JAZZBO NOTES ESSENTIAL RECORDING
Mysterious Traveller functions as an unexpected waystation in Weather Report’s evolution. In the previous album, Sweetnighter, Zawinul had drastically changed the sound of the group, focusing almost maniacally on groove. On Mysterious Traveller, it’s not quite as simple. The grooves are more varied and more subdued. This time, there is more of an emphasis on sonic variety and mood.
Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter were playing more with the possibilities of the studio, employing overdubbing, echo, and other tactics to extend their sound. For example, the opener, Nubian Sundance, is made to sound like a live performance through simulated crowd reactions and a manipulated chorus.
There’s also much more attention to space in the compositions and performances than on Sweetnighter. Listen to how measured the basslines, melody and chordal structures are on Miroslav Vitous’ American Tango and Wayne Shorter’s Mysterious Traveller.
If you aren’t listening carefully, you would think that there aren’t any solos on Mysterious Traveller, but you would be wrong. It’s just that the solos function almost like the written material. For example, Zawinul plays a variety of repeated figures on Wayne Shorter’s Mysterious Traveller that compliment and deepen the rhythm created by Alphonso Johnson’s bassline, drummers Ishmael Wilburn and Skip Hadden, and percussionist Dom Um Romao. I’m sure Zawinul’s figures were improvised. On the other hand, Shorter’s lines on tenor and soprano sax act like contrapuntal lines to the melody, rather than a traditional, free-standing statement.
Most of the improvisation on Mysterious Traveller functions to create a seamless whole, or as Zawinul wrote on the liner notes of Weather Report’s debut album, “…we always solo, we never solo.”
Oddly enough, the high point of the Mysterious Traveller comes with it’s most idiosyncratic cut, Blackthorn Rose, a duet between Zawinul and Shorter which is stunning in it’s sensitivity and empathy. It’s one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever heard. One gets the sensation of a carefully planned performance balanced with improvisation. I think these two planned the function of each section of this song, which freed them to be absolutely fearless in their improvisations.
The album’s name was well-chosen. I heard Mysterious Traveller for the first time travelling at night on Interstate 95 from Florida to Pennsylvania. The driver was playing a tape cassette, but the music seemed to be coming from the stars and the heavens above. It’s hard to think of a recording that has the kind of emotional impact of Mysterious Traveller. How did these guys do it?
Again, I think Zawinul and Shorter focused on using the studio to communicate emotion. In order to do that, they wrote tunes that were simple but evocative. When I say simple, I don’t mean simplistic. What I mean is having few moving parts, which allowed for the maximum amount of sonic experimentation, which would have overwhelmed more complex compositions.
As Mysterious Traveller goes along, it gets deeper, ending up operating on an almost subconscious level. With Jungle Book, Zawinul leads us out into the light, completing a remarkable emotional journey.
By the way, that sensitive, reedy voice on Jungle Book is Zawinul’s. Genius that he was, he found a way to make it’s homely timbre work for him.
Mysterious Traveller is a unique work in the Weather Report canon. It eschews both formal complexity and rhythmic drive, choosing instead to focus on emotional impact, and is blindingly successful. From this point out, Zawinul and Shorter would focus more and more on creating an unstoppable World Fusion groove machine, only occasionally stepping back and focusing on lyricism.