Brown Street

Joe Zawinul

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Brown Street Review

by Richard S. Ginell

Like his friend and onetime collaborator Miles Davis, Joe Zawinul was not one to look back on his past and savor the view. Yet as in the case of Miles (his parting concert in Montreux), Zawinul finally took the plunge in central Europe late in life by revisiting his old Weather Report repertoire -- live at his Vienna nightclub, Joe Zawinul's Birdland. The significant difference is that while Miles doubled back to a re-creation of the original Gil Evans charts, Zawinul retrofitted his tunes with new big-band arrangements by Vince Mendoza, read with gusto and heft by the crack visiting WDR Big Band of Cologne, Germany. To this, Zawinul added his own synthesizer virtuosity and some overdubs from his Malibu studio, two distinguished WR alumni who still play with him off and on -- bassist Victor Bailey and percussionist Alex Acuña -- and drummer Nathaniel Townsley. In just about every case, Mendoza's charts replicate and flesh out every twist and turn in the Weather Report originals, paying off big-time with "Brown Street," an overlooked swinger from the WR 8:30 album that gets the remake album off to a percolating start. Occasionally he piles on additional harmonic tissue, as in the Miles-period "In a Silent Way." Some of the writing seems a bit redundant, yet things never become too overloaded thanks to the ceaseless drive of the rhythm section, and there is plenty of room for solos. Only on "Procession" does Zawinul write his own big-band chart; though tied tightly to the original recording, it sounds looser than most of the Mendoza charts as it works out over the drone. A few of the song choices are unexpected: the frantic "Fast City" and the strutting title tune from the Night Passage album; the former features some liquid synth solos by Zawinul and stimulating tenor sax by Paul Heller, and the latter some relaxed flügelhorn from Kenny Rampton. Others aren't from the WR catalog at all; "Silent Way" predates it, of course, though WR did play the tune in concert, and "March of the Lost Children" and the perennial "Carnavalito" are from the post-WR solo years. Unlike most jazz tribute projects -- including a fairly bloodless, multi-artist 1999 salute to Weather Report on Telarc -- this double-CD set isn't burdened with artificial nostalgia, and it benefits a lot from the presence of one of the two founding co-leaders (the other being the absent Wayne Shorter). And Zawinul is the crucial one, because the crusty Austrian keyboardist sees to it that the swing is the thing and that the groove is deep.

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