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Remembering the Genius of Joe Zawinul

Updated: Jul 19, 2023



On what would've been his 91st birthday last week (I was delayed in writing this blog piece by a stay in the hospital), my thoughts turned to the late, feisty maestro and formidable presence in any room, the one and only Joe Zawinul. Swaggering and supremely confident, he was also a big-hearted, salt of the earth guy with a hearty laugh and a twinkle in his eye, which he only revealed once you got past his gruff, bad-ass exterior.


A virtuoso pianist, prolific composer, electronic keyboard pioneer and undisputed force of nature, Zawinul's exploits with Maynard Ferguson, Cannonball Adderly, Dinah Washington and Miles Davis alone would fill a book. Volume II would be cockfull of tales from the Weather Report years (the seminal fusion group he founded with Wayne Shorter and Miroslav Vitous in 1971 and maintained until 1987) and his ultimate deep immersion into African-based/Middle Eastern-tinged groove music with his Zawinul Syndicate (the pan-global ensemble he formed in 1988 and led until his death in 2007).


I first saw Joe Zawinul in concert on May 19, 1976 in Milwaukee, where I grew up. The opening act for this show at the Riverside Theater was John McLaughlin and Shakti. Needless to say, it was a mind-blowing evening. This particular concert also marked my first time seeing Jaco Pastorius in action. Jaco had joined Weather Report just a month and a half earlier (on April 1), though I was well aware of what a profound, revolutionary statement he was already making on the electric bass, having heard his contributions on two songs from Weather Report's March '76 release, Black Market ("Cannonball" and "Barbary Coast"), and having completely devoured Pat Metheny's Bright Size Life, which had come out in January that year. I would subsequently see Weather Report in concert numerous times after that initial eye-opening experience at the Riverside Theater in '76, including various gigs in New York City after I moved there in 1980. I started getting friendly with Jaco in 1982, and through him I got a greater understanding of Zawinul's psyche and personality, both on stage and off. And I later came to regard their competitive/father-son dynamic as positively Shakespearean (which I detailed at length in my 2005 book, JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius, the World's Greatest Bass Player).


I ended up interviewing Joe a few diffeernt times, once for the Jaco book, a couple of times for Weather Report anthology liner notes, two other times for Downbeat and Jazz Times stories, and yet another time for a 2005 feature story in Jazziz about the Zawinul Syndicate's live album Vienna Nights, recorded at Joe's new club, which he had dubbed Birdland (an apt name, given that his hit single from 1977's Heavy Weather, "Birdland," was originally composed as an homage to the original Birdland, the fabled Jazz Corner of the World, located at 1678 Broadway, just north of West 52nd Street in Manhattan, and which ran from 1948 to 1965). In one memorable interview with Joe at his residence and home studio on E. 12th Street in the heart of Greenwich Village (just down the street from where legendary guitarist Jim Hall lived), we did shots of Slivovitz (his favorite plum brandy from Central Europe) then proceeded to do some close sparring around the studio (a avid boxing fan, he continued to work with a professional trainer at his seaside home in Malibu, California up through the last years of his life).


Born on July 7, 1932, Josef Zawinul grew up under Hitler’s reign during the height of WWII. Life as a boy in wartime Vienna was marked by daily and nightly runs to the bomb shelter while existing under catastrophic economic conditions that made the United States’ Depression look like a picnic. Raised in a poor district of Vienna, Joe's twin, Erich, died of pneumonia at four. In Mark Kidel’s 2005 BBC documentary profile of Zawinul, there's a chilling sequence where the filmmaker returns to Zawinul’s old neighborhood of Edberg. There, Joel reminisces about being 10 years old and seeing his best friend blown apart by an Allied air raid. We shudder at his vivid account of battling rats on a daily basis in his home, armed with a stick that had a big nail protruding from it. From these and other gripping stories of his harsh, survivalist upbringing, we learn how Zawinul’s tough, survivalist aesthetic was cemented in place from an early age. But through the course of this insightful documentary, we also come to know the thoughtful, philosophical nature of this remarkably gifted man who, like Miles David, never looked back or basked in nostalgia, preferring to look forward and embrace life in the moment.


Zawinul started playing music at an early age on an accordion his grandfather gave him. At age 7, he was selected for enrollment in the prestigious Vienna Conservatory, where he studied classical piano, clarinet and violin. In the later stages of World War II, as Vienna came under heavy Allied bombardment, Joe and 28 of his Conservatory classmates were evacuated to a large estate in the Czech Sudetenland. It was there that he heard jazz for the first time when a fellow student performed an impromptu version of “Honeysuckle Rose” on the piano one evening. After the war, Joe returned to Vienna and continued classical piano training while earning money by playing accordion in small combos. He later began performing at clubs on American military bases, where he had access to a Hammond organ. In the 1950s, Zawinul led his own groups and also played in the Austrian All Stars—the first bona fide Austrian jazz combo.

