Thursday, March 29, 2007

Brown Street

Brown Street
By Joe Zawinul with the WDR Big Band
Heads Up/BirdJam 2-CD set

Considering Weather Report’s legacy is a complicated matter. The fusion super-group formed by Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter has no shortage of partisans, pro and con. WR’s albums were generally well reviewed and were very successful commercially, particularly by jazz standards. However, some of the less successful, synth-heavy LPs have to an extent defined how many remember them: as a precursor to disco-influenced pop-jazz. By revisiting his past WR tunes with the backing of the swinging WDR big band, Joe Zawinul refocuses attention on the actual compositions for an exciting evening of music captured live on the double disk Brown Street.

The title track is a perfect flag waving opener. Starting with the steady groove of Zawinul’s keyboards with Heiner Wiberny’s soprano sax, it continues to build until the entire band comes roaring in past the three minute mark. Like WR’s greatest hit, “Birdland,” (so widely covered it was skipped for this project), “Brown Street” is a fun tune, played with verve by Zawinul and soloists Wiberny and guitarist Paul Shigihara.

As a change of pace, “In a Silent Way” follows. It is a bit of ringer, since Zawinul wrote it while he was with Miles Davis, but evidently WR often performed it live. John Marshall steps into the trumpet spotlight for a pensive solo over Zawinul’s synthesizers which harkens back to the Davis original.

The big swinging “Fast City” follows with take-no-prisoners solos from Marshall and Paul Heller on tenor that would be a surprise to most WR detractors. Indeed, many of the tunes have a very different vibe than one associates with WR albums, thanks to the WDR and the arrangements (all but one) by Vince Mendoza. For instance, “Badia/Boogie Woogie Waltz” is particularly intriguing in its evolution, from a spacey opening to a blistering close.

“A Remark You Made” is another familiar tune that effectively recasts WR fusion into big band jazz. Heiner Wiberny’s alto takes on a smoothish, romantic sound playing over a lush arrangement.

The train whistle introduces “Night Passage,” a return to the overall tone of Brown Street: upbeat, up-tempo, and brassy. Featuring a great flugelhorn solo from Kenny Rampton, it really is a standout track.

Brown Street is useful as a reevaluation of WR, demonstrating the adaptability of Zawinul’s compositions. Ultimately, it illustrates why WR was so successful. Even in a different context these are catchy, fun tunes, masterfully played by Zawinul and the WDR band.