Miami native and South Florida resident Jonathan Joseph joined an elite group of fellow drummers in late 2012 — one that’s included Terry Bozzio, Narada Michael Walden, Richard Bailey, Vinnie Colaiuta, Cozy Powell, Carmine Appice, and Simon Phillips — when he started touring and recording with now 74-year-old guitar icon Jeff Beck.
When Colaiuta (Frank Zappa, Sting, and countless studio sessions) signed back on for Beck’s 2017 tour, Joseph joined that list of former Beck drummers, although Colaiuta proves that the designation can be subject to change.
“Jeff is a very creative guy,” Joseph says, “so I think when he feels he wants to change something, he just does it. He was very gracious about it, and we still have a great relationship. It wasn’t for any negative reason. I went to see Jeff’s show in West Palm Beach a few months back, and got to hang and talk to him, Vinnie and the rest of the band.”
Hardly the type to dwell on losing a gig, even of that stature, Joseph simply turned back time a quarter-century to 1993. That’s when he’d started working for two years with Weather Report founding keyboardist Joe Zawinul (1932-2007) in his offshoot band, the Zawinul Syndicate.
The propulsive drummer’s new tribute project, Weather Underground, features challenging jazz/fusion by Weather Report as well as Zawinul, co-founding Weather Report saxophonist Wayne Shorter, bassist and Weather Report member Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987), and iconic trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991) — whose band helped launch the careers of Zawinul and Shorter in the 1960s.
“Things are coming along,” Joseph says, “since everything is always a work in progress. Playing with Joe was extremely important and impactful; a very educational time for me that broadened my understanding of his music. Weather Report and Weather Report-related material is always an adventure, and we always look forward to the next one.”
Weather Report was the preeminent jazz/fusion band of all time, one capable of both high-octane intensity (without having a guitarist) and tranquil melodic beauty regardless of the shifting personnel within its 1970-1986 tenure. Zawinul often veered toward bombast and chaos on his synthesizers, organs and pianos; Shorter usually adopted a less-is-more role, and outstanding accompanists like bassist Miroslav Vitous, drummer/percussionist Alex Acuna, percussionist Manolo Badrena, and drummer Omar Hakim filled in the gaps.
This especially applied to Pastorius during his 1976-1982 years in Weather Report. A Pennsylvania native who’d moved to South Florida with his family as a child and later taught at the University of Miami, Pastorius had removed the frets from his Fender Jazz bass to achieve a hybrid sound between an electric and a fretless acoustic upright instrument. That, combined with his inimitable technique and prowess as a composer, made him a particular foil and musical counter-puncher to Zawinul, often with stratospheric results.
“The sound Jaco created represents the sound of South Florida,” Joseph writes on his website, “and since I was born on Miami Beach, I have always been very honored to be associated with the sound of his music.”
Weather Underground’s adventurous song list includes “Black Market,” the strutting title track to Weather Report’s 1976 masterpiece; “Cannon Ball,” Zawinul’s shimmering tribute to former employer and saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley from the same album; “Night Passage,” Zawinul’s big band-themed title track from the band’s 1980 release, and “Continuum,” a Pastorius masterpiece from his self-titled 1976 solo debut.
Joseph isn’t the only Zawinul Syndicate alum in Weather Underground. Guitarist Randy Bernsen is the other, and he’s also been a South Florida institution with his own self-titled bands and a half-dozen recordings under his name. Bassist Pete Sebastian’s chemistry with both Joseph and Bernsen dates back to the 1990s, when they formed Bernsen’s self-titled house trio at Tavern 213 in Fort Lauderdale, and Puerto Rican keyboardist Abel Pabon’s credits include steel drummer Othello Molineaux, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, and multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan.
On a recent Sunday night at the Italian restaurant Tavolino Della Notte in Coral Springs, Sebastian sealed the bass chair permanently when he seamlessly substituted for original bassist Armando Gola for a second time.
