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Joe Zawinul: Still Stirring Up The Weather

By Published: April 2, 2007
Joe"The music seemed fresh. If any of those bands stayed fresh, it was Weather Report, the band of the '70s and early '80s, says legendary keyboardist Joe Zawinul, cofounder, with Wayne Shorter, of the seminal fusion band that leaped to the forefront of the music during that time and hurled it around the globe, winning legions of fans as well as accolades from the critics and media.

Weather Report hasn't played since 1985 when Shorter and Zawinul decided to go their separate ways after sixteen albums and a Grammy [8:30 (Columbia, 1979)]. But the music, seldom heard except for the ever-popular and multi-covered "Birdland, has jumped back alive with the release of Zawinul's new album, Brown Street (Heads Up, 2007), a live session recorded at his own Joe Zawinul's Birdland nightclub in Vienna, Austria. It was recorded in 2005 with the WDR Big Band, augmented by former Weather report mates Alex Acuna (percussion), Victor Bailey (bass), and extraordinary drummer Nathaniel Townsley from The Zawinul Syndicate, the excellent band the keyboardist has toured with since those days with Shorter.

The music is scorching, alive with feeling and electricity, and not the kind that comes from the power company (although there is that). It's got a fierce pulse, propelled by Acuna, Townsley and Bailey on scorchers like the title cut and "Black Market, and an exquisite beauty on the compositions "In a Silent Way and "A Remark You Made. The arrangements are all by Vincent Mendoza, except "Procession, which is by Zawinul himself, and they are nicely done and superbly executed by WDR.

Zawinul was one of the first on electric keyboards, and its foremost proponent in its earliest days long before Miles showed the electric piano to Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. He's a master and an original and it shows, without a lot of overplaying. It's a distinct sound and feeling, of both Zawinul's instrument and his soul.

The musician is a candid person, strong-willed and with a potency that borders on arrogance. But it's more confidence. He's passionate about music and in no doubt of his place in the pantheon of keyboard players and music creators.

"Let me tell you something, he says from his Los Angeles-area home. "This music is music I originally improvised, of course. I improvised arrangements. That's the way I work. I don't write things first. I first play it, and then I write everything down from tape and arrange it for the band. There were moments, especially when we play 'A Remark You Made,' there was such a feeling on the bandstand. With Victor Bailey, who was a member of that band [Weather Report], and Alex Acuna, who was a member prior to that. He was the only guy in the Weather Report organization who played two major instruments. He started as a percussion player, then he went over to the drums on the Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977) album, and so on. There was a feeling that, 'We're there. We're there.' This was Weather Report at its best. You can hear it when we play 'A Remark You Made,' and 'In A Silent Way.'

Zawinul, who will be 75 in July, says he didn't want to make a cover record when approached with the idea. "I wanted to make something which can stand on its own, without saying, 'this is this,' or 'this is that.' However, it is also a fact that my music has not been covered by anybody. Whoever tried it was a terrible failure. [The exception being Manhattan Transfer's rendition of "Birdland, he notes]. Because it's not an easy music to play and to understand. And that exists today, my being uncovered, more or less, ever since we played it originally. I thought after thirty-some years old, it's not a bad idea to have some serious good music and that is good music. Play it again! In another way.

Zawinul has known Mendoza for years and they worked years ago on another project, for which Zawinul didn't have time to do the arrangements.

"So I called Vince Mendoza. He came to my house. We had an understanding from the very beginning that it will not be a process for him where he has to create arrangements, he says. "To make myself very clear about this: When you give an arranger a song to make an arrangement it's one thing. But I gave him the full music as I had already written it for Weather Report at that time, you see? I wanted that it be adapted, almost note for note and orchestrated. He did a wonderful job orchestrating it. The invention and the compositions were the arrangements. Adaptation, you know? And that's important. He was happy with this idea.

A few years later, the idea came up again and Zawinul thought it would be fun to bring the music to his club, "with the idea that if it comes out well, we'll make a record out of it. Zawinul rehearsed the band for four days in his nightclub. WDR has been in existence for decades, but still, with the Weather Report style and feeling, it took some work and some bending to get the music right, he admits.

"They have played with many great American musicians over the years. They've done production with Sarah Vaughan, Joe Williams, Quincy Jones, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, all the really top-line musicians. However, my music is a little different. Especially the grooves. And the phraseology is very different. It took me a serious four days to rehearse with them, and we did it section by section. I conducted the band from the keyboards, with the concept that we bring the arrangements up in such a way that I can do it like I do with my small band, you know? It's a jam kind of concept...the jam and the grooves and the inventive stuff was always highlighted by these nice toothy passages.

He says the setup inside his Birdland was also conducive to the music.

