Joe Zawinul

Jazz pianist with Weather Report
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Josef Erich Zawinul, jazz keyboardist and composer: born Vienna 7 July 1932; married (three sons); died Vienna 11 September 2007.

Like many creative musicians, the jazz keyboardist and composer Joe Zawinul had little interest in looking back, his concerns lying with whatever he was working on at the present time. But his achievements started racking up even before his move from his native Austria to the United States in 1959.

Classically trained at the Vienna Conservatory, Zawinul would have probably been remembered primarily as another gifted instrumentalist and popular bandleader had it not been for his extraordinary ability to write memorable themes that were often clothed in the stylistic parlance of the moment, if not slightly in advance of it. This ability he sustained for over 40 years although his peak period of achievement and popularity was between 1961 and 1985, when he was instrumental in changing the face of jazz, working with Miles Davis, and with Wayne Shorter in the jazz-fusion band Weather Report.

Zawinul, born in 1932 into a working-class family in the suburbs of Vienna, was discovered to have exceptional musical ability at an early age and eventually allocated a free place at Vienna Conservatory. This musical gift, along with a naturally street-wise character even in his pre-teens, allowed Zawinul to survive during the terrible Second World War years and their aftermath.

Among the élite of the Conservatory students by 1944, he discovered jazz through the enthusiasm of a fellow student. This proved a turning point for, having discovered the exoticism and freedom of jazz, Zawinul was disinclined to follow the career path envisaged for him where he would become a successful concert pianist in the manner of his older contemporary the pianist/composer Friedrich Gulda.

Having gained a reputation in Austria during the 1950s, in early 1959 Zawinul decided to try his luck in the United States. Winning a short-term scholarship to Berklee College of Music, in Boston, he used the time to network and within weeks was auditioning to join the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's band as its pianist. Gaining his Green Card during his six months with Ferguson, Zawinul also met the saxophonist Wayne Shorter for the first time when Shorter successfully auditioned for the band. That early connection would bear some remarkable fruit later on.

After Ferguson, Zawinul played with the singer Dinah Washington for two years before joining the popular and hard-working Cannonball Adderley Quintet as replacement for the great English expatriate Victor Feldman. Zawinul, well-versed in funk-jazz and the blues, was a perfect fit for the Adderley band and stayed for over nine years. In that time he not only supplied perfect accompaniment and improvisation but also wrote what proved to be some of Adderley's biggest hits, including the 1966 single "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy", which won a Grammy and just missed the US Top 10 that year.

Zawinul continued to write hit funk tunes for Adderley's group while signing a separate contract with Atlantic Records and making a sequence of diverse and at times experimental records, including Money in the Pocket (1966) and The Rise and Fall of the Third Stream (1967). During this period Zawinul, always a prolific writer, had also composed a gentle piece that had yet to find a home. He recalled many years later that in early 1969 Miles Davis approached him about recording with him and this piece came to mind. He was in a quandary about what to do.

I played it for Cannonball, and the name of the piece actually came from Nat, Nat Adderley. He said, "Hey this is beautiful, like in a silent way." There was a fight between the two of them. Who should record it? I said, "Listen, I'm very loyal, but this piece has to be recorded by Miles. I need that now because I won't stay here forever."

"In a Silent Way" not only was recorded by Miles Davis but became the name of the 1969 album through which he announced his plunge into the fledgling jazz-rock fusion movement. Its follow-up, Bitches Brew (1969), also had deep Zawinul involvement, the keyboardist playing alongside Chick Corea on much of it and contributing compositions and riffs, many of them uncredited.

The following year, the pianist released his last Atlantic album, simply titled Zawinul. Featuring Herbie Hancock, the trumpeter Woody Shaw and the bassist Miroslav Vitous, it gave the world not only Zawinul's own version of "In a Silent Way" but also a blueprint for the band he was about to form with Wayne Shorter, Weather Report. That same year he quit Cannonball Adderley and planned the new group with his old friend Shorter.

The saxophonist later said that one of the main ideas of the band was "to get us out of night clubs . . . so we had to write music and play music that would appeal to people where you didn't have to play yourself to death." Signing for Columbia Records and treading a path first blazed back in the 1950s by Dave Brubeck, the new band trod a fine line between rock and jazz, creating abstract, ethereal music that fitted well with the mood of the early 1970s and made them a hit on the festival, college and rock ballroom circuits.

By the middle of that decade Zawinul's increasing dominance of the band's writing and arrangements meant a gradual tilt towards the funkier side of jazz and rock that he'd always been expert at. In 1976 that slant resulted in the band's first and only major hit single, "Birdland", first heard on the album Heavy Weather (1977). Eventually given a set of lyrics by the vocalist Jon Hendricks, it was later a hit for others, including Manhattan Transfer.

By this time Weather Report had recruited the bassist Jaco Pastorius, who was also a leading player on Joni Mitchell's Hejira (1976), and the group was making waves a long way beyond the relatively tiny circles of jazz and jazz-fusion. The band continued to be successful, touring and playing concerts and festivals as well as making many fine records, through to 1985, when Shorter and Zawinul agreed to disband. Zawinul later reflected that it had been "great fun, and when it was not any more fun we changed. So I have to say it was totally fun all the way."

After a time testing the water with a band called Weather Update and also trying out collaborations in both classical repertoire and world music, in 1987 the keyboardist formed the Zawinul Syndicate. He had for years dominated the compositional and arranging side of Weather Report and now this band was clearly announced as the brainchild of one man. It made consistently stimulating albums and went through many editions in terms of members, but Zawinul's musical vision remained its constant focus point. The band celebrated two decades of existence this year even as Zawinul's health began to fail.

In recent years Zawinul, who had always kept close ties with his homeland, had developed other interests outside playing music, opening a nightclub called Birdland in his hometown of Vienna, among other things, but it is as a band leader, keyboardist and composer in the jazz-rock and fusion idiom that he will be celebrated.

Keith Shadwick

Comments