The Amazing Drummers Of Weather Report
The Drummers Of Weather Report
By Don Zulaica
Originally published in DRUM! Magazine’s October 2006 Issue
1971. Things were different then. Change was in the air. The rock landscape had been jolted in recent years by the likes of Cream, the Experience, the Stones, and those pesky Beatles. Jazz was getting a facelift as well. With acoustic bop becoming a tad stale to some, many musicians of the swing persuasion found themselves plugging in and fusing out.
In the middle of all of this turbulence was (who else?) Miles Davis, who shook up the world with his seminal recordings In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Among the minds he turned askew were two of his own then bandmates, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and keyboardist Joseph Zawinul. Together they formed one of the most explosive and enigmatic fusion groups of our time, Weather Report. Alongside the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever, they pushed envelopes everywhere they could.
Through 16 official albums, several compilations, and countless bootlegs, their legend grew. Bassists who had already been spoiled by Miroslav Vitous and Alphonso Johnson were set on their ears when Jaco Pastorius reinvented the instrument. Percussionists had their pick of gifted souls, from Airto’s work on the band’s self-titled 1971 debut, to Alex Acuña’s (not just percussion, but kit) performance on 1977’s Heavy Weather, to Mino Cinelu’s playing on the group’s swan song, This Is This.
The drummers, of course, were no less impressive. To hang with these guys, you had to do more than just swing. You had to funk, rock, samba, and basically dance your ass off behind the kit — and if you did it with a wisp of cliché, you were toast.
Join us as we take a look back at Weather Report’s brilliant timekeepers.
Alphonse Mouzon (1971)
It all started right here, with the self-titled debut album and powerful drumming of Alphonse Mouzon. Born in 1948 in Charleston, South Carolina, Mouzon moved to New York to study drama at New York City College and medicine at Manhattan Medical School after graduating high school. Following a spate of drum lessons with Billy Taylor’s drummer, Bobby Thomas, and some Broadway work on the show Promises, Promises, medical school was put on the back burner in favor of a rich journey of the musical persuasion. That journey, besides Weather Report, also led to work with pianist McCoy Tyner, guitarist Larry Coryell and the Eleventh House, Dizzy Gillespie, and rockers like Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Stevie Wonder, and Chubby Checker. In 1992 he formed his own record label, Tenacious Records, and to date has released over a dozen CDs. It’s no wonder, with a resume that includes Chubby Checker and Larry Coryell, that Zawinul and Shorter saw in Mouzon a rocker who could jazz — and vice versa. Together, with bassist Miroslav Vitous and percussionist Airto, the debut Weather Report has been a fusion touchstone for all to follow.
Discography: Weather Report (1971)
Key Recording: No messing around here, let’s hear what another Weather Report drummer, Peter Erskine, had to say. “From [the sax/acoustic piano duet] ’Milky Way’ into ’Umbrellas,’ I was like ’Wow, what chords were those?’ [sings a few notes] And that drum beat. Then when it goes into tempo, the beat changes, the tempo changes, and the whole band just turns left on a dime. That’s kind of a Miles thing. And I thought, ’That’s the s**t!’ And in fact, it’s not only a Miles thing, it’s very similar to the Beatle’s Magical Mystery Tour. I was like, ’Oh man, here we go.’ The way that entire album opened, it’s like a Broadway musical. It was like, ’this is an overture to the music of the future.’ Mouzon’s drumming is just absolutely brilliant, and I think perfect throughout the whole album. The stuff he and Airto did, it’s just endlessly interesting to listen to.” When we asked Mouzon he said, “My favorite track on the first Weather Report album is a song composed by Wayne Shorter entitled ’Eruydice.’ The song freely turns, shifts, slows down, accelerates, and swings.”
Last Seen: Living in Southern California with his wife Allison and two children. He tours regularly as a headliner, and as a special guest with other groups. Besides the dealings at Tenacious Records, he’s even stretching out his acting chops, having starred in the independent film The Highlife.