"When you consider my whole keyboard rig, plus Alex Acuna with full percussion, then Nathaniel Townsley with full drum setup, Victor Bailey on bass and Paul Shigihara [WDR's guitarist] had a big rig. And then fourteen horns. So you can imagine it takes quite some space. And the saxophones they all tripled. Each one played flute, clarinet, the whole woodwind array. Everything had to be there on the bandstand. So they were practically—I'm not saying this joke-wise—they actually were sitting shoulder to shoulder. And this particular way of playing, it was an electrical wire going through everybody. I think one can feel, when you listen to this music, that it is really live, really vibrant.

Doing the music without Shorter didn't phase Zawinul, nor should it have. It likely didn't cross his mind. "I love Wayne. I'm his greatest fan in the world. I think he'll be very happy to hear that [Brown Street], he says, adding poignantly, "Wayne was there anyhow. There is no way you can leave Wayne out of the spirit of Weather Report. And when we played that music, he was there. So was Jaco [Pastorius, the band's legendary bassist]. We had so much fun. For me, that's what it's all about. It's not about playing notes. That's not a perfect record. But it's a helluva good-feeling record. Vince Mendoza did a helluva good job adapting the music.

The electric fusion feeling and sound that Zawinul and Shorter created came to them individually, from different paths, Those routes eventually flowed through Miles Davis for a time, then branched out. For Zawinul, he was playing electric piano long before most people and was the first to really do anything with it.

"Victor Feldman turned me on to it. He didn't play it at the time, but he turned me onto it, that Harold Rhodes had built one. 'Mercy, Mercy, Mercy' I recorded with Cannonball on a Wurlitzer piano. That was 1966. That was one of the first recorded—Ray Charles, of course, used it —but we were a jazz band and I used it. I used it in a subtle way. I think it made a much bigger name out there. Then I used it all the time, but in connection with acoustic piano. A prepared acoustic piano. I had tambourines in there and duct tape, clothespins and all kids of things to change the timbres. Together with the Wurlitzer, I had a nice little sound. Then when Victor Feldman told me that Harold Rhodes would like to meet me and so on, I started to play the Fender Rhodes piano. I had a ring modulator and a wah-wah pedal and then things started taking off.

Miles liked it from the beginning, though it took him a while to incorporate it. He was still pushing the limits of the acoustic jazz group, with Shorter, Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Long before he hired Zawinul, he knew him. And when he heard him playing the electric with Cannonball, the trumpeter knew he liked its sound, Zawinul says, "When I started with the electric piano, I couldn't get rid of him. He always was there waiting, the first one when the club opened up, at an Adderley gig. So it appeared to be just a matter of time before Davis introduced it to Corea and Hancock. The instrument is now, obviously, a standard in the music industry. Zawinul is still in the forefront. Yet he doesn't consider himself an "electric player.

"I never changed being acoustic. I'm just using an electronic instrument. That doesn't mean that it's not acoustic. I think this is a very great misconception of people, to confuse music with instruments. I'm just an accordion player from Vienna, he says, referring to the town where he was raised and played piano from the time he was a young boy and went to the Vienna Conservatory—while still a boy.

"On accordion you have different registers, different stops to change your sound. I was seven years old when I rebuilt my accordion, which, being my first accordion, didn't have different registers. I rebuilt it. As a matter of fact, I stole from a coffee house the material that you fix billiard tables with and put it in the soundboard on the left and right side of the accordion. I had this nice nasal sound that I got later on with Black Market (Columbia, 1976) and things like that, says Zawinul. "I was always into this. I was always out there. I have an orchestral methodology and I was out there to create instruments. I was not trying to play something with a factory-manufactured sound. I would have my own personal sound and they all sound like music. They never sound like some electrified thing. I just don't believe in that.

"It's a misconception. It's been misused a lot and I know why. But all the other music, with what you call the regular few instruments. There are only a few. I just wanted to expand. I don't necessarily need in my life a trumpet sound. I don't need a saxophone sound. If somebody can play like Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, that's fine. But most trumpet can be really blaring and ugly if somebody can't play. A Stradivarius doesn't play by itself. It needs somebody who does that. An electronic instrument is more difficult than others, because you have such greater choices. When you have a big menu to choose from, like when you go to a restaurant, it becomes more difficult to find yourself a good meal.

The sound that people heard and liked inserted him into the jazz scene in Europe, particularly in various broadcasting and studio bands. In 1959, he came to the U.S. He played with Maynard Ferguson and Dinah Washington before joining the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in 1961. It was with the sweet songstress Washington, at the Basin Street East in New York City , where he first met Miles. "He liked the way I played. He came to visit me and said, 'I want to do something with you.' I said, 'No. It's not the time.' He was kind of set back. I was not in a hurry. I had just arrived. I was only six or seven months in America. He liked that. We became friends. That was it.

