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Published: 2007/03/21
by Randy Ray

Brown Street – Joe Zawinul

Heads Up International 21870

The albatross of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew must be a bitch to have around one’s neck. Then againto have that seminal 1969 album on one’s resume can have quite the opposite effect. Austrian Joe Zawinul was a member of that famous version of the trumpet master’s band and wrote the opening track, “Pharaoh’s Dance,” which was chopped, diced, looped and montaged into nirvanic oblivion, setting the stage for future generations of Pro Tools-obsessed musicians, engineers and producers. He went on to form arguably one of the more important jazz rock outfits of the 1970s, Weather Report.

A consummate orchestrator, Zawinul’s latest release is a two disc live snapshot from his Vienna club, Birdland, in 2005. The work is helmed by arranger Vince Mendoza who works with WDR Big Band Kto reinvigorate Zawinul’s Weather Report material, other solo work plus a very choice Miles Davis cover. The band also includes Weather Report alumni bassist Victor Bailey and percussionist Alex Acuna and Zawinul Syndicate’s drummer, Nathaniel Townsley.

The opening title track “Brown Street” offers ten minutes of high wire Afro/Brazilian jazz funk. “Fast City” is sublime old school jazz with a modern hook. “Black Market” begins with the sounds of geese on a prerecorded tape and then floats down a mythical transcontinental river with a peak brass performance from the entire ensemble as they trade riffs, solos and ideas. Paradoxically, “Night Passage” begins with the sound of a train and leads one down a rather straight, focused audio pathneither advancing nor subduing the overall mood. “Carnavalito” is pure gold as locale and atmosphere shift so often that the joy of the music easily overtakes both performers and audience. “In A Silent Way,” the title track to another classic Davis album, serves as a potent reminder that some jazz work still appears light years ahead of its time. The piece is gentle yet vigorous with a warm layer of sophisticated nuance. Gentle is the key word; Zawinul, in fact, is almost invisible within the two disc mixoccasionally popping up with a synth sound that appears a tad dated but always lying under the surface with other keys to remind one that his mark is on every single note being playedperhaps, a lesson for younger musicians of any genre.

The rest of the two discs are all big band super cluster fucks of euphoric joy with a lone annoying caveat: the brass gets in the way of far too many melodies as the intrusion is neither welcome nor appropriate for music of such delicate balance. However, these passages are short in duration and don’t serve to sabotage the live recordings; the brass focal point is too often used to accentuate a dramatic arc when another instrument could’ve been selected. I’m sure that statement would get most jazz snobs in a huge uproar but as a veteran jamband writer, I feel it is my duty to understand the relationship between tight-and-loose dynamics within a live setting, emphasizing fresh diversity instead of the old tried-and-true something the great Miles Davis always appeared to shy away from like some malignant growth on his formidable body of work.

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