Eric Gravatt and Herschel Dwellingham Sr. (1971-’73)
Philadelphia-native Eric Kamau Grávátt took up congas at the age of eight and drums at 16. He may have seemed like a minimalist with his four-piece kit and understated demeanor, but his musicality was undeniable. Taking over the helm for Mouzon — the two basically swapped gigs, Mouzon left Weather Report to join McCoy Tyner’s group, and Gravatt left Tyner to join Zawinul and Co. — the band embarked on what would be some of their most revered tours. Erskine on Grávátt: “Grávátt was swinging, very energetic, relentless. Fearless. Just a wonderfully insane relentless drive to his playing. He was a completely uncompromising, creative jazz drumming force. He made perfect sense in the band.” Although Zawinul invited Airto to stay with the band after the debut album, the percussionist had already committed to gigs with Miles Davis. Airto’s recommendation, Dom Um Romao (Brasil ’66), would become a fixture with the group for the next few years. Sweetnighter, Grávátt’s last with the group and featuring the seriously funky Herschel Dwellingham Sr., was seen as a transitional album, and one where Zawinul took a more active interest in the band’s direction. Not only was the music less collectively improvisational and more structured, but it took a very distinct turn towards more groove-oriented R&B, including what Zawinul would call later “the first hip-hop beat ever recorded.”
Discography: I Sing The Body Electric (1971), Live In Tokyo (1972), Sweetnighter (1973, Grávátt and Dwellingham), Best of Weather Report (2002, Grávátt and Dwellingham)
Key Recording: This one will probably be an obvious choice for fans of this era, and again we turn to Mr. Erskine for his comments. “’Unknown Soldier’ from I Sing The Body Electric is a masterpiece, I think. Not only because of the playing on it, but because in some ways it was Weather Report’s Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds album. The sonic construction of ’Unknown Soldier’ is very specific, it’s very carefully built. It’s like a little miniature symphony in a way. So Weather Report very clearly staked out, ’We’re not just playing tunes, with people jamming or soloing on top of song forms.’ It was a whole other ballgame.” When we asked Dwellingham for a favorite performance, he cited Sweetnighter’s closer “Non-Stop Home” because, “that was the one where they asked us to speed up, like somebody was running fast, fast, fast. Zawinul wanted that kind of thing happening. It had that James Brown groove, I liked that one.”
Last Seen: Grávátt is retired from the Minnesota correctional department, where he worked for over 20 years (as a Watch Commander at a medium security prison), and is living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He plays in a local jazz band called Source Code, and can occasionally be seen playing casuals in the area. Dwellingham has a studio in Manhattan, his own label (Tik Records), and works on films, commercials, and produces several independent artists. Besides being a very busy composer, arranger, and songwriter, he finds time to pick up sticks and play for artists like Chocolate Genius, jazz guitarist John Stein, vocalist Barbara Steel, Mary Starr, and duo Patty Carpenter/Melissa Shelter.
The Blender Period (1973-’77)
Alex Acuña, Leon “Ndugu” Chancler, Skip Hadden, Jaco Pastorius, Chester Thompson, Narada Michael Walden, Ishmael Wilburn
Here’s where things got really interesting. Can’t possibly bio all of these folks, as there are even more drummers that played with the group that didn’t even make it to record. “You had Darryl Brown playing in the band for a while,” Erskine explains. “Greg Errico from Sly & The Family Stone played in the band, and it’s unfortunate that none of that was recorded, because that would have been very interesting.” But yes, everyone from Chester Thompson to Narada Michael Walden, Ndugu Chanceler, and Alex Acuña played during this period — considered by many to be the group’s golden age. Musically, the vocabulary grew as more Latin and Afro-Cuban flavors added to the fire, and all of the drummers and percussionists (which besides the aforementioned also included Dom Um Romao, Manolo Badrena, Steve Little, Isacoff, Alyro Lima, and Don Alias) aptly took a more prevalent role in the mix. And not just with single drum configurations, Weather Report had some double-kit forays that matched anyone at the time, one of the more notable efforts being Ishmael Wilburn and Skip Hadden on Mysterious Traveller’s “Nubian Sundance.”
