Home Bass: A Founder of Weather Report Coaxes New Sounds From Old Music

Vitous’s new record features his bravura playing on upright bass.EXPAND
Vitous’s new record features his bravura playing on upright bass.
Roberto Masotti/ECM Records

When you think of Weather Report, the groundbreaking jazz fusion band born in 1970 after the Miles Davis–led electric revolution, the first names that come to mind are two of its co-founders, Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, and later, electric-bass god Jaco Pastorius.

The third co-founder, and a somewhat forgotten figure, is Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous, who was forced to leave the group in 1973. Despite that long, nasty divorce, he went on to an illustrious career and now revisits the band's compositions on his new record, The Music of Weather Report. "This is the idea of Weather Report: that everybody improvises, everybody answers each other," Vitous says by phone from Prague.

The album is Vitous's second glance back to the group. With 2009's Remembering Weather Report, he recalled the band's early aesthetic to perform variations on Shorter's work, but also that of Ornette Coleman, Davis, and Dvorák. This effort, on the other hand, re-envisions the group's actual compositions — five by Vitous, one by Zawinul ("Birdland"), one by Shorter ("Pinocchio"), and "Scarlet Woman," by Zawinul, Shorter, and Alphonso Johnson, who replaced Vitous in 1973. A few years after that, of course, Pastorius took the stage and became a virtuosic insta-legend. (Vitous met him only once, in Berlin, after Pastorius joined the group. "We had a beautiful breakfast together. [He] told me I was one of his idols. He was really close to genius, even by my opinion.")

Though he remembers Pastorius fondly, the same can't be said for his fellow co-founders. "They tried to bury me alive," says Vitous, 68, of the creative and financial breakup. "It was like I didn't exist." You almost don't want to hear this; it's like listening to your parents fight. Shorter is still playing great music at 82 and is revered by many (myself included). When I reached out to him through his publicist, I was told politely that "he chooses not to comment."

Vitous himself has more to say, but for that you'll have to read the memoir he's working on. If the rest of his biography isn't as juicy as the Weather Report chapters, it should still make for a good read. After all, Vitous is "one of the great bass players of the last fifty years," according to the bassist Larry Grenadier. "I can't think of another bass player who gets around the instrument the way Miroslav does."

But why, considering the scab left from the breakup, do an album reinterpreting Weather Report pieces? "The condition of the relationship doesn't affect how great the music is," Vitous says. "I obviously like very much the motifs and phrases."

Despite its all-star lineup, the group began with a collective approach and, from 1970 to 1986, incorporated an array of musical styles. "I think what made the band so special was that it was music made by jazz musicians but it wasn't necessarily jazz," Grenadier says. "There was the jazz mentality in their approach to making music together, but it became music that was simply an amalgamation of the personalities of the musicians involved. This way of playing has had a huge impact on the musicians of my generation."

For this album, Vitous pulled together a band that's exceptional by any measure: two saxophonists, Gary Campbell and Robert Bonisolo (who both play soprano and tenor, as Shorter did); the keyboardist Aydin Esen; and two drummers — Gerald Cleaver, a regular collaborator of his, and Nasheet Waits, whom Vitous says is "so fantastic, so light, and his time-feel on the cymbal was so ingenious, I said, 'Wow, I have to have that.' "

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It's already unusual to employ two drummers, but here Vitous had them play in two different time signatures. "It's rare," says Waits, a 45-year-old native New Yorker who's played with such luminaries as Andrew Hill, Max Roach, and Jackie McLean. "He wanted the two drums continually accessing different textures and playing different rhythms, one feeding off the other, almost working in opposite directions. It was challenging, but also refreshing and exhilarating and enlightening."

The unorthodox percussive sensibility creates an oddly mesmerizing openness. Interspersed throughout the record are three original, improvised interludes called "Multi Dimension Blues" that showcase just this temperament and recall the headiness of the group's early live performances. Then there's Vitous's own bravura, hallucinatory playing, all on upright bass. He coaxes sounds out of the instrument, especially with the bow, that feel like a synthesizer, or a trombone player at closing time.

"I think it was very courageous of him to even want to revisit that music, considering his departure," Waits says. "Or maybe he felt that he had some unfinished business." Either way, it all makes for an electrifying record. The familiar "Birdland," for instance, is rearranged, with the instruments commingling in odd, spiky ways until the melodies burst out in phantasmagoric streams of color, almost as mini symphonies. If those riffs weren't already dancing in your head, now — sped up, slowed down, and newly harmonized — they surely will.


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