Joe Zawinul: Brown Street

[18 April 2007]

By Jon Ross

The New Re-Issue: Big Band Interpretations

In a world of jazz reissues—snapshots in musical time remastered using contemporary audio technology—it’s easy to map keyboardist Joe Zawinul’s musical path. There’s the Miles Davis period, from which the beautifully introspective “In a Silent Way” emerges. Zawinul’s time at the helm of the 1970s pop jazz group Weather Report brought syth-laden material to the masses. In the ’80s, The Joe Zawinul Syndicate incorporated expanded vocal parts and African percussion into the frontman’s electronic sound.

With the help of the WDR Big Band Köln and arranger Vince Mendoza, Brown Street blurs the division between Zawinul’s musical periods. The live two-disc set is a look at Zawinul’s growth all at once, without changing sidemen or different recording techniques. Most notably, the addition of a big band presents Zawinul’s sound in expanded instrumentation. It’s a “Zawinul Selected Works” for acoustic instruments.

Of course, re-interpreting recordings big-band-style is nothing new. The WDR Big Band has been adding extra instruments to combo charts for years. Some Skunk Funk, released in 2003, celebrated the Brecker Brothers through arrangements by Mendoza, and on 1996’s Flame, the band added some punch to Yellowjackets numbers. The general trend of re-interpreting small band works without the aid of their composers can be seen in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s programming. 2005’s A Love Supreme took John Coltrane’s introspective religious masterpiece and expanded the playing field.

The danger with these recordings, however, becomes identity. Will the guests function on their own level and treat the big band as a separate entity? On Brown Street, Zawinul is the obvious leader, but he has integrated himself and his regular group—percussionist Alex Acuna, bassist Victor Bailey and drummer Nathaniel Townsley—into the big band aesthetic, making his tunes louder and full of lush timbral colors.  This is most apparent on the woodwind introduction to “In A Silent Way”. What sounds at first like arpeggios on a bass clarinet, morphing into sustained chords, turns out to be Zawinul’s electronic manipulations. This introductory trick makes the initial offering of acoustic instruments, the blending of Zawinul’s intro with the rest of the band, even more serene.

Most of the Weather Report tunes on the album were in need of an update. Instead of being firmly planted in nostalgia– the keyboard patches, the wah-wah and the bass playing on the original sound dated— “Boogie Woogie Waltz” functions on a more contemporary plane. While Zawinul explores on his keyboards, switching from one electronic sound to the other—Space organ! Flute! Distorted harmonium!— the band lays out. He presents the theme and riffs on variations, while Townsley and Acuna provide rhythmic encouragement. Soon, the brass section comes in, laying down stagnant chordal support under a repetitive riff. After the band slowly increases dynamics and tempo, a second theme arises in the woodwinds. The result: a 21st century update of a ’70s groove.   

“Night Passage”, released in 1980, was firmly entrenched in the Weather Report style. The halting jumpy melody benefited from Zawinul’s sustain pedal, creating a sharply outlined path while maintaining a reverberated atmosphere. The use of woodwinds on Brown Street brings Zawinul’s melody into focus. It’s sharp and crisp; every leap in the disjunct passage is clean and well-articulated. The solos that follow present a contrast not heard in the original version: a muted trumpet gives way to a clear brass tone followed by Zawinul’s subtle keyboard sound. The variety of playing styles, and the addition of train noises, works to elevate the ensemble passages. 

It would have been easy to repackage all these original songs, or simply present them with new-and-improved mixing in reissue discs. But Zawinul’s work with Mendoza makes a case for the timelessness of the keyboardist’s melodies. No song sounds completely the same as the original, and the addition of a big band helps add life to even the most trivial of pursuits. Everything is bigger, louder and presented in contemporary colors. This approach gives Zawinul’s compositions renewed vigor and a new presence in the contemporary jazz scene.

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