While in New York, Zawinul got a chance to hear, appreciate, and learn from the greats of that era.

Joe"Oh yeah. I was around. I had the great fortune to meet many of these people and play with many of them. They were individuals. I had the opportunity for a very long time to practice with Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins. Daily. If you don't get nothing out of that, you're dead, says Zawinul. And, like his elders, he worked to develop his own sound.

"For a while, I was one guy who liked everybody, who copied everybody, because before you learn how to walk, you've got to crawl. My first idol was George Shearing when I was still in Europe. I admire him until today and I like his music. And then Errol Garner and Art Tatum. Many others. A little later, when I was familiar with bebop, I liked Bud Powell. And I had a good opportunity to practice with Barry Harris. When I came to New York we were very good friends. We practiced a lot together. I learned a lot from him. I got to hang out with Sonny Clark, a wonderful pianist. Chris Anderson. Phineas Newborn and me used to practice together. He liked the way I hit the piano. It was a fun life and study at the same time.

An incident on New York City's famed 52nd Street strip that involved Barry Harris awoke the young Zawinul. It provided a lesson about his piano sound, and about music. The way life has a way of doing.


"He came out from a cab and called me and said 'Joe, check this out.' He had just heard a Cannonball tune and he used to be a member of Cannonball's band. He said— this is his words, I'm saying now— 'I thought it was me playing, and then they announced your name, man. Congratulations.' For a second, I was like, 'Wow. I've got it down.' After three seconds I said, 'What does that mean?' That means Barry is already copying Bud Powell. He had all his original things, but he's from that school. I realized I was the third copier on the list. I went home, put all my records together and they're still the same way. That was 1965.

Zawinul hung with Adderley for about nine years and was an important part of that funkified jazz group, including being the author of its biggest hit, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, which reached the top on the Billboard magazine pop charts in 1967 at the time of The Beatles and the era when rock (and often schlock) was dominant. He recorded a couple of albums under his own name in those years—Money in the Pocket (Atco, 1966) and Rise and Fall of the Third Stream (Vortex, 1965)—and in 1968 he and Miles finally got together. The world was changing. Society was changing. And so was the sound of Miles, abetted by the young fertile minds of younger musicians like Zawinul, Corea, Williams and Hancock.

Zawinul didn't tour with Davis, but contributed to archetypal albums like In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) as well as others like Big Fun (Columbia, 1969), which is influential among today's hip-hoppers and rappers. The young firebrands in Miles aggregation knew there was change in the air and they were making a difference, Zawinul says.

"We knew it. Wayne, independent from me, we had already changed the form much earlier than when we started doing [Miles' group]. I wrote things for Cannonball Adderley, "74 Miles Away and "Dr. Honoris Causa. "Directions I wrote for Miles also. This was wide open. This was no AABA form. So did Wayne, with all the music he wrote for the [Miles Davis] quintet. He was the main guy contributing his compositions. He was the one who formed that style. I did the same thing with Cannonball. When Wayne and me got together, we didn't have to talk much about music. We just continued in our ways. We were already independent from one another in the band, yet together it worked amazingly good.

While Zawinul feels he was already headed in a new direction, he acknowledges the power of Miles, who remained a lifelong friend. Zawinul played in that famed Paris concert with Davis, where several alumni joined in to celebrate his life (months before his death) and where Miles went back and played songs like "All Blues and others from his history. Participants included Shorter, John McLaughlin, Dave Holland, Hancock and more.

"If you have an open head, you take influence from many people. I learned a lot from Miles. We can safely say that the Weather Report band was independent from Miles. Of course, we have learned from him. Everybody has. I'm happy I had the opportunity to do so. For me, Miles is the greatest.

Yet Zawinul is quick to claim Weather Report sovereignty. "We had something else going, and it scared Miles. When I wrote 'Boogie Woogie Waltz' and '125th Street Congress,' which really is the first hip-hop beat. That was so many times used by rap groups. It was the first hip-hop beat. And then 'Boogie Woogie Waltz' was a hip-hop in 3. That was the biggest hit with black college kids. They used to dance all night to this music. Miles was very jealous of that. Miles wanted a lot of black people coming to his shows. In general, his audience was more mixed than our. We had a lot of black folks coming to our shows.

He says it wasn't until Miles' later years that black audiences began acknowledging him the way they did Weather Report. "He was just such a great artist. People would just come to see him. Three notes from him were often enough for people to say, 'We heard Miles Davis,' and it was because it was so damn good.

