For the first time since the Cuban Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro first gained power, the less combative stance of the Carter administration opened an important diplomatic window between Cuba and the United States. After two decades, the U.S. ban on travel to and from Cuba was lifted, creating new diplomatic and cultural exchange opportunities. Sensing the time was right, CBS Records, in conjunction with the U.S. State Department, staged an international coup by organizing an unprecedented three-night series of concerts in the Cuban capital of Havana. Dubbed "Havana Jam," this historic cultural exchange took place on March 2, 3 and 4, 1979 at the 4800-seat Karl Marx Theater and marked the first time American musicians had performed in Cuba since the Castro regime gained power two decades prior. The King Biscuit Flower Hour accompanied a plane full of Columbia Records artists as they participated in this first comprehensive music festival held in Cuba, which featured an all-star cast of musicians from a wide range of musical genres. In addition to the cream of the crop of Cuban artists, performers included Weather Report (with Jaco Pastorius on board); Stephen Stills (who had been experimenting with Latin music his entire career); Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge (at the tail end of their marriage); John McLaughlin (famed Mahavishnu Orchestra guitarist) performing a one-off trio gig with Tony Williams and Jaco Pastorius; the CBS Records Jazz Allstars, which featured a wealth of jazz greats including the Heath Brothers, Stan Getz, and Dexter Gordon, in addition to the final night headliner Billy Joel. Two albums featuring highlights from these concerts would be issued and in April of 1979, the King Biscuit Flower Hour would nationally broadcast additional material from these historic concerts, most of which has never been officially released.
Here we present Weather Report performing their landmark hit, "Birdland, a track that was not included on either of the Havana Jam album releases. Named after the New York City jazz club Birdland, which in turn was named after jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, this infectious instrumental composition was written by keyboardist Joe Zawinul and debuted on the Weather Report album Heavy Weather in 1977. The keyboard melody from "Birdland" first surfaced years earlier within live Weather Report performances of " Dr Honoris Causa," but it was the 1977 studio recording that would soon became a jazz standard and even cross over to the Pop charts, bringing Weather Report their biggest commercial success by far. "Birdland" would soon enter the repertoire of many other groups including Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson's Big Band, and the Manhattan Transfer, who recorded a memorable vocalese version with lyrics by Jon Hendricks.
While the shuffling swing of drummer Peter Erkine plays a critical role in the success of this composition and Zawinul and Shorter both display outstanding musicianship here, the most striking feature of this performance is the incredible fretless bass playing of Jaco Pastorius. This recording is a perfect example of his extraordinary technique, featuring plenty of his trademark picking harmonics and sustained ringing. It is performances like this one that redefined the role of the instrument and set an entirely new standard in fretless electric bass playing.