In 1958, noticing an advertisement in one of the few copies of DownBeat magazine to reach Vienna, Joe applied for a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Berklee accepted him, and on January 2, 1959, he boarded a boat for the five-day journey across the Atlantic Ocean. But Joe’s stay at Berklee was brief. Within a few weeks, one of his instructors sent him to fill in as a substitute pianist at a local gig with bassist Gene Cherico and drummer Jake Hanna. Duly impressed, Hanna recommended Joe to the flamboyant trumpeter Maynard Ferguson that very night and the next day, Joe auditioned for Ferguson and landed his first job with a major American jazz band. Shortly thereafter, the Ferguson band needed a saxophonist, and among those auditioning was Wayne Shorter, who was hired in part on Joe’s recommendation. It was the first time the two played together; a portent of things to come.

After eight months with Maynard’s big band, Zawinul toured and recorded with singer Dinah Washington for 19 months, also accompanying the “Queen of the Blues” on the 1959 hit, “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes!” In the fall of 1961, Joe joined the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, one of the highest profile jazz bands at the time, remaining for nearly 10 years while recording his soul-jazz hits “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Walk Tall” and “Country Preacher” and 50 other compositions under the auspices of Cannon. Joe also participated in the 1969 recording sessions for Miles Davis’ seminal In a Silent Way, the title track being a Zawinul classic. Joe subsequently played on Miles’ Bitches Brew, Big Fun and Live-Evil before forming the jazz supergroup Weather Report at the end of 1970.

Over the course of 15 years and 16 albums with the adventurous fusion group, Zawinul explored the brave new world of synthesizers, widening his musical palette as the technology evolved. In 1986, he released the tour de force one-man synth-band project, Dialects, and the following year collaborated with classical pianist Friedrich Gulda on Music for Two Pianos. Joe formed the world music/fusion ensemble Zawinul Syndicate in 1988 and recorded six albums with them over the next 20 years, the last one being 75th, which was recorded on the maestro’s 75th birthday in 2007 in Lugano, Switzerland. Zawinul continued going out on the road with his Syndicate right until the end, including one poignant reunion with Wayne Shorter at the Veszprem Festival in Hungary on Aug. 2, 2007, when they performed “In a Silent Way” together. Joe died in Vienna on September 11, 2007. ***** The following list of Top Ten Joe Zawinul tracks was initially assigned to me by Lee Merger, Editorial Content Producer for WBGO Newark Public Radio. It appeared on their website (WBGO.org) on Joe's birthday, July 7....the same day I had surgery. The tracks originally appeared on the list in chronological order:

“Lateef Minor 7th” from The Three Faces of Yusef Lateef (1960, Riverside Records) Here’s a sly, swinging, harmonically shifting, upbeat, hip and eminently accessible number that Joe penned as a flute feature for the great Lateef. It features a great cello solo by Ron Carter, who also doubles the melody on the head with Yusef’s flute. Bassist Herman Wright and drummer Lex Humphries hold down the groove, while Zawinul paints with harmonic colors in sparse fashion.

“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” from Cannonball Adderley’s Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!: Live at “The Club” (1967, Capitol) Raconteur Cannonball sets the tone for this tune (recorded at Capitol’s Hollywood studio with an invited audience and an open bar) with one of his inimitable spoken word intros: “Sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity…We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up…And I have advice for all of us. I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul, who wrote this tune. And it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem. It’s called ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’,” which elicits enthusiastic shouts, hollers, and spontaneous clapping from the audience, like the congregation of a Black church responding to the preacher’s sermon. What follows is a quintessential soul-jazz number with Zawinul on Wurlitzer electric piano, Cannonball on alto sax, Nat Adderley on cornet, Victor Gaskin on bass and Roy McCurdy on drums, all delivering in unhurried and super-hip fashion. At one point as Joe eases into the bridge on his Wurlitzer, you can hear one member of the audience yell out, “Make it sing!” And you have to wonder how a guy from Vienna ever copped such an authentic gospel feel.


“Country Preacher” from the Cannonball Adderley Quintet’s Country Preacher (1969, Capitol) Another relaxed, gospel-infused soul-jazz nugget from the pen of Vienna-born Zawinul. Recorded live at an unidentified church meeting of the Chicago chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference's Operation Breadbasket, it was written for ‘country preacher’ Jesse Jackson, who gave an inspiring brief speech to open the festivities. Cannonball performs on soprano sax and this track also introduces a new member of the quintet, bassist Walter Booker. The dynamic bridge is joyful, providing a tension and release when they return to the soulful theme, which the audience responds to with rowdy ovations.

