Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Another one passes on...R.I.P. Joe Zawinul

At a spry 72 with five decades of innovative performing now behind him, does Zawinul know where jazz itself is heading? "I have no idea, ... but as a good improviser, I know where it is not: the past.”

Just the other night I was thinking about the ‘forgotten period’ of Wayne Shorter’s career: his 1970 recordings for Blue Note, ‘Odyssey of Iska’ and ‘Moto Grosso Feio’, from that exciting time period when fusion first started to spiral into something big, yet retained a sense of freshness, experimentation, and adventure which would be sorely lacking by the 1980s. Then, the next day, I learned via the internet that we had lost yet another major jazz musician, and one strongly associated with Shorter, and with that formative fusion period: keyboard player and composer Joe Zawinul. A bit of a sad end really, with the death of his wife earlier this year, and the fact that he was apparently suffering from a rare form of skin cancer; he wasn’t that old either – just 75. Mind you, his touring schedule showed no signs of slowing down (he had dates planned for later in the year).

He was maybe not one of the greats (fusion fans, don’t kill me for saying so!); not in the same league as the recently deceased Max Roach, or Shorter himself for that matter, but he was responsible for one of the biggest jazz hits of all time, in 'Birdland', with Weather Report, the fusion supergroup he co-founded with Shorter. This will always be remembered as his major contribution to music, and more in that to follow in this post, but it's the more overlooked period of the late 60s and early 70s that really interests me. Beginning as a sideman with Ben Webster and Dinah Washington, his big break came when he joined the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, for whom he wrote the immensely popular 'Mercy Mercy Mercy' (which saw him making an early use of the electric piano - a Wurlitzer, in this case).

In 1969, he caught the attention of Miles Davis, and played a pivotal role in a good number of Miles' classic, groundbreaking fusion albums from this period, starting with 'In a Silent Way' (the title track was one of his compositions, and his spacey organ contributed greatly to the music's languid, mysterious ambience), and continuing with 'Bitches' Brew' (again featuring his compositions, as well as his playing as one of the bank of keyboard players). His tunes were a major part of Miles' setlists: 'Directions' opened all of the trumpeter’s concerts from this period. Around this time, he also made a fine debut album, simply titled 'Zawinul', on which he explored more of the IASW ambience, but with more of a personal spin. These pieces were 'tone poems' depicting scenes from his Viennese upbringing - his grandfather's funeral, arrival on ship from New York (an early experiment with studio technology, to be continue with Weather Report), and his days as a shepherd boy on the Austrian hills. The record was a minor classic, though it doesn’t get much attention nowadays, more’s the pity (you can listen to it here,

So on to Weather Report: this is a band of several phases, really, with constantly rotating personnel in the bass and percussion departments lending the band quite different sounds at different periods. The first phase, and for some people, the best (though the least famous) begins with the formation of the band in 1970. Zawinul stuck to acoustic piano and electric piano (with some tasty distortion) – this was far less arranged, less orchestrated, less written-out, than the later stuff, concentrating on in-the-moment interplay between the highly skilled band members: Shorter, Zawinul, and the phenomenal bassist Miroslav Vitous. Vitous refused to conform to the notion that the bassist should play a secondary, supporting role, as was traditionally the case in jazz, and insisted on interacting as a third main solo voice with the saxophone and piano, which gave the music a real edge, a sense of tension and unpredicatability - though this could mean, as Zawinul later admitted, that there was a certain inconsistency – the band could either be smoking hot, or hesitantly noodle their way through the evening, producing lots of notes and sounds but not really hitting the pocket, the groove, the inspiration. Of course, the later approach meant that this was less of a risk, but it also meant that a lot of that initial sense of adventure and excitement was gone, however good the tunes and the playing.

