[JPL] Joe Zawinul, in a soundful way

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Wed Sep 12 07:53:40 EDT 2007


September 11, 2007

Joe Zawinul, in a soundful way

Zawinul (1932-2007) is a world-renowned keyboardist-composer who considered
himself in the lineage of classic musicians emerging from his birthplace,
Vienna, Austria. Once backstage after a performance circa 1980 he stormed at
Down Beat editors who'd come at his command to "discuss" a bad review of
Weather Report's just-released album 8:30 -- "You do not give Beethoven two
stars! You do not give Zawinul two stars!" No, he wasn't Beethoven, but his
music lives beyond his personal mortality -- so yes, Joe Zawinul is one of
the immortals.
There's no denying that the assertive, articulate, groove-and-grit-loving,
multi-kulti celebrating pianist-organist-synthesist and studio composition
pioneer was first to get the electric jazz piano on mainstream AM radio, via
"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," a rowdy pseudo-live track of soul saxophone that
subverted its gospel origins with Ray very secular (not quite sleazy)
sensuality. I don't find that performed on Youtube.com -- but see Zawinul's
solo at the end of "Jive Samba"also featuring Cannonball on alto, his
brother Nat (who penned this tune) and Yusef Lateef on flute.
Zawinul's grand sense of himself was not unfounded -- watch him gracefully
ace Duke Ellington's ballad "Come Sunday" (in trio with bassist Sam Jones
and drummer Louis Hayes, from that same filmed Cannonball performance).
Genre confines wouldn't hold him, though -- he harbored ambitions to write
big, important music that was recognized as such, and lmade the most of his
In my limited, enjoyable encounters with Zawinul, he might sound arrogant
but not pretentious. He'd been a working class kid who liked to tinker and
mess with his accordion. He'd made his way through cocktail piano and organ
gigs at U.S. armed forces officers clubs of post-WWII Europe, and had
enjoyed a classical concert collaboration with fellow pianist Friedrich
Gulda. He'd immigrate to the U.S. in jazz year 1959. In the States he got
good jobs with Maynard Ferguson, Dinah Washington, Cannonball Adderley, and
kept his distance cagily but collaboratively with Miles Davis.
The edgy restlessness of Zawinul's ideas may be why Miles Davis thought to
call him to play on the seminal studio session that became the electric jazz
breakthrough In A Silent Way, and right after hanging up rang back to ask
that Zawinul bring some music to play for the date. The title tune was
Zawinul's, presumably a reflection on his pastoral origins, edited by Miles'
for chordal simplification, which somewhat riled the composer.
Besides Miles' gorgeous trumet and Zawinul himself on organ, the track
featured keyboardists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea chiming in, John
McLaughlin and Wayne Shorter luxuriating over the harmonic richness, Dave
Holland steady while Tony Williams held a fiercely controlled cymbal beat.
The piece was the prime hypnotically sensuous anthem of the late '60s,
leading directly to Miles' follow-up Bitches Brew (Z prominent there, too,
penning the great "Pharoah's Dance"), a fad for stacked electric keyboards
(pace Emerson, Lake & Palmer) and the further adventures of electro-acoustic
That's when Zawinul founded -- with Wayne Shorter (Jaco Pastorius came
later) -- Weather Report, the most explosive, ambitious yet sophisticated,
experimental and popular jazz ensemble of the '70s and '80s. Hear Zawinul
sound-paint, often outlandishly, at arena-rock scale from Weather Report's
eponymous debut album and I Sing the Body Electric to (very much with
Weather Report will be what he's best known for -- captaining an ensemble
teetering between kitch and surprise, melding other strong voices into and
through rich musical narratives, themes that were fiesty and dramatic and
might be touched by lyricism, too. WR is way over (sounds bombastic),
Shorter long in recuperation from it, but Zawinul never stopped. Much of his
own later music -- including an album produced for Malian vocalist Salif
Keita, legitimate large ensemble efforts (Stories of the Danube, and later
global-jam-band Zawinul Syndicate -- resounds to this day.
I interviewed Joe Zawinul for The Wire in 1996 -- read that article here.
Posted by hmandel at September 11, 2007 11:12 AM

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