“I went directly to the best teacher in the world,” chuckles Miroslav Vitouš, recalling his teenage years in Prague studying with renowned bassist František Pošta. “He prepared me for the conservatory and really saw the talent that I had, but the funny thing about it is he didn’t want me to play jazz.” While Miroslav may have absorbed the classical concepts his teacher offered, he had his own ideas regarding which musical genre to pursue. Winning a scholarship to Berklee School of Music in 1965, he moved to New York two years later and quickly established himself as one of the young lions of jazz bass, landing high-profile gigs with Stan Getz, Chick Corea, and Miles Davis, to name a few. Today, nearly five decades into a stellar career, Vitouš is still at the top of his game and has compiled an impressive discography of nearly 20 albums as a leader and many more as a sideman.
For all he has done, to many he will always be best known for his three years with the groundbreaking group Weather Report, which he co-founded in 1971 with fellow Miles alumni Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter. Inspired by Miles’ Bitches Brew-era recordings, Weather Report’s first four albums explored uncharted musical terrain with ingenious improvisations and a sizzling synergy. When Zawinul and Shorter later steered the group into a more commercial musical direction, Miroslav parted ways and pursued his own path without looking back—until recently, that is. In 2009 he recorded Remembering Weather Report, an album of new music that evokes the free spirit of the group’s early work. Now, with his just-released Music of Weather Report, he’s all in and brilliantly reworking tunes from group’s catalog.
What was your goal with the new album, compared to your earlier effort Remembering Weather Report?
On the first one, I wanted to show the origin of the ideas that Wayne, Joe, and I started back then. You can clearly hear it on all of the tunes on that album, but they weren’t recognized by the public because they were new, except for “Nefertiti.” I realized that people couldn’t relate to what I could do with Weather Report’s music because they were familiar with the originals. So the point of this new album was to show what can really be done with the music. Like “Birdland,” for example: I studied that intuitively, how the phrases come after each other, and I think I found a more musical way with it than what they did. The whole idea is about improvisation and playing music—developing the motifs, not just playing the song and going on to the next song. This is what I started to do with Wayne and Joe in the beginning.
That was a hallmark of early Weather Report, the way you developed short phrases into long improvisations.
Right, but eventually that was not enough because Zawinul wanted to be more commercial and play more funk, and he wanted more recognition and money. So everything changed, and the [original] idea basically stopped with my departure from Weather Report. It was not really what we started. So this new album is to show what can be done musically with such beautiful phrases, what is possible to be done with these tunes in a more artistic and musical way rather than playing them in a commercial way.
How did you go about deciding which tunes to record?
I wanted to touch up on the music I played while I was in the band, like “Morning Lake,” which is a completely new version that just grew with time. And then I picked the tunes with the melodies I liked the most and which were not too complicated, so we wouldn’t have to go into some kind of serious arrangements. “Pinocchio” is fantastic on this album. Nobody has ever done anything to “Pinocchio”; they all play the melody and then go to the races with it, but no music ever came out of it, nobody ever touched up on it. And we took it and we just made some beautiful music and it came from heaven. We developed motifs like a classical composer would.
Why did you choose to go with two drummers instead of one?
I first tried that when I was doing a master class in Denmark and got a chance to have two drummers in one of my workshop ensembles. I told one drummer to play at one tempo in one kind of way, and the other one in another tempo in another kind of way, and it was astonishing. I recognized this incredible space that just opened wide in front of me—this liberation of music because there was no longer one drummer keeping time and everybody being stuck to a one-dimensional package. It was all of a sudden two drummers playing two completely different things. It’s like you have a red rose and you have a blue rose and they are living right next to each other and it’s in perfect harmony. It’s just there and you go out to grab it.
How did you record your bass in the studio?
I went with two Neumann microphones for the upper speaker, and had a Summit Audio tube preamp, which is a very high-end preamp. I had a wah-wah pedal connected on another track. There were four tracks of bass: two acoustic, one direct, and one wah-wah.
Do you have one main bass, or do you have several?