“In a Silent Way” from Zawinul (1971, Atlantic) This is the way that Zawinul had originally envisioned the song when he composed it during a snowfall in his hometown Vienna. Miles Davis had simplified the harmony on his version from 1969’s In a Silent Way but Joe returns all the chords that Miles had removed, resulting in something more classically influenced bucolic-sounding than Miles’ version, though the tonality is indeed ambiguous on both. With Herbie Hancock on electric piano and Zawinul dealing with ring modulator and Echoplex on his electric piano, this piece also features New Orleans saxophonist Earl Turbinton playing the plaintive melody on soprano sax alongside Woody Shaw’s trumpet, George Lewis’ flute and Miroslav Vitous’ bowed bass.

“Boogie Woogie Waltz” from Weather Report’s Sweetnighter (1974, Columbia) In some ways, this groove-oriented tune set the template for Zawinul’s subsequent rhythmic-conscious compositions with Weather Report (certainly “Birdland”) and his Zawinul Syndicate. This is 13-minutes of sheer kinetic pulse in three against four, with Zawinul breaking out some new toys, including a wah-wah pedal on his Fender Rhodes electric piano and an ARP 360 three-oscillator synthesizer.

“Man in the Green Shirt” from Weather Report’s Tale Spinnin’ (1975, Columbia) Effervescent from right out of this gate, this invigorating number pairs Zawinul’s melodica on the front line with Wayne Shorter’s soprano sax over a pulsating groove provided by bassist Alphonso Johnson, drummer Ndugu Chancler. A wild ride with a whole lot of Wayne along the way.


“Cannon Ball” from Weather Report’s Black Market (1976, Columbia) Zawinul’s beautiful ballad tribute to his former employer Cannonball Adderley, who had passed away just four months before this recording. This tune features Zawinul exploring new timbres and textures on a bank of synths and includes strong contributions for Wayne on tenor sax. It also marks the beginning of Jaco Pastorius’ connection with the band. Essentially his audition in the studio, Jaco’s warm, singing fretless baselines on this homage was enough to impress Zawinul and convince both Joe and Wayne to sign this kid up. And the rest is musical history.


“Birdland” from Weather Report’s Heavy Weather (1977, Columbia) Compared to more esoteric, decidedly non-commercial Zawinul compositions like “Orange Lady” and “Waterfall” from Weather Report’s self-titled 1971 debut, or adventurous fare like “Unknown Soldier” and “The Moors” from 1972’s I Sing The Body Electric, this is blatant pop music. But how could you not include it in a list of Zawinul’s greatest tunes? From Jaco’s false harmonics-picked intro to the gradual buildup to Wayne Shorter’s entry, the driving pulse provided by Alex Acuña and the catchy-hooky sing-along refrain (which Manhattan Transfer would later play up on) this is without a doubt one of Joe’s tightest, grooviest, most infectious pieces in his massive oeuvre.


“A Remark You Made” from Weather Report’s Heavy Weather (1977, Columbia) Another hauntingly beautiful ballad in the Zawinul canon, this graceful number features glorious contributions from Wayne Shorter on tenor sax along with some of Jaco Pastorius’ most affecting, singing fretless bass lines that he committed to record (outside of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira). With Zawinul’s new Oberheim string synthesizer providing a lush backdrop throughout, he injects some warm, flutey-sounding Oberheim polyphonic synthesizer fusillades at the end of this heartfelt piece.


“Night Passage” from Weather Report’s Night Passage (1980, Columbia) Opening track from the last great Weather Report album features Joe going toe-to-toe with Wayne’s tenor on buoyant theme, with Jaco bubbling underneath on walking bass and Peter Erskine laying it down forcefully. Midway through the tune turns dark and the tempo gradually increases, with Zawinul’s synth now taking a commanding presence while Jaco plays his ass off while spewing streams of 16th notes all over the place. Joe layers on yet more contrapuntal synth lines as this things builds to a pulse-quickening, powerhouse crescendo. One of the most viscerally swinging pieces in the Weather Report book.


* * * * *


And here's an addendum 10 more to that original list of 10 that I did for WBGO (in no particular order):

"Scarlet Woman" from Weather Report's Mysterious Traveller (1974, Columbia) This sparse, atmospheric soundscape prominently features Zawinul's groundbreaking use of the ARP 2600 synthesizer. The sheer sense of vast space that he creates with Wayne Shorter on soprano sax, new band member Alphonso Johnson on bass, Dom Um Romāo on drums and percussion and Steve Little on tympani ties in perfectly with the stark, hauntingly beautiful album cover art.


