also takes the exactly right kind of performance.


This brings me to my moment. It was May of 2000. I was perhaps a week away from my high school graduation. It was a busy time, like it is for everyone: prom, AP exams, the school play, last jazz band concerts of the year, and so on. I finished a random night’s (Wednesday?) events at school that evening and hopped in my 1992 Buick Century to head home. Nothing about the evening was noteworthy, with the exception of the weather. May in Ohio can sometimes be like early March everywhere else, but this particular evening was exquisite. The sun had just set and the air was starting to cool. I put the windows down and “Havona” just happened to come on my car stereo.

There has to be a better way to describe the way I felt. My mind became completely uncluttered. I had no thoughts - not even my usual self-conscious awareness of not having thoughts. I have never been one to feel truly relaxed. My inner monologue seems to only stop when I’m exercising or playing an instrument, and most times not even then. I have struggled with anxiety my whole life, and I seem to be forever possessed by imagining what worst-case scenario the next moment has in store. My mind, without careful management, is perpetually falling forward, and I lose the present. It is very frustrating at times and is a 31 year work in progress.

Heavy Weather is beloved by many for many grand reasons: its implications about the fusion of jazz and rock, its cultural and ethnic diversity, its crossover appeal, its ability to endure. People go apeshit for Jaco’s solos, for Joe’s synthesizer textures, for Wayne’s sinewy soprano sax lines. It is beloved by me because, for a moment when I was 18, its sound coalesced with the still, springtime air in Ohio and I felt completely present. It was a mystical, transitory moment; gone before I had realized it had occurred.

I struggle with fully remembering how to feel this way, but Heavy Weather prevents me from fully forgetting.

Der Thobaben used to write “classical” music and play in a band full time. He now lives a much happier life, always in pursuit of Sophrosyne.

Click here for Doundou Tchil's Contribution
Click here for Eta Boris's Contribution
Click here for HaWinograd's Contribution
Click here for Le Malon's Contribution
Click here for Atomic Sam's Contribution
Click here for La Swaynos's Contribution
Click here for Boulezian's Contribution
Click here for HaZmora's Contribution
Click here for The McBee's Contribution
Click here for Le Drgon's Contribution
Click here for The Brannock's Contribution
Click here for The Danny's Contribution
Click here for The Drioux's contribution
Click here for El Reyes's contribution
Click here for My contribtuion

1 comment:

  1. Excellently written. I'm going to check out that album again.