As reflected in the portraits on the back of the album, Mysterious Traveller finds Weather Report in a of transition. Out went long-term member percussionist Dom Um Romao and co-founder bassist Miroslav Vitous whose presence on the album was confined to the poignant American Tango. In came young gun Alphonso Johnson whose funkier muscularity when it came to a groove was more in keeping with Zawinul's new musical direction.
A change in the line-up wasn't the only signal for a change in attitude. Whereas the previous album Sweetnighter had largely been a studio version of what they'd been doing live, much in the manner of the rock bands of the day, Mysterious Traveller saw them integrate electronics and the aural possibilities which multi-track recording offered often to dazzling effect.
As eclectic as it is electric, Zawinul’s racing Nubian Sundance is baited with numerous memorable synth-lines, each one better than the last, dangled between riotous squalls of percussion. Shorter’s penetrating breaks, a quintet of chanting singers, sampled cheering crowds, whose frenzied applause is detonated at strategic points, and the frantic pace, all mark this track a high point in their career.
At the other end of the scale, the title track is a calmer but no less assertive affair. Bookended by the eerie drift of strange atmospherics, the complex rhythm, laid down simultaneously by drummers Skip Hadden and Ishmael Wilburn, when combined reduces down to an irresistible skipping groove across which, Shorter plays one of the best solos on the album.
Brimming with the kind of vigour that comes from knowing that you're on a roll, every piece catapults the group into new highs. Moving seamlessly between the funk-fest grooves of Cucumber Slumber, the quicksilver piano and sax improv Blackthorn Rose and the menacing bite of Scarlet Woman, this is the sound of the slate being wiped clean in preparation for a new phase in their development.
Less oblique and cerebral than previous works, Mysterious Traveller is more direct than anything that preceded it. Charged with emotion, along with the bobbing acoustic piano of Jungle Book, we hear the sounds of Zawinul’s children. With the main piano theme recorded on cassette at home, their yelps of laughter and protest as they want their dad to read them a story, merge beautifully with the tender melody. It's simply impossible to listen to this track without a huge smile on your face.
Breaking with their past and producing something that left just about everyone in the field trying to figure out how it was done, though it’s probably a crass comparison, Mysterious Traveller is in effect Weather Report’s Sgt. Pepper’s.