Discography: Mysterious Traveller (1973, Hadden and Wilburn), Tale Spinnin’ (1975, Chancler), Black Market (1976, Thompson and Walden), Heavy Weather (1977, Acuña and Jaco Pastorius), Best of Weather Report (2002, Acuña, Chancler, Hadden, Walden, Wilburn), Live and Unreleased (2002, Acuña, Thompson)
Key Recording: “Birdland” was recorded by everyone from Maynard Ferguson’s band to vocal group the Manhattan Transfer, and even became a popular high school and college jazz band chart (which this writer can personally attest to). For Erskine, “’Nubian Sundance’ from Mysterious Traveller has an amazing drum beat. I used to love practicing it, playing it, because it was such a fun beat. I also liked the title tune. That’s the one where the two-drum thing sounds super cool.” One of the “two-drum thing” culprits, Skip Hadden, agrees. “’Nubian Sundance’ was interesting for me,” he confesses. “The odd time signature, etc. My parts are locked into and between the groove that Ishmael Wilburn had already worked out. The entire session was a challenge from that standpoint because I had to work around what he was doing. The ’Mysterious Traveler’ tune was also challenging because of the fast right hand hi-hat ostinato that I had to play, for like eight hours. I got off the plane after being up all night, doing a gig in the east the previous night and going from LAX to the studio to play it. I remained in L.A. for ten days to work on the recording then back east to work that next week with organist Jimmy Smith, a very different style of music altogether.”
Last Seen: Busy beavers, these guys are. Acuña is all over the place, from sessions with pop stars to supporting his album with Los Hijos Del Sol, To My Country. Ndugu, besides drumming, is an accomplished producer, composer, clinician, and teacher. He teaches at USC, and is also on staff at the United States Percussion Camp at Eastern Illinois University, the Stanford Jazz Workshop, Jazz America, and the Thelonious Monk Foundation. Hadden lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts and is a professor at Berklee College of Music, where he has taught since 1982. He has published three instructional books, including The Beat, The Body, and The Brain and Rhythmic Concepts: Broken Eighth Note Feel. Pastorius left us on September 21, 1987. His impact on modern music will be heard forever. Thompson lives in Nashville and teaches drum set at the Belmont University School of Music. Recently he’s toured with Ron Kenoloy, recorded with jazz guitarist Denny Jiosa, and check his solo album A Joyful Noise. Walden went on to win Grammies as a producer and songwriter (he wrote Aretha Franklin’s ’80s hit “Freeway of Love”), and in 1985 opened Tarpan Studios near San Francisco. Wilburn? His information was a tad difficult to come by. If you happen to read this, Ishmael, drop us a line and let us know what you’re up to!
Info: alexacuna.net, skiphadden.com, and chesterthompson.com
Peter Erskine (1978-’82)
It was with Mr. Gone that Weather Report brought then 24-year-old Peter Erskine on board. Erskine, veteran of Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson’s bands, solidified the lineup and stayed with the band through 1982 (also resurfacing on 1985’s This Is This), and of course formed a close friendship with the late bassist Jaco Pastorius. “The band really took its music more seriously than any other group of musicians I’d ever been with,” he explains, “before or since. I don’t want to make it sound like it took itself too seriously, but we were super serious about the music. We would hold post mortems every night after a concert. We didn’t just run off, it was always talking about what worked, what didn’t. And we worked hard, we rehearsed a lot.
“When I moved out to California, I spent I don’t know how many days driving over to Joe’s house and jamming. Just drums and him, working on concepts. And it was tricky, because you couldn’t do the normal. Joe once told me, ’If I ever hear you go sixteenth-notes on the tom toms [sings hackneyed sixteenth-note fill], I’ll kill you.’ Often times you’d catch yourself turning a beat inside out and playing it cockamamie-ass-backwards upside down, just to avoid the normal. You couldn’t do the normal, although sometimes the normal would have been a lot simpler. It led to some pretty interesting drum beats along the way.”
