Music/Popular Culture

King Hip is no more: Joe Zawinul, 1932-2007

A music giant has left us. Josef Erich “Joe” Zawinul—who established a new school of music with Miles Davis and led the seminal Weather Report with Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius, et al.—passed away Tuesday in his beloved Austria, appropriately in Vienna, the “city of musicians.” He visited this planet for 75 short years and, had I my druthers, would have had 75 more productive seasons before his exit.

“Joe Zawinul belongs in a category unto himself — a European from the heartland of the classical music tradition who learned to swing as freely as any American jazzer, and whose appetite for growth and change remains insatiable,” wrote Richard Ginell, in a thoughtful career overview. “Zawinul’s curiosity and openness to all kinds of sounds made him one of the driving forces behind the electronic jazz-rock revolution of the late ’60s and ’70s — and later, he would be almost alone in exploring fusions between jazz-rock and ethnic music from all over the globe. He is one of a bare handful of synthesizer players who actually learned how to play the instrument, to make it an expressive, swinging part of his arsenal.”

Sadly, perhaps inevitably, he drew criticism from jazz “purists.” Zawinul took little notice, being interested only in “Zawinul music” and gleefully eschewing conformity. “People make a big mistake in putting down electronic music,” he once said. “Yes, it’s been misused and abused, but that’s true of every music. There is nothing wrong with electronic music as long as you’re putting some soul behind the technology.”

Herbie Hancock had this to say: “Joe Zawinul is one of my oldest friends in the music business. He was a force as a composer and an amazing conceptualizer. He opened up a doorway between jazz and rock n’ roll and was a major influence on Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and me. The world has never been the same since he made his contribution to our society.”

As for his many fruitful years with Shorter, Peter Erskine, Victor Bailey, Mino Cinelu, and so many others in the jazz supergroup Weather Report, my favorite story from all of that is how he hooked up with (or was hooked by) fellow virtuoso Jaco Pastorius.

In the mid-1970’s, Pastorius met Zawinul, who was in Miami touring with Weather Report. Wikipedia picks it up:

According to Zawinul, Pastorius walked up to him after a concert the previous night and talked about the performance and how it was “all right” but he had “expected more.” He then went on to tell the great Zawinul that he was “The Greatest Bass Player in the World”. An unamused Zawinul told him to “get the fuck outta my sight.” The next day, Zawinul found Pastorius standing outside his hotel room, head bowed and hands folded in front of him. Zawinul was impressed enough to listen to Jaco’s demo and was floored. …

Soon after that, Weather Report bass player Alphonso Johnson gave notice that he would be leaving to start his own band. Pastorius was happily invited by Zawinul to join the band where he played alongside Joe and Wayne Shorter until 1982. It is with Weather Report that Pastorius made his indelible mark on jazz music, being featured on one of the most popular jazz albums of all time, the Grammy-nominated ‘Heavy Weather.’

I loved Weather Report, but the Zawinul recording that made the most impact on me was his 1986 solo masterpiece ‘Dialects.’ I have yet to hear keyboards come more alive on any work in any genre since, and he brought the best out of vocal legend Bobby McFerrin. ‘Dialects’ had a profound effect on my music-listening experience. You could even say it helped expand my worldview, even though by that time I’d already lived on three continents. Zawinul was world music, long before the genre exploded in popularity, and the world is a lesser place without his presence. RIP, Joe.

And now thanks to many gracious posters at YouTube, here is a wonderful video retrospective of Zawinul. Turn up the volume, kick back, and enjoy…

Swinging with Cannonball Adderley in the early 60’s…

Performing “Black Market” with the Shorter-Pastorius-Erskine WR crew in 1978…

The groovy “River People” from the same gig…

A medley with the Shorter-Bailey-Hakim-Cinelu WR crew in the mid-1980’s (part 2 is here)…

With Indian master percussionist Trilok Gurtu in 1994…

With the Zawinul Syndicate in 1997…

On his 70th birthday tour in Paris with the Syndicate, 2002…

Reunited with Bobby McFerrin in Marciac, France in 2004…

x-posted: JAZZ from HELL

6 replies »

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  2. I came to WR through my appreciation of Jaco, as you have probably figured out, Mike. But Joe’s keyboard work is magnificent.

    I sort of think of Weather Report as analogous to Cream in rock – a collection of great players who clicked. (Surprising how seldom that happens.)

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