Review by Brad Walseth
Supporters and detractors alike surely can agree one thing: that the recently passed Joe Zawinul earned a place as one of the most influential keyboardists of his generation. From his work with Cannonball Adderley (he wrote "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" for the saxophonist) and Miles Davis (appearing on the seminal Bitches Brew, as well as penning "In a Silent Way") alone, he would surely be remembered. But clearly his impact was widest as co-founder and leader of the groundbreaking Jazz fusion band Weather Report. Along with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and (in its heyday) bassist Jaco Pastorious, Zawinul pushed the envelope in jazz into regions where world rhythms met advanced technology in a way that opened the eyes of many young players as to the endless possibilities in music.
At the time that many of his compositions were being recorded, synthesizer technology, although the best of its time, still produced harsh and unnatural sounds, which were unpopular with many of his critics. As one of only a handful of keyboardists who should have been allowed to use the much-abused synthesizer during these times (Brian Eno, being among the few as well who understand how to use the instrument), Zawinul did what he could by experimenting and combining timbres to produce new sounds. Unfortunately, the synthetic nature of recordings like Mr. Gone, seemed to overshadow the myriad of interesting compositional attributes, so when the WDR Big Band was enlisted to play arrangements of a selection of works from Zawinul's catalog, it was hoped that by having an actual band performing would alleviate some of the concerns about sound and allow the music to shine forth. The expectations were met and Brown Street, thankfully was recorded as a welcome coda to the veteran keyboardist's long and storied career.
The WDR Big Band has been together for three decades and was an inspired choice to perform these arrangements. They swing hard and tight, while a core rhythm section of Zawinul Syndicate drummer Nathaniel Townsley, former Weather Report percussionist/drummer Alex Acuna and stellar bassist Victor Bailey (a long-time Zawinul associate and member of both the Syndicate and Weather Report) center and drive it all with focused attention to the composer's trademark deep groove. Meanwhile, Zawinul's keyboard solos again remind of how he opened the ears of Western artists to African and world sounds. Some may cynically suggest that he used the sounds and rhythms of 3rd World artists to promote his own fame, but his apparent love of world music and commitment to multi-culturalism makes it seem more likely that he had a vision that all of us should be open to exploring.
In presenting songs from most of the phases of Zawiunul's career, the members of the WDR all pitch in with lovely solos. Does the listener miss Wayne Shorter? Of course, but these versions offer new and enjoyable ways to look at the songs. Pastorious too is missed, especially on "A Remark You Made," perhaps the most perfectly beautiful jazz ballad of the last 30 years, but the big band arrangement is a truly lovely complement to the original. And hard to believe, but the evocative version of "In a Silent Way" may even surpass earlier recorded versions. No treatment of the oft-covered "Birdland" (or "Mercy" for that matter), but Weather Report and Zawinul Syndicate material like "Boogie Woogie Waltz," "Black Market," "March of the Lost Children," "Fast City" and "Night Passage" are given full-blown big band treatments that are sure to please both fans and non-fans. And the rousing "Carnavalito" ends the recording on a high note of energy.
Enjoyable on many levels, not the least a reintroduction to the works of a singular Jazz artist, Brown Street is a treat for the listener and something any artist would feel proud to leave as his final mark upon this mortal coil.