I have several of them, but this one I recorded on the Busseto bass, which was built by Barry Kolstein on Long Island. It’s actually a copy of Scott LaFaro’s bass in a small size, but the fingerboard and mensur is exactly the same as on the big bass. It was made for traveling, and I like it so much that I don’t play anything else now. It’s like my little Ferrari.
Do you still play electric?
No, it’s been in the closet for the last 15 years.
How did you approach this recording as a bassist?
Well, first, I didn’t really play the bass role. I played the whole album mostly with arco, and played the bass role on very few occasions. I was basically leading, just like another horn. Only a few times I played pizzicato, which is consequently what it was like in Weather Report, because when we got together I played the bass like I was one of them. I was not playing the role of a bass player in a jazz group. It was a direct conversation; it demanded communication. And that kind of approach and communication created the Weather Report sound. I don’t want to take the credit for that whole movement, but I can definitely say that the way the bass was played made the other instruments respond in another way completely, which was responsible for making a new sound.
Speaking of arco, you’re well known for your great technique. What advice can you offer bassists to improve that part of their playing?
You have to take the classical books and train like a classical guy who plays the concertos, like Koussevitzky. Take any concerto, or even cello concertos—whatever you can get your hands on—so that you can develop control over the instrument. When you have that control then you can have your own ideas and you can execute them. If you don’t have the control you cannot do it. So you have to study the instrument from a classical point of view, because this is where you can get the education and the technique which is required for something like I do.
Prior to Weather Report, you, Wayne, and Joe were all playing on each other’s solo projects. What made you decide to get together and form the group?
For a very short while I was with Miles Davis, but that ended quickly, and I didn’t want to go back to Herbie Mann or Stan Getz or the people I had worked with before. I was ready to move on. So I thought I’d start some kind of a band, and decided to give Wayne a call, who had me on his last three albums before that. He also had just left Miles and was not doing anything quite yet, so it just happened that he was free at that time. I asked him if he’d be interested in putting a group together, and he liked that idea and wanted to think about it. Two weeks later, he called back and asked me what I thought of having Joe Zawinul in the group, and I said, sure, that’s fine; let’s do that. And that’s exactly how Weather Report started.
And so you were three equal partners in the beginning.
Yes, exactly. We each wrote two songs on the first album and formed the publishing company Shoviza—short for Shorter, Vitouš, and Zawinul. Weather Report belonged to the three of us on paper, technically. And when it ended, unfortunately, they didn’t pay me for my third; they just took it. Somebody stole my documents, and bang, that was it. It was very unfortunate—the royalties were coming directly from Columbia Records to the office. Onethird of those royalties were mine, and they didn’t pay me for seven years, if you can believe that. Nothing came. Finally I had to talk to Zawinul and say, Hey, this is not even a case if I take you to court. You are just sitting on my money. You have the contract with Columbia, everything is right there. So then they started to pay me back some of the $45,000 they withheld.
What were your thoughts on the bassists who replaced you in Weather Report?
They were all good bass players. With Alphonso Johnson they wanted to have the bass as part of the drum section, you know, bass and drums, and play a funk kind of thing so they could put the melodies on top of that. That’s what they wanted. They didn’t want somebody to “talk” to them any longer, so that’s when the musical conversation disappeared. But Alphonso Johnson is an excellent bass player. And I was very impressed with Jaco, because I thought he was of their caliber, for sure. I heard stories that Zawinul also had a big problem with that, because as soon as somebody was better than him or a threat to him, he started manipulating, and it would end up in a very bad way. Not for Zawinul, but for the other guy [laughs].
Solo albums Music of Weather Report [2016, ECM]; Universal Syncopations [2003, ECM].
With Weather Report I Sing the Body Electric [1972, Columbia].
With Chick Corea Now He Sings Now He Sobs [1968, Solid State].
Bass Kolstein Busetto upright
Strings Thomastik Spirocore Solo Bass Set, in standard tuning (EADG)
Pickup Barbera Multi-Transducer Upright Bass Pickup
Effects TC Electronic M3000 Studio Reverb Processor