Just heard from Chris, very old mate, musician and music freak that Joe Zawinul had passed on. Needless to say, it was a major shock to the music sensibilities to realise that this exceptional composer/musician would not be bringing us any more of his brilliance in the form of melodies and rhythm. My immediate reaction was to dig out some of the music he performed with his major group Weather Report and give another listen in his memory.

Here’s what Chris sent:

It is with stunned sadness that I pass the news that Joe Zawinul died this morning of a rare form of skin cancer. There will be a Tangents tribute on Sept 22 from 10p-midnight (91.7, kalw.org). 

In the pantheon of Tangential artists, Joe shares the top spot with a select few. He was an innovator, compositional genius and cross-pollinating pioneer.  He led the most important world jazz fusion group of all time: Weather Report. Of all the jazz fusion bands that arose from the Miles Davis personnel of the late 60’s/early 70’s, Weather Report led by Joe and Wayne Shorter (and eventually included Jaco Pastorius) stands the test of time better than any other. I say with all due respect to John McLauglin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, Tony William’s Lifetime and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters.

Joe Zawinul wrote my favorite song: “In A Silent Way” which he contributed to the Miles album of the same name.  He recorded on five Miles Davis albums including the ground breaking “Bitches Brew” recording.

Here’s a short excerpt about Miles from a 1997 Anil Prasad  interview:  (innerviews.org/inner/zawinul.html)
 Anil: How did Miles influence your life?

 Joe: I wouldn’t say that he influenced my life.

 Anil: Many point to the work you did with Miles in the late ’60s as the music that most significantly impacted your musical evolution.

 Joe: It is the other way around, frankly speaking. I think he got more from me than I got from him in that respect.

Joe also revolutionized the use of electronics in jazz. No one could make a synthesizer or keyboard sound warm and organic like Joe. Listen to “Peace” from his 1986 “Dialects” solo cd. It is solo synth that is emotive and moving.

Here’s another excerpt from the aforementioned interview:

 “…we had some funny backlash from people who said we were selling out because we were using electronic instruments. It’s such idiocy.

It’s ridiculous that someone could place that much importance on the instrument to be that great. An instrument is not important. It is the way one plays that is important. Instruments don’t play by themselves. A piano is certainly not a better instrument than a synthesizer, but if a synthesizer is played like a piano, it becomes a very bad instrument. It doesn’t work. You can’t play a trumpet like a violin—it doesn’t go. That’s the problem—the players, not the instrument. Any instrument is a wonderful thing.” 

Zawinul grew up playing Roma (Gypsy) tunes and studying classical music in Vienna (his birthplace). After seeing the film “Stormy Weather” some 24 times, he got hooked on jazz. He won a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music and emigrated to the States in 1959. He joined Maynard Ferguson’s band and then became a fixture with Cannonball Adderley and stayed until 1970. As part of Adderley’s group, Zawinul wrote the classic “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” which hit number 11 on the Billboard pop charts in 1967. 

I interviewed Joe around 1986. It was like talking to the Muhammed Ali of jazz. Joe, after all, was also a boxer and talked the talk, and walked the walk. He was a straight talker and let you know how good he was. But he always backed it up and was as entertaining in person as he was on stage.

Here is a vintage Zawinul excerpt again from innerviews.org/inner/zawinul.html:  

…people find out so late. You know HipHop? What is HipHop? I invented the beat of HipHop! In 1970, I invented it and no drummer could play it and I did this album with Weather Report called Sweetnighter that has a track called “125th Street Congress.” It has the original HipHop beat and I have about 50 recordings of rap and HipHop groups using a sample of the original song. Many other things I did in the 60s—I’m not complaining about it, but since we’re talking about it, I might as well tell you—a lot of people got credit for it, which is alright with me. But it’s a fact—I did this stuff so many years ago. What is called world music today—I started the damn thing!”

Joe along with other pioneering cross-pollinating artists like John McLaughlin, Don Cherry, etc. increasingly explored other music cultures and integrated these influences into their music. Joe especially loved African music. He produced Malian star Salif Keita’s “Amen” recording.

I’ll leave you with a final interview excerpt where Zawinul answers a question about his own mortality: (innerviews.org/inner/zawinul.html)

 Anil Prasad: “Do you ever think about your own mortality?”

 Joe Zawinul: “I’m not afraid of death. The reason could be that I grew up in an environment in which I was always exposed to death every day for years. Experiencing bomb attacks in the night and day and actual war in your country is very different than watching a war from 1000 miles away from your home. We had the war right there in my house. The Russians came in and many of my friends died, so this type of life prepares you for death. An 11 or 12 year-old kid in America will play with a rubber duck, whereas I used to bury people—dead soldiers and all that. When I was 12, I used to steal horses from the Russian wagons and kill them for food. I ploughed fields with Oxen. That was my life. The kids were the men. I was trained for the military—I was a bazooka man. But going back to mortality, I felt when the war was over, everything was easy, but I went through some very hard times in America too. I was the only white guy to play with black bands in the South during segregation. I often had to sit in the bottom of the car when we drove through certain parts of the South. Those kinds of things never phased me—I wanted to play music with the best and I could play on that level with the best.”

 Heaven just got a hell of a musician.

I guess Heaven’s gain is very much our loss!