At The Ritz

By Bill Milkowski

(Reprinted from Down Beat magazine: December, 1986)

NEW YORK - This dynamic double-bill drew just about every young fusion musician in town. As it turned out, they suffered through the low points (mainly Weather Update's) to get to the high point's (mostly Mahavishnu's).
Of course, Joe Zawinul was operating with something of a handicap. His latest touring band - drummer Peter Erskine, bassist Victor Bailey, percussionist Robert Thomas Jr., and guitarist Steve Khan - had not been together nearly long enough to coalesce into a unit the way Mahavishnu has over the past two-and-a-half years. Erskine and Bailey had it down alright, but try as he might, Khan just couldn't fill the shoes of Wayne Shorter. Well, no one really asked him to. It's an impossible task.
The inclusion of a guitar into the Weather Report domain is enough to raise the eyebrows of devotees. Strangely, Khan took a wholey different approach to his instrument than he had with his own group Eyewitness or on any of his fine fusion albums for Columbia during the late '70s. This time out he laid heavily on the wang-bar, went for fluid legato runs, and reached over with his strumming hand for some trendy two-handed trilling schtick a la Allan Holdsworth and Eddie Van Halen. It all seemed somehow more for show than for any musical considerations.
Zawinul's gnome-like robot vocals (on Vocoder or whatever gizmo he's operating) were tolerable at best, annoying at worst. His best moments were his one call-and-response jam with percussionist Thomas and his soulful comping behind the others' solos. Khan added some rhythmic propulsion to the band with his own funky brand of comping, and his dissonant Holdsworthian excursions were daring, if that's your bag. And while Victor Bailey is no Jaco, either in terms of fully realized musicianship or stage presence, he is an unparalleled groovemaster.
But the backbone of Weather Update is Peter Erskine. I'd endure a whole night of Zawinul's Kraftwerkian vocals just to hear Erskine power this band. Few drummers (besides Billy Cobham) combine power and swing the way Peter does. And his quick-wristed fills are just too cool.
Mahavishnu, on the other hand, is smokin' so hard now it's frightening. The core of Danny Gottlieb on drums, Bill Evans on saxes, and Jonas Hellborg on bass has been together long enough (nearly three years) to reach that level where they're playing instinctively, almost telepathically, just like the Mahavishnu Orchestra of old.
McLaughlin remains amazing. No other guitarist around (including all the Yngwie Malmsteen clones out there) plays with such pure passion and sheer conviction. Evans is quickly becoming his alter-ego. And Hellborg, one of the most astounding bass players on the scene today, is strictly showtime. His solo showcase, in which he slapped, kicked, and thrashed his double-neck before quoting from an early Mahavishnu tune (Dance of Maya) nearly brought the house down.
One interesting note was the addition of keyboardist Jim Beard, who replaced Mitch Forman. His Zawinul-esque approach to chordal voicings and meters gives Mahavishnu yet another weapon in it's arsenal. This band is now a very formidable force.