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Joe Zawinul: Still Stirring Up The Weather

By Published: April 2, 2007
"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.

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