The infamous comet-of-the-20th-century named Kohoutek that zipped by our planet in '73 and conceitedly ignored us was one of the most phenomenal flops in the history of astronomy. Conversely, the album that it inspired, Weather Report's "Mysterious Traveller," is anything but. While that innocuous chunk of orphaned space ice failed to inaugurate the end-of-the-civilized-world events predicted by every pseudo- psychic and sideline soothsayer who could hijack a microphone, the LP that features on its cover that tiny orb's graceful (though grossly exaggerated) tail as it streaks through the early evening sky (I vaguely remember seeing it and remarking that it looked more like a comma than a comet) marked a distinct change in the musical direction of one of jazz/rock fusion's most innovative and influential groups. "Streetnighter," the excellent record that preceded it, offered sneak peek glimpses of the rich aural renderings they would unveil in full, wide- screen Technicolor on this disc but none of their fans anticipated the astounding depth and creativity that these tunes possess in such abundance. Few albums guide the listener through art galleries consisting solely of sounds like this one does. This, in the most elemental of definitions, is adventuresome music at its finest. It seems to be the core nature of the beast that the best art, more often than not, miraculously springs forth from the harshest strife and gnarliest gnashing of teeth. That being the case, this bumper crop of tunes predictably grew out of soil that had been ravaged by ugly storms of dissention. Founding member/respected bassist Miroslav Vitous had butted heads with keyboard wizard Josef Zawinul so many times that they had permanent dents in their combat helmets. So when sax man extraordinaire Wayne Shorter reluctantly broke the tie by siding with Joe in that war of wills Vitous bid them a terse "adios" and drove off into the sunset amid squealing tires and a thick cloud of acrid smoke. With the remaining duo already on their third drummer, it's surprising that they'd manage to tape anything approaching cohesive, much less impressive under those circumstances but, as I pointed out, the tastiest fruit comes from trees that've been pruned back the most severely. Recruiting the services of drummer Ishmael Wilburn and bassist Alphonso Johnson was one of the smartest decisions Zawinul and Shorter ever made because together with percussionist Dom Um Romao they made one of the most transcendent fusion albums ever. Weather Report's 1974 release, "Mysterious Traveller," is a masterpiece of the modern jazz/rock genre.
When reviewing this band's work it's important to educate the uninitiated to the fact that recognizable terms such as verse, chorus and bridge don't apply. The oft misunderstood label of "soundscapes" is much more descriptive of what's being presented here and I find that I must indulge in some extravagant prose to express myself. (Please forgive me in advance.) These compositions are like paintings done in the style of pointillism in that you must back up a few steps to discern the distinct images that appear out of what, if you look too closely, appears to be random dots of color. I would also encourage you turn up the volume so as to hear every nuance. Go ahead, crank it. The louder the better because you don't want to miss a single note. Trust me on this.
They open with Josef's synthesizer trumpeting as if to herald the entrance of a pharaoh and his entourage. "Nubian Sundance" sports an energized grandeur that conjures up in my vivid imagination a huge throng gathered around the ancient pyramids for a festival of epic proportions. (Yes, I read that he used crowd noise recorded at the Rose Bowl but I'd greatly appreciate it if you didn't bring that up and rain on my dream parade here. Thanks.) The African language Zawinul adopts for his incidental vocalizations gives this piece an exotic tint as the two drummers, Wilburn and guest Skip Hadden, lay down a rhythmic heartbeat-on-adrenaline pattern underneath. One of the many fascinating aspects of Weather Report's music is how unexpected moments of synthesized glory often billow up out of nowhere and this track is not excluded from that club. There's so much happening during this 7+ minute song that I recommend you try not to dissect/analyze it too much and just let your mind be swept away. As good as it is, however, you ain't heard nothin' yet.
While Miroslav may have long since left the building in a huff, he left a fingerprint behind in the form of his and Josef's "American Tango." This tune calmly falls into place bit by bit, then Zawinul's synths create some cool, other-worldly magic before Shorter's saxophones wade in to dance around him gracefully. It's a comparatively short-lived excursion but sometimes valuable gifts come in small packages. Vitous was without doubt a monster player but evidently a total lack of soul food in his upbringing was his Achilles heel and that deficiency led directly to his estrangement from Josef and Wayne. (Hey, the dude can't help that Czechs and funk are rarely mentioned in the same sentence!) I'm a fool for slick funkadelia and new guy Johnson ably supplies that ingredient bountifully on the joyride that is "Cucumber Slumber." Alphonso is fluidly fluent in that street-taught dialect but his studio experience keeps him from becoming overbearing in his delivery. I'll admit that I'm also an all-day sucker when it comes to folks combining catchy hook lines with their fusion and this tune has one that's deliciously wicked. Shorter is clever but stingy with his saxophone injections and Zawinul's electric piano noodlings are never more than what is called for. They both know full well that the whole is always more important than the parts.
Next up is the disc's namesake, "Mysterious Traveller." The brief, obligatory cosmic introduction is misleading, though, because it turns out that the celestial intruder portrayed in this song isn't the smooth operator we expected to encounter. He doesn't effortlessly glide across the heavens but prefers to confound us with strange herky-jerky movements and antics. Yet when he reaches his apex overhead he astounds us with a massive, shimmering corona of intense brilliance that floods the globe with light. This cut is a thrilling journey of discovery as it passes by and eventually disappears into the ether. (Kohoutek should've hired a choreographer!) Wayne's "Blackthorn Rose" follows and it is drop-dead gorgeous. Complex, yet emotional. Midway through the number this particular bloom magnificently opens its petals to the morning sunrays and the fragrance it emits is intoxicating. The intuitive interplay between Shorter and Zawinul (the sole participants involved) is a wonder to behold. And Wayne's sensuous tone is one that even the late, great Paul Desmond would applaud in admiration.
Emerging from beyond the horizon like an ominous fog, "Scarlet Woman" is as unpredictable as a sexy female's flirtatious intentions. Josef's slightly distorted electric piano adds an air of wariness and intrigue to the proceedings and the instrumental's repeating riff cuts right through your consciousness like a scalpel. Last but certainly not least is Zawinul's "Jungle Book," a delightfully delicate tune that conveys a sensation of muffled distance as if you were observing children playing just outside your windows. The rare inclusion of Josef's acoustic guitar in the mix really sets this number apart from all the others. There's a naïve and innocent feeling of happiness that frolics unimpeded through this track yet it never becomes predictable or pretentious. It has a unique charm all its own.
I realize that it's a minority of the followers of Weather Report that regard this album as highly as I do (although it did earn Downbeat Magazine's prestigious "album of the year" award) but it touches me in a personal way that not all of their other offerings do. I continue to be impressed even decades later by its perfect consistency and I always love how it elevates my mood every time I plop it onto my turntable. If you haven't delved into this group's sound yet you should and this exemplary recording would be a great place to start. Let me assure you that while they were sailing fearlessly into uncharted waters with this LP, their music is not discordant, abstract or difficult to digest. Their songs are like elaborate fantasies. What symphonic prog was to standard rock & roll fare, this group's visionary material was to contemporary jazz. They weren't content to blithely dazzle their audience with flashy runs up and down the diatonic scale, they took them on a voyage to places they'd never been to and, on "Mysterious Traveller," they took me to paradise.