No fan of Weather Report—the preeminent fusion band during its 1970-1985 reign—will be surprised that keyboardist Joe Zawinul could pull off the group’s music with a big band. On the two-CD Brown Street, recorded live with the German 15-piece WDR Big Band, Zawinul proves that he and cerebral Weather Report co-leading saxophonist Wayne Shorter always had a Duke Ellington-style orchestral sophistication in mind.
Zawinul gets help from masterful arranger Vince Mendoza, plus alumni from Weather Report (percussionist Alex Acuña), the keyboardist’s Zawinul Syndicate (drummer Nathaniel Townsley), and both bands (bassist Victor Bailey). Townsley and Acuña ease into the opening title track before being joined by the ensemble, with WDR soprano saxophonist Heiner Wiberny’s solo standing out. Trumpeter John Marshall (on “In a Silent Way”), tenor saxophonist Paul Heller (“Fast City”), soprano saxophonist Olivier Peters (“Badia/Boogie Woogie Waltz”) and alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer (“Black Market”) also shine on Weather Report classics during the first disc.
All are guided throughout, however, by the mercurial Townsley, the underrated Bailey, and the 74-year-old mad synthesizer scientist. Disc two also features fusion standards, but it’s the lesser-known material from Zawinul’s solo career that provides the most sparks. “March of the Lost Children” and “Carnavalito” both feature Zawinul’s interaction with the WDR’s 14 horns and guitarist Paul Shigihara, Bailey’s crafty bass lines, and the rhythmic fuselage of Townsley and Acuña. Credit goes to all for creating a rarity—a big-band recording that grooves.