Joe Zawinul has spent nearly a half-century straddling two very different hemispheres of the jazz world – the traditional and the progressive. The Austrian-born keyboardist and composer had already performed with a host of jazz luminaries throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s – Miles Davis, Slide Hampton, Cannonball Adderley and many others – before founding Weather Report, the powerhouse combo that helped define and steer the jazz fusion movement throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s. He later formed the Zawinul Syndicate, a multicultural combo that continues to play original music, explore and innovate, and merge jazz with various strains of classical and world music.
This legendary jazz fusion pioneer joins the Heads Up International label with the release of Brown Street (HUCD 3121), a triumphant two-disc recording that captures Zawinul, a few of his longtime friends and collaborators, and the 15-piece WDR Big Band in an electrifying live performance. Recorded in October 2005 at Zawinul’s own Birdland Club in Vienna, Brown Street showcases Zawinul, Syndicate drummer Nathaniel Townsley, Weather Report and Syndicate bassist Victor Bailey and Weather Report drummer/percussionist Alex Acuna in expanded, orchestral renditions of some of the finest Zawinul compositions from the highly influential Weather Report oeuvre. For the first time since Weather Report, Zawinul and company fire off orchestrated renditions of such classics as "Black Market," "Night Passage," "A Remark You Made" and others.
"We had fun on this project," says Zawinul. "It’s basically the original Weather Report arrangements adapted to big band, and I made sure to keep it open enough so that the music could breathe but at the same time groove. The idea was not to do a cover record. We wanted these arrangements to stand on their own and have their own unique identity."
Nearly all of the music on Brown Street was adapted and orchestrated for the big band setting by Vince Mendoza, who’d recently completed a similar project with material by the Brecker Brothers for the Randy Brecker/WDR collaborative live album, Some Skunk Funk. "It’s almost a note-for-note adaptation, and it takes a lot of skill to score this music for a big band," says Zawinul. "Vince did an absolutely great job. He made it sound like Weather Report."
Zawinul rehearsed with the WDR Big Band for four days leading up to the Birdland Club gig, tweaking the arrangements to maximize the groove and swing factor in the ensemble. "For me, groove is the number one priority," he says. "Without that, I’m not gonna play. So I rehearsed the band in sections. I started with the saxophones, the next day I did brass, then the next day we did it all together with the rhythm section. These rehearsals were not very long, maybe two or three hours each day. Sometimes I even cut the rehearsals short because I didn’t want anybody to get too academic on the whole thing."
No one did. It’s clear from the opening riffs of the title track to the final coda of "Carnavalito" that everyone within the WDR ranks – especially the ambitious soloists – had locked into Zawinul’s all-important groove and remained there for the duration. "Karolina Strassmayer really surprised me," he says of the Austrian alto saxophonist who slams out some hot riffs on "Black Market," "March of the Lost Children" and "Procession." "She’s been doing a lot of things in the New York scene and she sounds great here." Other noteworthy soloists include tenor saxophonist Paul Heller ("Fast City"), trumpeters John Marshall ("In a Silent Way") and Kenny Rampton ("Night Passage"), and saxophonists Heiner Wiberny (soprano on "Brown Street" and alto on "A Remark You Made") and Olivier Peters (soprano on "Badia" and "Boogie Woogie Waltz.").
"They are a very good band," says Zawinul. "They’ve been together for 30 years and there probably is not another band in the world as tight as this band can be. But this music is a little different. Some of the parts can be extremely difficult." In response to the technical challenges, he approached the big band as though it were a small ensemble. "I conducted the band just like I conduct the Syndicate – as if we were in a jam setting. I left a lot of things open and conducted them the way the music felt in the moment, so we had a lot of time in between the structured parts to just jam."
In the end, the trip down Brown Street – a look backward with the help of a very forward-moving orchestra – was an even more satisfying journey than Zawinul had originally envisioned. "The groove was very good," he says, "and of course the audience was great. For the first time since we went our separate ways many years ago, it truly felt like Weather Report up there."