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Joe Zawinul: Still Stirring Up The Weather

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Joe"The music seemed fresh. If any of those bands stayed fresh, it was Weather Report, the band of the '70s and early '80s, says legendary keyboardist Joe Zawinul, cofounder, with Wayne Shorter, of the seminal fusion band that leaped to the forefront of the music during that time and hurled it around the globe, winning legions of fans as well as accolades from the critics and media.

Weather Report hasn't played since 1985 when Shorter and Zawinul decided to go their separate ways after sixteen albums and a Grammy [8:30 (Columbia, 1979)]. But the music, seldom heard except for the ever-popular and multi-covered "Birdland, has jumped back alive with the release of Zawinul's new album, Brown Street (Heads Up, 2007), a live session recorded at his own Joe Zawinul's Birdland nightclub in Vienna, Austria. It was recorded in 2005 with the WDR Big Band, augmented by former Weather report mates Alex Acuna (percussion), Victor Bailey (bass), and extraordinary drummer Nathaniel Townsley from The Zawinul Syndicate, the excellent band the keyboardist has toured with since those days with Shorter.

The music is scorching, alive with feeling and electricity, and not the kind that comes from the power company (although there is that). It's got a fierce pulse, propelled by Acuna, Townsley and Bailey on scorchers like the title cut and "Black Market, and an exquisite beauty on the compositions "In a Silent Way and "A Remark You Made. The arrangements are all by Vincent Mendoza, except "Procession, which is by Zawinul himself, and they are nicely done and superbly executed by WDR.

Zawinul was one of the first on electric keyboards, and its foremost proponent in its earliest days long before Miles showed the electric piano to Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. He's a master and an original and it shows, without a lot of overplaying. It's a distinct sound and feeling, of both Zawinul's instrument and his soul.

The musician is a candid person, strong-willed and with a potency that borders on arrogance. But it's more confidence. He's passionate about music and in no doubt of his place in the pantheon of keyboard players and music creators.

"Let me tell you something, he says from his Los Angeles-area home. "This music is music I originally improvised, of course. I improvised arrangements. That's the way I work. I don't write things first. I first play it, and then I write everything down from tape and arrange it for the band. There were moments, especially when we play 'A Remark You Made,' there was such a feeling on the bandstand. With Victor Bailey, who was a member of that band [Weather Report], and Alex Acuna, who was a member prior to that. He was the only guy in the Weather Report organization who played two major instruments. He started as a percussion player, then he went over to the drums on the Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977) album, and so on. There was a feeling that, 'We're there. We're there.' This was Weather Report at its best. You can hear it when we play 'A Remark You Made,' and 'In A Silent Way.'

Zawinul, who will be 75 in July, says he didn't want to make a cover record when approached with the idea. "I wanted to make something which can stand on its own, without saying, 'this is this,' or 'this is that.' However, it is also a fact that my music has not been covered by anybody. Whoever tried it was a terrible failure. [The exception being Manhattan Transfer's rendition of "Birdland, he notes]. Because it's not an easy music to play and to understand. And that exists today, my being uncovered, more or less, ever since we played it originally. I thought after thirty-some years old, it's not a bad idea to have some serious good music and that is good music. Play it again! In another way.

Zawinul has known Mendoza for years and they worked years ago on another project, for which Zawinul didn't have time to do the arrangements.

"So I called Vince Mendoza. He came to my house. We had an understanding from the very beginning that it will not be a process for him where he has to create arrangements, he says. "To make myself very clear about this: When you give an arranger a song to make an arrangement it's one thing. But I gave him the full music as I had already written it for Weather Report at that time, you see? I wanted that it be adapted, almost note for note and orchestrated. He did a wonderful job orchestrating it. The invention and the compositions were the arrangements. Adaptation, you know? And that's important. He was happy with this idea.

A few years later, the idea came up again and Zawinul thought it would be fun to bring the music to his club, "with the idea that if it comes out well, we'll make a record out of it. Zawinul rehearsed the band for four days in his nightclub. WDR has been in existence for decades, but still, with the Weather Report style and feeling, it took some work and some bending to get the music right, he admits.

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