Black Market is my favorite album by Weather Report who were primarily a Jazz band but were also know from bringing influences from many other genres into there music. They are seen by many as one of the progenitors of “Fusion” music. Which I think is a completely useless term for the simple reason that there is no such thing as “pure” music. If you go far back enough all culture has at all times been influenced by something from outside itself or a combination with something other.
Regardless, Black Market is a concise and powerful work that had a strong impact on me as teenager. I think the reason that this album had a such a strong impact on me was the flawless bass playing by Jaco Pastorious on tracks 2 and 6 (Alphonso Johnson is on bass for the rest of the album). It has been said many times but bares repeating, Jaco Pastorius was a genius who completely changed the was bass guitar was played forever. He was the pioneer of fretless bass and one of the few electric bass players to have a deep understanding of Jazz.
In addition, he invented several techniques that had never been attempted on the instrument prior. On top of these monumental talents he was a strong composer who would go on to write many of Weather Report’s best music. He was also decent drummer and had a functional understanding of the piano. He was one of the rare people that nature freely gifted incredible abilities. To this day he still represents the highest standard a bass player can aspire to. As far as I can tell, none have.
As impressive as Pastorius was what captivated me just as much was the music. There was a unique chemistry between this iteration of Weather Report which was never replicated in future lineups. One of the joys of this album and the band in general is the complete absence of guitar in the music. The space this leaves allows the keyboard and bass to have more room to play. It must be said that some of the playing on this album is simply outrageous.
All this said, the contribution of Alphonso Johnson should not be ignored. For a long time I thought Pastorius played bass on the whole album. It was only later that I learned that there were two bass players featured here. Johnson’s playing has often been ignored by the bass community whilst Pastorius is endlessly celebrated, I think this is unfair. Both players were masters of their respective styles. In certain moods I even prefer the playing of Johnson over Pastorius as sometimes Pastorius’s approach could be too dominant and overbearing, especially in a live context. His tone was often (although not always) very bright and strident occasionally it can feel fatiguing and oppressive to listen to. By contrast Johnson had a far darker tone which felt to me at times more supportive of the music, it never felt dictatorial.
With hindsight it must be said that Weather Report’s career represents the high water mark of Jazz being successful in the mainstream. In later eras this was never recaptured. As much as all the musicians in the band were highly accomplished players they did not use their talents at the expense of the emotional aspects of music. What musicians gain in ability can often be lost in sensitivity, simplicity and patience. At their best Weather Report charted territory through new emotional spaces that none of their contemporaries were able to achieve. This is particularly evident on the Gibraltar where the band explores a dark mood with a sense of foreboding at the start of the piece, later moving into an a funk feel.
Later on, all the members of band featured in Black Market with exception of Shorter and Zawinul left the band. Eventually both of them parted ways and went on to have successful solo careers. As much good music happened in their later lives I will always hold the work they did in this band as my favorite of their achievements. It is a truth music history has shown again and again: great artist work best in collaboration. It is in the chemistry that occurs through a meeting of minds that the greatest magic can happen.
Solo albums are impressive in so far as they display a singularity of vision and the execution of that vision but are rarely as strong as those produced in collaboration.