Brown Street, Zawinul’s live album with the WDR Big Band, will be released in the US tomorrow by Heads Up International. It was released in Europe last November and has gotten rave reviews from Zawinul fans who already have it, as well as earning a string of strong reviews from the critics. (See Stuart Nicholson’s review for the The Observer, and John Kelman’s review at All About Jazz.) I recently acquired my own copy, and it is as good as advertised. What’s cool about this double CD is that it presents Zawinul’s music in a form unlike any that has come before it: A big band that grooves like only Zawinul can.
Eight of the eleven songs featured on Brown Street come from the Weather Report catalog. Though Weather Report compositions have crept into the Zawinul Syndicate’s repetoire in recent years–with one or maybe two tunes performed in a given show–Zawinul is not one to dwell on the past. The impetus in this case was a December 2001 performance by the WDR Big Band in Long Beach, California, under the direction of Vince Mendoza, when Zawinul received the first International Jazz Award at the International Association of Jazz Educators conference. (See “Zawinul Feted at IAJE Conference.”) A follow-up performance was part of Zawinul’s 70th Birthday Gala at the Leverkusener Jazz Festival in November 2002. Zawinul did not perform with the big band at either of these events–the keyboard duties were handled by Scott Kinsey–but they paved the way for Joe and the big band to team up for a brief tour in the fall of 2005, anchored by a week-long engagement at Joe Zawinul’s Birdland in Vienna.
All of the pieces on Brown Street were arranged by Mendoza, with the exception of “Procession,” which was arranged by Joe. I recently asked Vince to comment on his arrangements–what prompted him to write them, and what challenges they presented. He told me:
The music for the WDR/Zawinul recording came in three installments. The earliest came from music that Joe asked me to arrange in 1989 and orchestrate based on compositions from his solo recordings (“March of the Lost Children” [from 1990's The Immigrants] and “Carnavalito”). The next installment of music was part of the tribute to Joe that I conducted with the WDR Big Band at the IAJE convention and also at the Leverkusen Jazztage, where we also recorded the Brecker brothers “Some Skunk Funk” recording not too long ago. “Fast City,” “Night Passage” and “In a Silent Way” came from that project, and I took much more license with the structure of the tunes, as well as freedom in the way that I thought the tunes would best be presented by a big band. You might notice somewhat of a different approach to these pieces. I put a little more of myself in those tunes, and took some license to orchestrate the way I thought the tunes could be “re-told.” The final installment consisted of a set of pieces that were arranged from various periods in the Weather Report output, including “Brown street” and “Black Market,” which were orchestrated in a much more traditional way.
A lot of what I understood to be vital and fresh about jazz composition came from Joe and Wayne [Shorter]. Joe’s concept of ensemble writing is inherently big band friendly. I think he has deep roots in big band tutti writing, especially from Duke Ellington. However, I was always concerned with the ability to translate synthesizer lines to acoustic instruments, especially with melodies that are so specific to the original synthesizer timbres. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Synthesizers don’t blend in a similar manner to acoustic instruments. The best approach was to separate myself as much as I could from the aural memory of the original version and try to create a new palate. That is always the challenge with the use of electronics in acoustic music. And of course it always helped to go back to Duke. I tried to be sensitive to Joe’s suggestions and requests to, for example, make certain melodic ideas more prominent, or to use certain melodies that are the most important to the structure of the composition.
Most of the big band music that I have written has been based on my own compositions. Over the years I sort of fell into the discipline of arranging other people’s music. Of course I cannot say enough about the influence Joe has had on my approach to writing Jazz. His music is vital, and is always about improvisation and groove. Years back I was asked to do some orchestrations for his first project with the WDR band. It was in fact my first encounter with the WDR band. I have been working with that band steadily and have a lot of wonderful memories, and of course great recordings.
Zawinul gives Mendoza’s work high praise: “It’s almost a note-for-note adaptation, and it takes a lot of skill to score this music for a big band,” Zawinul says in the Heads Up press release. “Vince did an absolutely great job. He made it sound like Weather Report.” Indeed. This is an essential recording for Zawinul and Weather Report fans.
By the way, Vince tells me he will be working with Joe and the Metropole Orchestra of the Netherlands in January 2008. It’s possible we may see a CD out of this project as well.