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Joe Zawinul: Still Stirring Up The Weather

By Published: April 2, 2007
"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.

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