I was in my teens when Weather Report entered the jazz world and forever turned it on its proverbial ear. I left heavy metal and prog rock for a while and opened my mind to an entirely different reality. The colors were endless, and the thought processes were unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
I can’t recall who turned me on to Weather Report, but I bought their first album to learn more about where jazz was headed. The opening track, “Milky Way,” remains one of my favorites, mostly because of the lessons offered regarding simplicity, as well as expanded thinking.
The surreal chordal beauty of the song speaks for itself, so I’ll get right to my point. At 1:12 into it, a single percussion strike occurs. The personnel for the album included Airto Moreira, and a Wiki article mentioned that Don Alias and Barbara Burton played but were not credited.
So… I can’t tell you who hit the note. All I can say is, it landed exactly where it needed to.
But it’s not THE note.
That one occurs at 1:37 into the song, and it’s played by saxophonist and weather report co-founder Wayne Shorter.
And it’s perfect.
DownBeat awarded Album of the Year to Weather Report’s inaugural effort, and it took me down a path I’ve appreciated for decades. I often cite “Milky Way” as probably the best example I’ve ever heard of simplicity, timing and unobtrusive playing.
Wayne Shorter’s terse breath is likely a lesson of great magnitude for sax players in terms of execution, duration, and phrasing, but what we drummers can take away from it is the single moment and how it could sound on so many different surfaces.
Now you might be thinking, “Well, why aren’t you singing the praises of the one percussion strike?” I suppose it’s because that’s something I would expect from percussion, hearing something struck. I think Shorter’s note was ALSO percussive in its execution, which to me says he could have been thinking of his instrument in a different context.
And this is where the door really opens.
As drummers, we strike surfaces… but how often do we listen to other instruments and then seek to mimic their phrasing and approach to their instrument? A keyboard player can’t exactly make a note whisper like a breath in the unique way a sax player can. Likewise, a sax player can’t hit a handful of keys, but they can rapidly player the notes in the keys struck. The keyboard player could then mimic the phrasing of a sax player doing runs of notes, perhaps using grace notes to simulate short flows of breath.
That was and remains the real beauty for me in “Milky Way,” how it opens my mind to think of how other instruments phrase, because – and here is some real gold – it makes me think more about the other performers and how I could strive to understand and perceive the world through their eyes/ears.
Do this, and you get out of yourself and into the process of the music being performed. Do this, and you step up your musical game considerably. You develop bigger ears, hear space more, become patient and content with letting the music evolve on the spot.
You step outside yourself, and by offering room for the perfect note to show up, you clear the way for everyone else who is doing the same thing.
Get a stage full of that going on, you have magic.