Austrian-born composer and keyboardist Joe Zawinul, 70, has had a remarkable jazz life. The arc of his career links blues, down-home soul-jazz, electric fusion and world music. Now two new recordings, "Faces & Places" and "Weather Report Live & Unreleased," offer an intriguing and satisfying wide-angle view of the continuity and change in his music.
Josef Erich Zawinul moved to the United States in 1959 on a scholarship to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, but soon after his arrival he opted for apprenticeships with trumpeter and bandleader Maynard Ferguson (three months), singer Dinah Washington (1959-61) and alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley (1961-70), for whom he wrote "Mercy Mercy Mercy." He played a central role in Miles Davis's electric revolution -- most notably in his contributions to the influential recordings "In a Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew," both in 1969 -- and then went on to Weather Report, one of the most influential electric fusion groups in the history of jazz.
Founded and led by Zawinul and saxophonist-composer Wayne Shorter, and with a rotating cast as the rhythm section, Weather Report set out at first to explore the outer edges of improvisation and electronics. But as it evolved, the group found commercial and artistic success (including one pop-size hit, Zawinul's "Birdland") with a more structured, groove-oriented sound. By the time Shorter walked away and the group disbanded in 1985, Weather Report was drawing from sources from around the globe, pioneering what came to be labeled world music. (In a recent interview, Zawinul, never shy about what he considers his achievements, claimed he "invented world music" with Weather Report's 1976 album "Black Market.")
Since the breakup of the group, Zawinul, both as a solo artist and as a leader of different groups, has gone on to explore a distinct, African-flavored brand of fusion. That isn't surprising: He had already laid down the law for Weather Report at the time of its 1973 album "Sweetnighter." He is quoted in the notes of "Live & Unreleased" saying, "After the first two albums I told Wayne . . . I'm gonna write some serious rhythmic stuff, otherwise we can give it up as a band. . . . I said, this is the way." These two new releases trace the path he has followed ever since.
The two-disc "Live & Unreleased" set captures Weather Report, in several incarnations and at various locations, from 1975 to 1983. Warts and all, it's a treat. Here's a group walking a fine edge between catchy melodies, poplike song forms, virtuoso playing, free-form improvisation and soul-shaking grooves. Just check "Black Market," "Elegant People," the slippery "River People" or the elegiac "In a Silent Way/Waterfall."
Unfortunately, this set is not organized chronologically -- perhaps suggesting that the supporting cast around Zawinul and Shorter was of no consequence. The tracks belie that notion, however: Compare the all-Latin tandem of drummer Alex Acun~a and percussionist Manolo Badrena with that of Peter Erskine and Bobby Thomas. Both teams are exceptional, but each has a distinct approach to the same groove. Or notice the anchoring offered by bassist Alphonso Johnson vs. that of the late virtuoso Jaco Pastorius. Or the telepathic understanding between Erskine and Pastorius. This constant shifting of the rhythm sections may, in fact, have nudged the group to explore various new directions.
Zawinul is clearly front and center in "Faces & Places" and, as in other previous projects, he would have benefited from another strong personality to play off. It's not surprising that one of Zawinul's career highlights since Weather Report remains his work as a producer on Malian singer Salif Keita's album "Amen."
Here the music, all written or co-written by Zawinul, draws from a rich array of musical sources. This and the allusions to various places ("Borges Buenos Aires, Parts 1 and 2," "Rooftops of Vienna," "Cafe Andalusia") and people ("The Spirit of Julian 'C' Adderley") suggest more than a personal travelogue but rather a look back, a summing up of sorts. Musically the references to West African grooves, Indian music, gospel and blues are distilled to their basics. It's as if Zawinul is trying to abstract a world, and a lifetime, of music into some sort of universal groove or texture or melody. He also favors wordless vocals -- Zawinul's own Esperanto? -- although the disc does include songs with lyrics in English and African languages.
Most tracks have an impressionistic feel -- a glob of sound here, a broad-brush line there, some pointillistic detail work over a taut canvas of rhythms. The effect can be both frustrating and liberating. What to make of the sweet and sour "Borges Buenos Aires, Part 1"? What does "The Spirit of Julian 'C' Adderley" say about Zawinul's former boss? And what about the Bach-chorale feel of "Siseya"? Some turns will sound . . . well, familiar, to Zawinul fans (from the frantic urgency of certain grooves and his fragmented melodies to his use of the vocoder, a sort of voice filter).
And there is perhaps unintended irony in Zawinul's spoken words in the opening track, "The Search." "We travel the world over and over in search of what we need, and return home to find it," he says. Perhaps, but in Zawinul's case, home is where you hear it.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from "Faces & Places," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)