"Money in the Pocket" from Joe Zawinul's Money in the Pocket (1966, Atlantic)

Recorded while he was still a member of Cannonball Adderley's quintet, this is Joe's lone attempt at a boogaloo, which was the popular sound of the day. This funky number features Bob Cranshaw on bass, Roy McCurdy on drums, Clifford Jordan on tenor sax and Blue Mitchell on trumpet. And Joe reveals his hard bop heart by taking a particularly nasty-bluesy solo near the end of the track.


"Frog Legs" from Soulmates (1963, Riverside)

Soulful outing with tenor great Ben Webster swings forcefully with a lot of harmonic quirks along the way. Webster's solo is typically bold and swaggering with authority, and he is followed in turn by Thad Jones on cornet while Joe comps in unpredictable, almost Monk-ish fashion behind him. An all-world rhythm tandem of bassist Sam Jones and drumming great Philly Joe Jones provide the swinging momentum from jump. Zawinul's piano solo here is firmly rooted in a bop tradition, a style we would scarcely ever hear from him again through his Weather Report and Zawinul Syndicate days.


"Three Postcards" from Zawinul Syndicate's World Tour (1998, ESC)

This lovely, relaxed waltz-time ballad is a beautiful showcase of Joe's playing on the Korg Pepe, a wind controller with a melodica mouthpiece and buttons on the side that resemble an accordion, Joe's first instrument. Hearing him solo on this tune recalls Toots Thielemans' expressive and poignant harmonica playing on Jaco Pastorius' "Three Views of a Secret." But watch out! The tune radically shifts into an incendiary percussion-fueled jam midway through, fueled by drummer Paco Sery, percussionist Manolo Badrena and bassist Richard Bona, with Joe leading the way on vocoder and wailing on Korg Prophecy synth.


"Intro to a Mighty Theme" from Zawinul's My People (1996, ESC)

Less than two minutes, this majestic anthem is a tour de force of grand, cathedral-sounding synths and sampled/processed vocals swirling in and out of the mix, including some touching spoken word testimony from Duke Ellington explaining just who "my people" are.


"Patriots" from World Tour (1998, ESC)

This absolute burner is like a sequel to Zawinul's "Fast City" from Night Passage. The uptempo rhythmic intensity here is off the charts. But what Joe has here that he didn't have in the Weather Report days is the vocoder, which he utilizes to great effect. And check out the absolutely shredding guitar solo by Syndicate member Gary Poulson. Of course, Joe responds with a killer Prophecy solo of his own as the highly disciplined crew of bassist Victor Bailey, drummer Paco Sery, percussionist Manolo Badrena just smokes this tempo!


"Young and Fine" from Mr. Gone (1978, Columbia)

This one should've made my Top Ten list. It's a great construction and carries such a buoyant feeling; definitely a Zawinul classic. In general, I find his synth sounds on this album a tad bright and brittle (his Korg synths later on with the Syndicate are warmer and more natural sounding). Jaco's groove is superb, Joe's cornucopia of synth sounds -- at times two or more playing contrapuntally or offering playful call-and-response with Wayne Shorter's tenor sax -- represent a state of the art of technology for 1978. Perhaps the reason why I kept this off my initial Top Ten is the synths sound dated now. But the groove, the catchy melody and clever interplay makes this track memorable.


"Forlorn" from Night Passage (1979, Columbia)

A patient, haunting yet somehow beguiling soundscape that harkens back to Zawinul's spacious "Scarlet Woman" from Mysterious Traveller. The mood here is precisely what the song title suggests -- a melancholy melody interspersed with some delicate unisons between Zawinul's Fender Rhodes and Shorter's tenor sax. Futuristic chamer music.


"N.Y.C" from Weather Report (1982, Columbia)

This three-part suite -- "41st Parallel," "The Dance," "Crazy About Jazz" -- travels from sound concrete to runaway swing to darkly introspective soundscape back to burning swing (with Jaco walking unerring bass lines and Peter Erskine applying some brisk brushwork). A tightly executed sound sandwich with plenty of room for improvisation that also addresses Joe's love of swinging, from the last album made by that potent lineup of Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorious and Erskine.


"The Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat" from Mr Gone (1978, Columbia)

In many ways this was a precursor to the kind of exotic world music synth-dominant grooves that Zawinul would pursue in greater depth with his Syndicate. And it sticks to that one-chord vamp format that Joe would pursue in earnest with the Syndicate. This is a stunning showcase for Zawinul's new Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 synthesizer (though some claim he may have Mr. Gone overboard with it). He even confessed as much to in Stuart Nicholson’s book, Jazz-Rock; A History: "I feel that Mr. Gone was my solo album with Weather Report. I was after new sounds, discovering new sounds, so it was a different kind of album to the others.”



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