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Friedrich Gulda and Joe Zawinul – Music for Two Pianos
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a theme of Joseph Haydn Op.56b [20:14]
Friedrich GULDA (1930-2000)
Variations for two pianos and band (1966) [16:34]*
Joe ZAWINUL (b.1932)
Volcano for Hire [4:25]
Friedrich Gulda, Joe Zawinul (pianos)
WDR Big Band Cologne/Jerry van Rooyen *
rec. Philharmonie, Cologne, 20-21 May 1988.
CAPRICCIO 67175 [42:15]

Gulda and Zawinul were born in Vienna two years apart. Gulda had, for classical purists, unacceptably maverick tendencies, interesting himself in smoky clubs and stretching out for long jazz sessions. Zawinul, sideman with Miles Davis and a long-time founder member of Weather Report, had known Gulda for many years when they collaborated in these Cologne concerts in May 1988.
The concerts began with a two piano version of the Brahms Haydn variations and then took in a long-ish piece by Gulda and a much shorter one from Zawinul. It’s odd to hear Zawinul being introduced to the audience in typically Teutonic fashion as Josef; maybe he’s still known in German-speaking lands as Josef or maybe Joe is insufficiently serious a name – too frivolously Anglophone – for twenty minutes of Brahms. The Brahms opens unexpectedly with a rather freely impressionist introduction before we move to a broadly trouble free reading. A demerit is the sound of the pianos; rather unforgivingly harsh in the middle range. Still, the two men build up a head of steam by the end.
Gulda’s Variations centre around a ruminative waltz – naturally the Viennese theme is played up given the origins of both men. The band then enters with crisp rhythm backing the variations proper underpinned by the comprehensively swinging drumming of Mel Lewis who anchored the NDR at this time. The variations oscillate between piano reflections and band brassiness. It’s impossible to tell which pianist plays what and when but someone certainly – probably Gulda – pays homage to Oscar Peterson at one point. The variations take in hints of popular song but there’s too much decorative, if not rococo note spinning and the alliance between classically derived inspirations and straight ahead big band jazz, fails - as it almost always does - to produce anything truly viable.
Zawinul’s own Volcano for Hire is only four minutes long. It indulges a Stride-like roll and also embraces some kitsch moments as well. Can’t say it sent me, as we used to say.
Gulda’s been dead some years now and his shade still attracts and intrigues. Zawinul’s experimentation continues. Their Cologne meeting was an invigorating affair. But I don’t think it quite qualifies for the “gold plaque” rubric on the jewel case – “Des Kult-Konzerts.”
Jonathan Woolf

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