Give it up for the guy who wrote "In A Silent Way" -- surely one of the prettiest melodies of all time.
Joe Zawinul was one badass mutha. At 70, he could swim a mile, hard. Or outdrink you, glass after glass of that sweet Slivovitz wine he favored. Or kick your ass -- OK, maybe just scare you in to to thinking he would with a single glare.
UPDATE 1: I was out at Queens College today giving a masterclass, so I didn't have time to post anything substantial earlier, but I definitely think Joe Zawinul is an important composer, and a genuine harmonic innovator. He welded McCoy Tyner-derived fourth chords and extended jazz harmonies to rock/pop root motion, basically setting the palette for 1970's electric jazz. I'm by no means a Zawinul expert, but I did spend some time during my formative years checking out the keyboard voicings and characteristic chord progressions Joe used with Weather Report. This is an influence that still manifests itself all over my music, sometimes in unexpected places -- for instance, there's a whole section of "Chrysalis" (from about 3:40 to 4:45) where the harmonies are straight out of mid-1970's Zawinul.
Obviously, he was a technological trailblazer, but unlike many (okay, most) fusion and prog bands, in Weather Report the music was never upstaged by the gear. Joe made the cutting-edge synths and electric pianos we now refer to as "vintage" speak in his own voice, which is actually a pretty remarkable achievement if you think about it -- you only need to hear a few seconds of any Zawinul recording to know it's him, no matter what kind of rig he's using.
Here is an excerpts from the Joe Zawinul interview from The Great Jazz Pianists -- I think it goes some of the way towards explaining how a working-class kid from Austria ended up where he did:
When did you first start playing piano?
Actually, I started on accordion and played it for several years. We didn't have a piano. Of course, in Austria during the war there wasn't anything going on musically. Later on I started learning the piano like everyone else. Nothing special. I played a lot of gigs like weddings and entertainment music. My academic training is a pretty dubious matter, although I had a great teacher once in Austria. Her name was Valerie Zschorney and she was a pupil of a Professor Wingartner, who was a pupil of Franz Liszt. I went once a week for a few years, but I didn't take it seriously. I was out there on the streets. When I was eighteen, I got into an orchestra where there was a lot of reading to do. The reading you do at home, where you can practice, is one thing, but going into an orchestra, where you get a score that's nothing but notes, is completely different. To be a musician in Austria, you've got to play a lot of different stuff. It's an international place. We used to play in nightclubs, walking around to the different tables playing horas and gypsy music. That was on accordion. I loved it.
When did you start to take music seriously?
Did you play any other instruments besides piano and accordion?
Oh, man, I played trombone, bass trombone, clarinet, trumpet. This was in Friedrich Gulda's band, one of the best jazz bands in Europe. In my home every real musician plays a lot of instruments. In this band we played everything, even Strauss overtures. You can't play jus one instrument in Europe and ever become what they call a Muzikant. Everybody had to learn all the instruments to be considered a real musician. I wrote arrangements down from Woody Herman and Dizzy Gillespie records. That's another way I learned. The more instruments you know, the better you write. You have to know what's possible on the instruments. I can get a clarinet sound from a synthesizer not because there's a button that says "clarinet" but because I can blow the thing myself.
How did you get interested in electronic keyboards -- first of all, the electric piano you played in the sixties?
I was turned on by electric instruments for the first time in 1949, when I was playing in an American servicemen's club in Austria. They had a Hammond organ in the mess hall, and I played every afternoon when nobody else was around. I played a lot of organ in the fifties and made a record on it over there. After Maynard's band, I worked with Dinah Washington for two years, and we once went on a tour with Ray Charles. He carried a sixty-six key Wurlitzer around, and he was really the first person I'd ever heard on electric piano. On a gig down South, we came across a really dead piano, so Dinah asked if we could use the Wurlitzer. It was beautiful. They had the same kind of Wurlitzer in the Capitol studio when I was recording there with Cannonball Adderley in the mid-sixties, so I recorded "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" on it. I carried the Wurlitzer on the road for a while, until Victor Feldman told me that Rhodes made a piano that was really smokin'. I got one. Miles Davis heard me play on it and liked it, and then Herbie got one, and later we recorded In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew using it.
What was your introduction to synthesizer?
I was reading about Milton Babbitt and wondering about people like Morton Subotnick and John Cage. I could hear that there was really something in those instruments, although their music always seemed sort of pulled out of a hat to me. At that time I was in Cannonball's band, just making enough to survive, I couldn't afford anything new. Later on Weather Report went to Boston, and I met Roger Powell, who was working for ARP. He showed me some basics, and I've slowly been moving along since then.
UPDATE 2: More links...
Miles Davis' "In a Silent Way", for which Zawinul composed the title cut, is one of my all time favorite albums. Zawinul was picked to participate on it the night before the recording session and was asked to "bring music". The composition he brought was pared down by Miles (who thought there were "too many chords") and then was ultimately re-arranged by producer Teo Marceo who artfully cut and pasted various sections of the recording into its final state. Zawinul's drone organs were the glue that held it all together...
He was electronic music without the cold mechanistic tones of sequencers and with enough musicality and free creativity to reach out beyond any narrow muso only elitest genre.