Their debut, self-titled album has some wonderful moments, the highlight of which is perhaps the sublime ballad ‘Orange Lady’ (a Zawinul composition also covered by Miles Davis and his Bitches’ Brew band on ‘Big Fun’), and ‘Live in Tokyo’ shows what they were capable of in a live setting (half the show appears on ‘I Sing the Body Electric’, with the other side featuring studio recordings). This phase shifts in 1973, with ‘Sweetnighter’, where Zawinul starts to focus less on abstract interplay, and far more on groove and rhythm, drawing on elements of contemporary pop music (the most famous track from this record, ‘Boogie Woogie Waltz’, is a 13-minute groove juggernaut which Zawinul claimed contained the “first hip-hop beat”; it’s certainly been influential on subsequent generations of DJs and producers of dance music). Vitous was unhappy with this direction, and with the fact that he was being made to play bass guitar rather than acoustic bass, and was replaced by Alphonso Johnson, somewhat underrated as a member of the band, but with a huge, rock-steady sense of groove that gives the music a deliciously pulsing, driving quality (check him out on this youtube video for an example -, with Part 1 (Zawinul's acoustic piano solo) here

The next few albums contain some pretty good stuff – I’ll put in a mention for ‘Tale Spinnin’ and ‘Black Market’, a really joyous, colourful record which sees Jaco Pastorius’ first appearance with the band on the gorgeous ‘Cannonball’ (a tribute to Joe’s old boss Cannonball Adderley, who’d just died). Pastorius became a dominant force, playing a melodic, up-front function as Vitous had done, but with a more lyrical, horn-like approach and a ferocious set of fusion chops. ‘Heavy Weather’, the band’s most successful album, showcases these to the full on ‘Teen Town’, and he seemed to be increasingly taking over the co-leader role from Shorter, his bass and Zawinul’s ever-larger arsenal of synths and keyboards defining the band’s sound, with the saxophone there for decoration and dramatic effect (this may have been less the case live, but certainly on the albums). The later albums (such as the dismal ‘Mr Gone’, which notoriously received a one-star rating from Downbeat magazine) are pretty much disposable, though I suppose some people must have liked them.

One of the main features of Weather Report was its eclectism, and the fact that, at the time, it didn’t really sound like anyone else (though there have been plenty of imitations since, especially in regard to Jaco’s bass style). The combination of advanced musical technology (Zawinul’s banks of keyboards) with what could be simple, accessible melodic lines, joyous, infectious rhythms, and a real sense of musical colour, was a winner, though the music did veer more and more towards the commercial, diluting its qualities of adventurousness and newness to churn out more and more of the same, with less space for improvisation (apart from Jaco’s rather self-indulgent rock-star flights), less space for Wayne Shorter’s compellingly idiosyncratic saxophone, and touches which sound very dated.

Being generous, one could say that Zawinul’s later music (with his band the Zawinul Syndicate) in particular exhibited a quality that characterizes jazz – its openness, its fusing of cultures, primarily African American with elements of white European music, but expanded out to encompass music from India, Latin America etc. While the music itself wasn’t really to my taste: you can hear it on albums such as ‘Faces and Places’, and live albums recorded at Zawinul’s own ‘Birdland’ club in Vienna (a place which was a tribute to a tribute to an original, if you like, evoking associations both of Zawinul’s famous tune, and the original club which inspired it –a nod to both personal and wider musical history).

Ethan Iversen’s post over at the Bad Plus’ blog, ‘Do the Math’ is so good that I hope he won’t mind me reproducing it in full here:
The technique of music doesn't know race…Perhaps the most obvious man to illustrate this still-debated point is Joe Zawinul, who died today. Zawinul had such a passion for funky black American music that he overcame the severe handicap of being born in Austria before becoming an essential member of Cannonball Adderley's band in the 1960's.
In his greatest work (which was the greatest fusion band, Weather Report, co-led with Wayne Shorter), a most curious role reversal took place: the black saxophonist from Newark wrote the thorniest compositions, and the Austrian pianist came up with the funkiest grooves. Like so much of improvised music, Weather Report's discography (while still splendid) is only half the story: all that saw Weather Report live in the 1970's say it was one of the great experiences of their lives."

That captures the global appeal of Weather Report; beyond the African-American roots of jazz, beyond Zawinul’s own white, European, classical background – as he himself sadi, "musicians from Africa know Weather Report music inside and out ... but often didn't knew who was playing it because it would be distributed on pirated cassettes that had no labels. Many such players couldn't believe that some of us were white.” And that was maybe Zawinul's greatest contribution - a transcending of racial and musical boundaries that resulted in a body of work which, at its best, was as colourful and joyous and moody and atmospheric as anything you're likely to here.


And, though there’s no fully-fledged post on this, we shouldn’t forget this man either:

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