Zawinul has two new CDs in the works, both scheduled to come out on his BirdJam label in March 2006. The first is a double-CD featuring Joe with the WDR Big Band. It was recorded live during their sold-out, two-week tour in October and November that included a week-long engagement at Joe Zawinul’s Birdland in Vienna, as well as performances at the Salzburg Jazz Fest, Leverkusen Jazz Fest, Berliner Jazztage, Madrid Festival and Valladolid Fest in Spain.
“It was a great and extremely successful experience playing some of the music I had written for Weather Report,” Joe says. The set list included 14 Zawinul compositions “adapted precisely and very well orchestrated” by Vince Mendoza, such as “A Remark You Made,” “Black Market,” “Brown Street,” “Fast City,” and “Night Passage.” They also performed an arrangement of “Procession” by Joe, “D Flat Waltz” as arranged by Bob Belden, and two songs without horns: “Indiscretions,” and the Jaco Pastorius classic “Continuum” with lyrics by Victor Bailey, who sang the song. One might ask if they also played “Birdland,” considering it has been adapted to big bands by other arrangers. But Joe doesn’t like to rehash his greatest hits. In fact, he has not played “Birdland” since Weather Report’s last concert in 1984. “The band is the hit, not the tune,” he says.
Joe also gives high praise to the rhythm section that accompanied the big band, consisting of Nathaniel Townsley III on drums, Alex Acuña on percussion, Victor Bailey on bass and Tokyo-born guitarist Paul Shigihara. Acuña has always been an outgoing presence on the stage—and he was here, of course—but Joe described him as “outgoing on the inside. Totally aware of everything. He played amazing, totally into the music. I never heard him play better. The same with Victor Bailey. He was just off his own tour and in strong form.” Joe was particularly impressed with Nathaniel Townsley III, who learned the music from the original Weather Report recordings. This was his first performance with a big band, and Joe really liked the way he played. “He played all the important accents, but he didn’t over do it, and that opened up the band and gave the music more flow,” Joe says, adding that Townsley’s playing reminded him of Mickey Roker and the late Shadow Wilson—two drummers who lent a small combo feel to the big bands they played with. Indeed, Joe reports that all the people who know the band and some former members of the WDR band remarked that they had never heard it sound so much like a combo.
Like the Zawinul Syndicate, Joe conducted the big band with hand signals, and that must have been something to see. Joe said that at Birdland, where the sax section was in front of him and couldn’t see him, one of the sax players took signals from Joe and relayed them to the rest of the horns. They kept it up for the rest of the tour. “In the club we had to sit as close together as possible,” Joe says, “elbow-to-elbow, which we also kept this up on the big stages in order to maintain that close feeling.”
The second CD schedule for release in March 2006 will be an acoustic piano album, including concerts Joe did with Friedrich Gulda in 1985. The duo performs Johannes Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Haydn for Two Pianos op. 56b,” “Concerto for Two Pianos and Big Band” by Gulda with the WDR Big Band (with Mel Lewis on drums), plus two compositons of Joe’s: “Volcano for Hire,” performed with Gulda, and a solo piano piece. This will be a welcome addition to the Zawinul discography.