In the beginning, they played Miles Davis - inspired free jazz (Shorter and Zawinul had both played on Davis' albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew), and gained attention for Zawinul's innovative use of synthesizers (he was one of the first to use the instrument in jazz) and influences from everything from bebop to world music. They soon moved into a sound more oriented around funk, and shifted away from improvisations into a more melodic and thought-out compositional style, mostly dominated by Zawinul.
Their greatest success came with the arrival of Jaco Pastorius in 1976, and the album Heavy Weather, which reached #1 on Billboard's jazz charts and provided their Signature Song, "Birdland". This also signalled their shift into a more rock-oriented and commercial style, which made them one of the leading jazz bands in the world. Unfortunately, Zawinul was developing increasing Control Freak tendencies, composing everything on his synthesizers and dictating their musical direction completely. Friction rose within the band, and Pastorius left in 1982. The band continued a while longer to diminishing returns, until the band members felt that they had more freedom in their own projects, and Shorter's increasing distance from the band led Zawinul to split them up in 1986. Pastorius died in 1987; Zawinul himself passed away in 2007.
This band provides examples of:
- The Alcoholic: Joe Zawinul was a notoriously heavy drinker.
- Jaco Pastorius became this after Zawinul innocently had a few drinks of him. Sadly this, coupled with drug abuse and bipolar disorder ended up costing him his life not 10 years later.
- Ace Custom: Jaco Pastorius made his trademark "Bass of Doom" by prying the frets off with a butter knife and filling the holes in the fingerboard with an epoxy.
- The Band Minus the Face: Weather Update, which consisted of several earlier members (Zawinul, percussionist Robert Thomas, bassist Victor Bailey and drummer Omar Hakim) along with guitarist Steve Khan, and with Shorter not involved. It didn't last long.
- The Big Guy: Jaco. As seen on the picture above, he towers over the rest of the band, although no official height was ever given. More telling is that his son, Felix has a reported height of 6ft7.
- Cloudcuckoolander: Pastorius suffered from bipolar disorder, and his behaviour was often erratic and unpredictable.
- Control Freak: Zawinul completely took over the band's composition in their later years; for an extreme example, on their second self-titled album, he would write out all of Jaco Pastorius' basslines and double them on his synthesizer. That's right, he was writing basslines for one of the greatest bassists of all time. Unsurprisingly, Jaco quit the band after the album was recorded.
- Everything Is an Instrument: Starting with the album Mysterious Traveller, Zawinul would begin to splice sound effects such as cheering crowds into their music.
- Executive Meddling: Their final album, This Is This!, was only made because the band had one more album left in their contract. Shorter was mostly not involved in it, preferring to focus on his solo project, and the album suffered for it.
- Riches to Rags: Jaco Pastorius was an infamous and tragic example. He went from one of the biggest names in jazz, signed to a major record label to a drunk mess sleeping in parks with only his bass to his name. Sadly, because he could never properly fix his mental issues, that was the way he died.
- I Am the Band: Zawinul and Shorter were the only permanent members, with Zawinul taking even more control, as mentioned under Control Freak above.
- Lead Bassist: Jaco Pastorius was one of the all-time greats to pick up the four-string, and it's not a coincidence that his time with the band yielded their most-loved recordings. Many bassists will testify to his influence but Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo went so far as to co-produce an entire feature-length documentary about Jaco and his legacy.
- Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: A mixture of bebop, rock, free jazz, funk, Latin jazz and world music.
- The Oner: Being a world class jazz band, a chunk of their songs were recorded in only one take.
- Jaco Pastorius' first song with the band was "Cannon Ball"; apparently, his highly ornamental playing during rehearsal infuriated Zawinul, and the single recorded take occurred just after Pastorius was yelled at.
- Drummer Peter Erskine's first take with the band was for "Pinocchio". Since the recording engineer had dubbed it a sound check, Erskine played all over the drum kit, partly to give the engineer "some variety" to work withnote . Erskine was horrified when the rest of the band decided that that was the recording that would make the album.
- Revolving Door Band: Everyone but Zawinul and Shorter rotated over the years, and those who did are some pretty respectable names in jazz: Jaco Pastorius, Miroslav Vitou, Victor, Bailey, Alex Acuña, Omar Hakim, Mino Cinélu, Peter Erskine and Alphonso Johnson were all members at some point, with several other big names (like Steve Gadd and Maurice White) all contributing as session musicians in one-off apperances.
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Joe Zawinul has gone on record saying that he was the once who introduced Jaco Pastorius to alcohol, which ended up aggravating his bipolar disorder and ruining his life. He's expressed a lot of regret, and realized his mistake after the first or second drink.
- Self-Titled Album: Two of them, one in 1971 and the other in 1982.
- Suicide by Cop: Essentially what Jaco did. Towards the end of his life he started provoking bar fights and letting himself get beaten up. Eventually he had a run in with a bouncer who beat him into a coma, and he died 10 days later.
- Supergroup: The original line-up was essentially an early jazz fusion supergroup, with Zawinul and Shorter coming from Miles Davis' "second great quintet" and original bassist Miroslav Vitous from playing with Chick Corea.