“When Jonathan initially called me to sub,” Sebastian says with a laugh, “I said, ‘Yeah, sure, what’s the material?’ ‘It’s all Weather Report,’ he says. So I’m like, ‘Oh, great, no challenge there!’“
Weather Report’s bassists are like a who’s who in jazz/fusion, including Pastorius, Vitous, Alphonso Johnson, and Victor Bailey. Ditto its drummers (including Alphonse Mouzon, Eric Gravatt, Chester Thompson, Acuna, Peter Erskine, and Hakim) and percussionists (including Don Alias, Airto Moreira, Acuna, Badrena, Jose Rossy, and Bobby Thomas Jr., a South Florida resident who sometimes sits in to make Weather Underground a quintet).
“Bobby’s band is playing at the South Beach Jazz Festival on Jan. 6, and so are we,” Joseph says. “So he’s also booked to sit in with us, and we’re trying to get him to be part of our lineup a week later at Tavolino Della Notte.”
The group earned a Jan. 13 return trip to Tavolino Della Notte with its performance before a packed crowd on that Sunday night in November. Sebastian soloed with effects on Shorter’s jazz standard “Footsteps,” and Pastorius’ “Three Views of a Secret” featured Bernsen shifting between guitar and guitar synthesizer as the dramatic piece ignited, heated to a boil, and ended simmering.
Pabon soloed beautifully on a funky cover of Shorter’s “Elegant People,” Bernsen brought out the blues in the Davis chestnut “Blue in Green,” and material from Weather Report’s star-making 1977 release, Heavy Weather, brought the house down. The quartet downshifted for Zawinul’s gorgeous ballad “A Remark You Made,” and went into fifth gear for storming takes on Shorter’s “Palladium” and Zawinul’s “Birdland,” a modern jazz staple that had folks dancing in the aisles.
Pastorius’ son, drummer Julius Pastorius, even sat in for a spirited jam. A former student of Joseph’s, Pastorius nodded and winked, playfully interacting with the other three musicians and making use of stop-and-start spacing throughout.
“This guy taught me everything I know!” Pastorius shouted as he handed the drumsticks back to Joseph.
“I taught Julius when he was very young, maybe 12 or 13 years old,” Joseph says. “It was such a pleasant surprise that he showed up and sat in. I’m not doing much teaching lately, but rather transitioning to occasional master classes since the release a couple years ago of my instructional book, ‘Exercises in African-American Funk.’”
The 52-year-old Joseph’s warp-speed playing around the drum kit is rare; akin to Buddy Rich, Billy Cobham, Dennis Chambers and Kirk Covington. Some of that speed is genetic, but Joseph harnessed it through technique studies at the University of Miami in the late 1980s with longtime instructor Steve Rucker, drumset studies director for its Frost School of Music. Rucker also co-authored the instructional book with Joseph.
“When I hear Jonathan play, I hear the results of so many Rucker exercises,” says fellow drummer, former University of Miami student and Rucker protégé Vince Verderame, who graduated in the mid-1990s and is now a member of the Blue Man Group’s troupe in Las Vegas.
Zawinul and Beck are hardly Joseph’s only star associations. The drummer has filled in for Erskine on tour with the Yellowjackets and for Paul Wertico on tour with guitarist Pat Metheny; earned a Grammy Award for his work on trumpeter Randy Brecker’s 1998 recording Into the Sun, and also recorded and toured with saxophonists David Sanborn and Bill Evans, vocalist Al Jarreau, and guitarist Mike Stern. Joseph, Sebastian and Pabon also all toured with — and recorded on the 1993 album It’s About Time — by South Florida-based steel drummer Molineaux, once a member of Pastorius’ Word of Mouth big band.
On the pop side, Joseph has also recorded and toured with Puerto Rican vocalist Ricky Martin and British singer Joss Stone. As musical director for her 2004 Soul Sessions tour, the drummer met Stone’s mother Wendy, who’s since become his wife. The couple now splits time between residences in Miami, Port St. Lucie, and her native England.
Appropriately rare air for such a gifted percussive weatherman.
See Weather Underground at 4:30 p.m. on Jan. 6 at the Euclid Circle Stage (corner of Lincoln Road and Euclid Avenue) at the third annual South Beach Jazz Festival in Miami Beach (786-607-5299), and at 7 p.m. on Jan. 13 at Tavolino Della Notte, 10181 W. Sample Road, Coral Springs (954-509-0046).