Joe Zawinul and WDR Big Band – Brown Street – Heads Up (2)

by | Feb 19, 2007 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

Joe Zawinul and WDR Big Band – Brown Street – Heads Up 3121,  Disc 1: 44:33, Disc 2: 40:05 ***:

(Joe Zawinul, keyboards and vocoder; Alex Acuna, percussion; Victor Bailey, bass; Nathaniel Townsley, drums; {plus WDR big band})

When Joe Zawinul solos on his new live album, Brown Street, he takes whatever song he and his band (including the German big band WDR) are playing to a very odd place. With a keyboard sound that reminds me of a 1980s ARP synthesizer and liberal use of a vocoder, Zawinul sounds like he’s on a different planet than the other players.

The album’s first track, Brown Street, an old Weather Report song, has an African feel to it, with a chord progression that sounds like an African folk song. Zawinul’s playing is lively, with an almost zydeco energy to it. The WDR big band brings pomp to the song’s chorus, playing beautiful, magisterial horn lines underneath it. Victor Bailey’s bass playing maintains a quick, jumpy rhythm, keeping the song bouncing. The song sounds like something off Paul Simon’s Graceland album minus the vocals.

Fast City feels like a bop song, albeit one adorned with keyboard, electric guitar (courtesy of Paul Shigihara) and electric bass. Paul Heller, of the WDR big band, plays a fiery tenor sax solo as Bailey’s bass scurries underneath. Zawinul’s keyboard sounds like Herbie Hancock’s did on Headhunters: spacey and bassy. At around 6:51 in the track, Zawinul plays a Middle Eastern-sounding keyboard melody while a sample of a man chanting in Arabic is heard.

Badia/ Boogie Woogie Waltz (another Weather Report classic) begins like an ambient piece from musician and Brian Eno collaborator Harold Budd – all airy atmosphere and Zawinul’s haunting trills. But soon Bailey’s bass comes in, laying down low, heavy notes as the groove pops its head up. Zawinul somehow gets his vocoder to sound like a sample of a chanting Indian woman before the full group bursts into a horn heavy groove that could be the theme to a 70s cop show. Olivier Peters wails away on his soprano sax as Shigihara plays a comping machine-gun guitar riff.

Sampled sounds of a train begin Night Passage, an easygoing and funky song that features the beautiful flugelhorn playing of Kenny Rampton. About a minute and half into the song, a very swing-era chorus appears with doubled horn lines and an instantly familiar chord progression. Zawinul’s transmissions from planet Fusion intercede every once and awhile, but you barely notice his keyboard most of the time.

Procession begins with a fuzzy, subterranean-sounding keyboard tone that reminds me of the kind of synthesizer sounds found on Brian Eno’s Another Green World (fun fact: that album features a track called “Zawinul/Lava”). The song then moves into a funkier section that features a horn line straight out of Isaac Hayes’ bag of tricks. This section moves into a jazzier one, with horn lines from WDR ascending and descending quite conventionally.

As much as I want to rave about Brown Street, I have a few reservations. The songs have a way of constantly changing gears, moving from spacey weirdness to funky world music to the kind of conventional swing progressions you don’t expect from a fusion legend. This is frustrating for a listener like me who likes a particular tone to infuse the whole of a song. However, I’m sure this very shifting of styles might appeal to many fusion fans. Another issue I have is that Zawinul is too much of a team player. He has amazing melodic gifts, but too often relegates himself to the position of sideman. Unlike a lot of jazz purists, I’m not allergic to synthesizers, and I wanted to hear more of Zawinul’s weirdness. That being said, Brown Street has an energy and eclecticism that is sure to excite fusion and jazz fans alike.

TrackList: CD1: Brown Street, In A Silent Way, Fast City, Badia/Boogie Woogie Waltz, Black Market, CD 2: March of the Lost Children, A Remark You Made, Night Passage, Procession, Carnavalito

– Daniel Krow

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