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 — 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 opportunities.
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 music.
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 Jaco)“Birdland.”
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.

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