Discography: Mr. Gone (1978, with Jaco Pastorius, Tony Williams, Steve Gadd), 8:30 (1979, with Jaco Pastorius), Night Passage (1980), Weather Report (1982), This Is This (1985, with Omar Hakim), Best of Weather Report (2002), Live and Unreleased (2002)
Key Recording: When we asked Peter, he replied, “For me, my favorite is a tune called ’Sightseeing’ on the 8:30 album. The studio cut. It’s interesting because the beat changes sort of on a dime, but it’s primarily a jazz tune. It’s the most fun one for me to listen to still. I thought it was the best combination of a lot of different things. Other tunes were cool, ’Fast City’ [from Night Passage] was fun.” We’d have to second the motion for “Fast City,” which is, gulp, fast.
Last Seen: Erskine is living and teaching in Southern California (he’s an Adjunct Professor at USC, and teaches privately) and tours with the trio he’s formed with Alan Pasqua and Dave Carpenter. Of course, there’s too much freelance work to discuss here (he’s on all three Austin Powers soundtracks). Be on the lookout for a DVD/CD of the music of Zawinul, where Erskine performs with the WDR Big Band (with Victor Bailey on bass and Alex Acuña on percussion). “Alex and I had so much fun,” Erskine gushes. “I’ve always been a huge Alex fan, from that first night I heard that tape of Heavy Weather. From what I hear about the DVD, Zawinul called me up and said it was pretty amazing. Of course, he says that about everything. [laughs] I’m still musically hungry to play whatever.”
Info: petererskine.com and fuzzymusic.com
Omar Hakim (1982-’85)
If you’re going to have a personal recommendation, who better to get it from than Miles Davis? That’s exactly what happened for Omar Hakim (check out the sidebar). The man who brought us that killer 6/8 intro groove to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and elegantly played all over Sting’s Dream Of The Blue Turtles served as Weather Report’s stickman until the group broke up in 1985. A New York native who began drumming at five, he was playing with his father, swing trombonist Hasan Hakim (Count Basie, Duke Ellington), by the age of ten. Besides the aforementioned groups, his infectious smile and drumming have also graced the work of Dire Straits, David Sanborn, George Benson, Mick Jagger, Jewel, Mariah Carey, and Madonna, for whom he toured with from 1992-99. “I was a teenager at the height of the fusion movement,” Hakim explains, “so I was listening to Return To Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report. Going to the gigs, I saw all those bands live. All the musicians in high school were listening to those bands. I just never imagined that within five years of graduating high school that I would be on stage with Joe and Wayne. It was bizarre to me.” Erskine’s thoughts on Omar: “I love the way Omar plays, because he was a much more kind of extroverted player. When I saw him playing after I was in the band, I thought it was cool. He kind of put the fun back into the band. By the time I left I felt it was pretty serious, and I really admired Omar’s joi de vive. I regarded it as a very musically healthy approach. And, of course, he was a lot funkier than I was, too. That’s for sure.”
Discography: Procession (1983), Domino Theory (1983), Sportin’ Life (1984), This Is This (1985, with Peter Erskine), Live and Unreleased (2002)
Key Recording: When we asked Omar, he had a tough time picking a favorite. “On Procession, I had the opportunity to contribute as a composer,” Hakim explains. “I wrote ’Molasses Run.’ But as far as performances, I dug ’Plaza Real,’ ’Where The Moon Goes,’ and ’Two Lines’ from that album. ’Where The Moon Goes’ was fun to play live, because I had to sing on that one too. On the record the Manhattan Transfer sang on it, but live it was Joe on the Vocoder, Victor and myself doing the vocals.” Erskine chimes in, “Sportin’ Life is one of my all-time favorite albums. The Wayne tune, ’Face On The Barroom Floor’ is great, and I always liked ’Indiscretions.’ That’s a great tune.”
Last Seen: Living in New York, producing for his own OH-zone record company, for which he released his solo album The Groovesmith. And lots and lots of sessions, mostly on the pop frontier, from Jennifer Lopez’s This Is Me … Then, remixes with Jennifer Love Hewitt, and electronic drums for Mel C. On the jazzier side he’s recently worked with Bobby McFerrin and ex-Weather Report bandmate Victor Bailey on the bassist’s solo effort That’s Right.