“There is no difference between a Stradivarius or a beautiful synthesizer sound,” Zawinul told Jazziz magazine earlier this year. “People make a big mistake in putting down electronic music. Yes, it’s been misused and abused, but that’s true of every music. There is nothing wrong with electronic music as long as you’re putting some soul behind the technology.”
The technique of music doesn't know race. Only environment matters, but even that can be a red herring. Perhaps the most obvious man to illustrate this still-debated point is Joe Zawinul, who died today. Zawinul had such a passion for funky black American music that he overcame the severe handicap of being born in Austria before becoming an essential member of Cannonball Adderley's band in the 1960's. For some, Zawinul's piano work with Adderley is more in the pocket than his predecessor, Bobby Timmons.
Every other fusion band wanted to fall into a groove and sit there or else clobber the listener over the head with blazing instrumental passages. Weather Report occupied a spot alone in that world.
I bumped into Danilo Perez today, who was terribly bummed. He'd seen [Zawinul] at a festival this summer, and gushed about it. He will be missed.
UPDATE 3: Here is some crazy early Weather Report (1971), playing Zawinul's "Directions" (a staple of Miles's Cellar Door sets):
But Zawinul, influenced by the great American jazz pianists, among them Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner and George Shearing, had his sights set on the United States, and he landed here in 1959, a scholarship for the Berklee College of Music in hand. He stayed in school exactly one week before hooking up with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, in whose band Zawinul remained for eight months. A two-year stint with Dinah Washington was followed by a nine-year residency with Cannonball Adderley’s quintet. Zawinul is largely credited with modernizing that band, which enjoyed a major hit on the pop charts in 1967 with Zawinul’s composition “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” Zawinul also penned “Country Preacher,” a 1969 Adderley recording that honored the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Here's a fun clip of Joe with the Cannonball Adderley Sextet in 1962, on a TV show called "Jazz Scene USA," hosted by Oscar Brown Jr. -- this is "Primitivo":
UPDATE 5: Damn, Wayne Shorter's comments in the LA Times obit are fucking heartbreaking:
"The only thing that he said to me," he recalled, "was something really quick: 'I've got this cancer, man.' He just kind of tossed it off. Not that he was in denial. It was more like he was talking about a nuisance. That was Joe."
In August, Shorter, finishing a European tour, visited Zawinul at a concert in Hungary. Although they had spoken several times about a Weather Report reunion, it had never actually taken place.
"As we drove in from the airport," said Shorter, "his son said that this could be the last time Joe and I would play together. When we got to the concert, I went on stage near the end of his program. Joe and I did the introduction to 'In A Silent Way,' which is the part that his wife, Maxine, liked. When we played together, it was very concise and to the point -- very eye to eye, that kind of thing. When we finished they got a wheelchair, and that was the first time, and the last time, I saw him in a wheelchair."
DJ Durutti has blogged movingly about what Zawinul's music has meant to him:
Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorious and the rest of Weather Report were responsible for creating and nurturing my
interest inlove for and obsession with jazz as a kid in the 1970s. I can't even begin to tell you how important Weather Report's 1977 release Heavy Weather and Jaco Pastorius' 1976 debut albums were to my musical development. Weather Report and Herbie Hancock's jazz funk sent me exploring Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. Both of those landmark albums --- which remain favorites to this day -- benefited tremendously from Zawinul's compositions, organ, and electric piano work.
He has also posted Joe's own recording of "In A Silent Way" (from 1970's Zawinul). The chords and melodic gestures that Miles excised have been restored. The indescribably beautiful theme is played on soprano sax by a very Wayne-sounding Earl Turbinton (who, I am sad to learn, is also recently deceased) . If you haven't heard this version before, you need to.
Mr. Zawinul, who performed with a towering bank of electronic keyboards and synthesizers, won the "Best Keyboardist" award from Down Beat magazine 21 times. But his forays into electronica led some critics and musicians to accuse him of abandoning the traditions of swing, restraint and balance that are at the core of jazz.
In 1990, pianist Barry Harris said that groups such as Weather Report had "ceased to be jazz musicians."
"I know the cats like Joe Zawinul can play all the standards," Harris said, "but they haven't been jazz musicians for 10 or 15 years."
In his defense, Mr. Zawinul said he was interested only in "Zawinul music," not in conforming to any particular style.
On one of those occasions, with Joe grinning and shaking his head, Cannon told the story of "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." They made the recording in a studio full of guests who were fed and served drinks as if the setting were a club. The issued take was not the one he wanted. He thought the band was better on an earlier version, the one that had a Zawinul solo so hot, so funky, that a woman in the audience yelled, "Play it, you little white darlin'." A Capitol Records executive, nervous in the racial climate of the sixties, rejected the take.
I'll go out on a limb and say Miles Davis couldn't have done it without him.
It was uncommon then for a black bandleader like Adderley to hire a white sideman like Mr. Zawinul and touring could be problematic. “I often had to sit in the bottom of the car when we drove through certain parts of the South,” Mr. Zawinul said in a 1997 interview. But, he added, with characteristic bravado, “Those kinds of things never fazed me; I wanted to play music with the best, and I could play on that level with the best.”
I loved Weather Report, but the Zawinul recording that made the most impact on me was his 1986 solo masterpiece ‘Dialects.’ I have yet to hear keyboards come more alive on any work in any genre since.