Packaging Perspective: Night Passage by Weather Report

This album rarely gets discussed.  It was the second Weather Report album I ever owned (Heavy Weather being the first), and the first that I spent my own money on.  It may not get the acclaim that the bulk of their 70s recordings receive, but I think this album holds its own in terms of the songwriting (on top of which is an upbeat Duke Ellington cover). However, I’m not going to get too deep into the album. It’s the packaging that I wish to discuss.

The front cover isn’t out of the ordinary, looking very typical of something released in 1980, especially the font that wouldn’t be out of place on a science fiction novel or a Radio Shack advertisement.  I never gave it much thought when I purchased it, and I still don’t.  I was looking for more music featuring bassist Jaco Pastorius at the time, so this one met that demand.  Simple as that.

What’s the first thing I typically do when buying an album?  I pull out the sleeve, usually even before I place it on the turntable or in the CD player.  Imagine my surprise when I unfolded this sleeve for the first time.

No, my scanner isn’t broken (actually, I do get Ink Cartridge Failure warnings whenever powering the thing up, but that’s beside the point).  The sleeve is as white as driven snow.  It’s mainly upsetting because there is a fold in the paper, leading me to believe at first that there would actually be liner notes.  With nothing on the inside, why didn’t they make the sleeve half the size to skip the necessity of folding?  Could the quality of paper needed to print on both sides really be that pricey?

For the sake of completion, here’s the back of the CD sleeve. It isn’t really worth discussing.  It’s just a dark backdrop with a red object resembling an Easter egg or a balloon.

Or a jelly bean

Some people may be thinking that Weather Report is an instrumental jazz fusion band, so there are no lyrics required to be printed.  Still, it doesn’t justify leaving a blank white sheet.  My brother told me that he believed his copy of Al Di Meola’s Elegant Gypsy (also released on Columbia Records) suffered the same sleeve problem, but it turns out that even that included a little more (a re-listing of the song names in white text with a turquoise background).  That almost sounds like a pointless inclusion, but at least I can rule out that my booklet was a defective printing.

I had to look up the initial vinyl release of Night Passage to see if it was as lacking in detail.  Sometimes, when an album was initially issued on CD (as is the case of my copy), they will simply copy the sleeve of the LP record.  Perhaps the record had no inner sleeve, and therefore, nothing ready to print.  Of course, that wasn’t the case, and the record was chalk full of delicious descriptives (see here). You get the lineup, production details, management, just about everything a growin’ boy needs.  Why the discrepancy?

Regardless, I’m sure I have another album or two with this problem in my collection.  It got me thinking what could best be done with an album like this.  Should I write the missing album information inside for convenient reference?  In the age where quick internet research is possible, I could find plenty to include in here.

The band’s lineup is nowhere to be found, so that could be a good place to start. The back of the CD case shows each member’s photo, but no names were included.  Some people may not recognize the man on the bottom-left (Robert Thomas Jr.) because he didn’t play on their previous studio album, Mr. Gone.  They even had the live album 8:30 come out just prior to this, so you could confuse him for Erich Zawinul (keyboardist and bandleader Joe Zawinul’s son), who contributed some percussion on that album.

There’s that red pill again!

And who wrote the songs?  The listener can just assume Joe Zawinul wrote any given tune and be right more than half of the time, but the booklet is truly where this information should be listed.  The writing credits are printed on the CD, but you would have to be holding the disc in your hand to read it, so you couldn’t check as you are listening to a song.  Most CD players cover the disc to make any attempt to read the disc impossible anyway, not to mention the rapid rotation speed.  A record spins significantly slower, so I’d be slightly more forgiving if the vinyl edition left the info off the sleeve rather than with the CD.

There are plenty of other things that would be nice to know about this album. Is “Port of Entry” live or were the crowd noises overdubbed? Where did some of the unique song titles like “Dream Clock” or “Three Views of a Secret” come from?  Someone lacking in musical theory may want to know the time signatures used in a composition. Back in the heyday of jazz, an album would often be accompanied by a descriptive essay that would answer many of the listener’s curiousities. Sometimes, a band leader would write his or her own description of the music, or a music critic (such as Ralph J. Gleason or Nat Hentoff) would chime in with their own impressions.  While this tradition may not have been as commonplace into the 80s, there’s no reason not to bring this practice back.  With disciplined control over my writing utensil (or a very precise plotter to do the writing), I could squeeze my own essay into this space.

Many albums will list a break down of the lineup of musicians track-by-track.  Guests have the tendency to sit in on a song or two in the jazz and fusion scene.  Some albums even have completely different lineups recording on each track.  In their case, Weather Report have been a band in transitional phases in the midst of some of their recording sessions. For example. Black Market featured the band’s departing bassist, Alphonso Johnson, playing on the majority of the album, and Jaco Pastorius joined the group in time to contribute with both “Barbary Coast” and “Cannon Ball”. Were there any guests or interesting lineup variants in Night Passage sessions?  Like most other facts about this album, I was left to wonder.  It appears (from my research) that the lineup was consistent track-to-track, but a list of gear and instruments on each song would be a great thing to write down.

Or should I be more inventive with the space?  Why not go the experimental route?  I should be viewing this as a blessing, a chance to spread my wings on this 9.5 × 4.75-inch canvas.  I could write my own lyrics or poetry to fit some of the songs, give each band member a new name based solely on the provided photographs, or doodle my own alternative album cover and fold the sleeve in the opposite direction.  I could hand a young child some crayons, and have them draw based on how this album makes them feel.

That last one may not be the best idea after all.  If it goes anything like my introduction to jazz, I’d imagine the page to remain as blank as the look on the kid’s face.

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