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Joe Zawinul: Still Stirring Up The Weather

By Published: April 2, 2007
"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.

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