Zawinul has traveled with his Syndicate for some twenty years now, which hardly seems possible. They carry the spirit of Zawinul, which means soulful beats and melodies not found elsewhere. He says since that fateful day with Harris on 52nd Street, he hasn't listened to music. He doesn't need to. "My inspiration is always there, because it comes from life and living a life. I don't listen to music. Consciously, I haven't listened to music since 1965. No listening to records or anything. That doesn't mean I don't hear it. A lot of people around me do, and of course I tell nobody to turn it off. So I'm exposed. But you will never see me with headphones somewhere listening to music. I'm just not into that. I keep my head free.

So how does he find musicians for the Syndicate?

"It's easy. They find me. They have to know what it's all about. I have a great amount of international musicians since my work with Salif Keita, the music that I did in 1990, Amen (Mango, 1991). I met some of the best musicians from west and central Africa. A relationship started which kept up, because these guys grew up with my music, while a lot of young American musicians of that generation grew up to continue to play be-bop. And that's not in my repertoire.

In fact, like some off his generation (Davis included), Zawinul has somewhat of a disdain for younger musicians who stay in the mainstream mold and don't move forward, as people like himself, Shorter and Hancock have continually done.

"I think it's very unhealthy. It just doesn't go anywhere. It doesn't even sound good because it doesn't have the same feeling. The younger musicians they have learned how to play their instruments very well and some of them can really play the music very well. But in general, there is nothing new, he says. "It's all phraseology and the turnarounds and arpeggios played over the chords. It's not a creative melodic process. It's a process of, 'OK, I practice my ass off and let's go from here.'

It's sad. I hear the radio sometimes. I usually drive without music on, but sometimes I want to hear some news or something like that. I heard a couple from the radio station where they play jazz music. You hear the same bebop licks you heard in the '50s and early-'60s, but it's a new release of some type of young group or something like that. That is an insult to the great ones who have created this music.

JoeBut Zawinul moves on. He's done classical work, such as Stories of the Danube (Polygram, 1996) and a solo project, Mauthausen, released by ESC in Europe in 2000, a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust named after an Austrian concentration camp. He also notes a recording released last year with "the great, great Friedrich Gulda. He was one of the three or four greatest concert piano players, classical piano players, of the 20th century. He's rated with Horowitz. He's the greatest interpreter of Mozart piano music and Beethoven piano music. I played with him Johannes Brahms' 'Variation on a Theme by Haydn.' Josef Haydn wrote the theme and Brahms wrote twelve variations to it. It's a nineteen-minute masterpiece. They recorded it live in Koln, Germany, in 1988. Gulda, unfortunately, is not with us any longer. It's a masterpiece.

"The recording came out last August or something like that. We found it. It was lost for a long time. By the way, on the same record is our piano concerto for two pianos by Gulda [Variations on Two Pianos and Band (Capriccio, 2006)], with the WDR Orchestra. That's where I met them in '88. So it's connected.

Zawinul hopes to do some touring with the Brown Street music and in March was off on another tour with the Syndicate. Still following his muse and pursing his passion.

Selected Discography

Joe Zawinul, Brown Street (Heads Up, 2007)

Weather Report, Forecast: Tomorrow (Legacy Recordings, 2006)

Joe Zawinul & The Zawinul Syndicate, Vienna Nights: Live at Joe Zawinul's Birdland (Birdjam/BHM, 2005)

Joe Zawinul, Faces and Places (ESC, 2002)

Weather Report, Live and Unreleased (Legacy Recordings, 2002)

Joe Zawinul & The Zawinul Syndicate, World Tour (Zebra, 1998)

Joe Zawinul, Stories of the Danube (Polygram, 1996)

Trilok Gurtu, Crazy Saints (CMP, 1993)

Salif Keita, Amen (Mango, 1991)

Joe Zawinul & The Zawinul Syndicate, The Immigrants (Columbia, 1988)

Joe Zawinul, Dialects (Columbia, 1986)

Weather Report, Procession (Columbia, 1983)

Weather Report, Night Passage (Columbia, 1980)

Weather Report, 8:30 (Columbia, 1979)

Weather Report, Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977)

Weather Report, Black Market (Columbia, 1976)

Weather Report, Mysterious Traveler (Columbia, 1974)

Weather Report, Sweetnighter (Columbia, 1973)

Weather Report, I Sing the Body Electric (Columbia, 1972)

Weather Report, Live in Tokyo (Columbia, 1972)

Weather Report, Weather Report (Columbia, 1971)

Joe Zawinul, Zawinul (Atlantic, 1970)

Miles Davis, Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969)

Miles Davis, In a Silent Way (Columbia, 1969)

Cannonball Adderley, Country Preacher: Live at Operation Breadbasket (Capitol, 1969)

Cannonball Adderley, Mercy, Mercy, Mercy: Live at the It Club (Capitol, 1966)

Photo Credits

Top Two Photos: Aigars Lapsa

Bottom Photo: Andreas Eisler


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