Joe Zawinul: Sportin’ Life

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Joe Zawinul
By Petia Chtarkova
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Joe Zawinul
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Joe and Jaco
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Heavy Weather: Zawinul with the WDR Big Band
By Ines Kaiser

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If every picture tells a story, two of the framed photographs that hang prominently in Joe Zawinul’s seaside Southern California home speak volumes about this legendary jazz keyboardist, composer and bandleader. They also provide some insight into the Austrian native’s audacious new recording, Brown Street. The live double-album finds him revisiting his epic work with Weather Report in a rousing, take-no-prisoners big-band setting some two decades after that pioneering group’s demise.

The first photo, taken at a mid-1991 concert in France, shows him performing with Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis less than two months before the iconic trumpeter’s death. It was, of course, in Davis’ band of the late 1960s that Zawinul and saxophonist Shorter laid the foundation for Weather Report. Their budding supergroup would soon achieve near-Beatles-like popularity in, and sometimes beyond, the jazz world with its pioneering fusion of earthy and exotic styles from near and far.

Close by on the same wall is a photo of the late Archie Moore, the heavyweight boxing champion and lifelong jazz aficionado, whom Zawinul still speaks of in glowing terms. He befriended Moore when they met in Germany in the 1950s. It was just prior to one of the champ’s many victorious bouts and not long before the Vienna-based musician immigrated to the United States, after winning a scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music.

Lucky Thompson, who was also a great musician, was kind of Archie’s trainer, his second in the ring,” Zawinul recalled. “Lucky introduced me to him, and Archie was a big, big music fan. Over the years, I’d send him albums of Weather Report and other things I did. Besides music, boxing has been my passion since I was a little kid. As an improvising musician, you cannot blink. It’s the same thing with boxing.

“You don’t get headaches or knocked out [in music]. But in terms of focus, concentration and, perhaps, coordination, it’s very closely related. I have 13 volume pedals I use [onstage] to bring in other instruments. Plus, in general, I have both hands up when I play, so boxing has helped me a lot.”

Zawinul’s love of the sport, both as a fan and an avocational pugilist who trains whenever he can, continues to this day and is a key reason that, at 75, he remains so vigorous, mentally and physically. It’s a love he shared with Davis—“Miles was one of my best friends; he got me ringside tickets for the Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier fight”—and that he still shares with erstwhile Weather Report partner Shorter. “I’m so happy Wayne decided to move back to Los Angeles from Miami,” Zawinul said. “The first opportunity we get, I’m sure we’ll go see a good fight together.”

Shorter’s name was warmly and repeatedly invoked by his former artistic collaborator over the course of a two-hour interview and in a subsequent phone conversation. The bulk of the interview took place on the patio of Zawinul’s airy Malibu home, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean and offers a panoramic view of Santa Monica to the south. It was a clear, bright morning in the first week of this still-young year and he happily soaked up the sun as he spoke, stopping only to sip from a bottle of water, apply sunscreen and wipe his brow.

By nature, Zawinul is not one for nostalgia. Rather than dwell on his storied musical past with Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Dinah Washington and other jazz luminaries, he prefers focusing on his busy present. In January he recorded an album in New York with Kristjan Järvi’s Absolute Ensemble. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of his band, the Zawinul Syndicate, which will be celebrated with a multi-CD live set he is now compiling with his audio-engineer son, Ivan. Myriad compositions, new, old and in-between, have yet to be released, while a possible big-band tour to promote Brown Street is being mulled.

But on this cloud-free day Zawinul spoke openly, and in great detail, about his life and career, beginning with his challenging upbringing in war-torn Europe and the early discovery of jazz that would help change both his life and, eventually, the music itself. He also happily discussed Weather Report’s evolution and impact. “We did have a sense it was something new,” he said of the band’s explorations of uncharted musical terrain. “But whatever it would do, whether it would have longevity or anything, we had no idea. You know, Wayne did his thing, independent from me, already in the mid-’60s. He kind of changed the form and got away from the standard AABA form, the same as I did, but in another way.”

Weather Report’s oeuvre was saluted last year with the Forecast: Tomorrow box set. The pioneering band now receives a brassy salute and extension on Brown Street, a two-CD set that earned rave reviews when it came out last November in Europe on Zawinul’s own BirdJam label. It was released in the U.S. on Feb. 27 by Heads Up International, the same label that last year released The Word Is Out!, the second tribute album by the Jaco Pastorius Big Band to honor the music of the late, groundbreaking Weather Report bassist.

Brown Street was recorded live in late 2005 at Joe Zawinul’s Birdland, a 200-capacity club that opened in 2004 in the basement of the Vienna Hilton. The album features 14 brass and wind players from Germany’s veteran WDR Big Band, along with the Cologne-based ensemble’s guitarist, Paul Shigihara. The album’s sterling rhythm section is comprised of ex-Zawinul Syndicate drummer Nathaniel Townsley and two former members of both Weather Report and the Syndicate, percussion master Alex Acuña and agile bassist Victor Bailey.

The full-bodied arrangements, which are crisp and uncluttered even in their most expansive moments, were expertly adapted from the Weather Report originals by Vince Mendoza. “Vince is a great and very sensitive arranger,” Zawinul said. “He did phenomenal orchestrations, just phenomenal. It’s amazing how nicely he had all the timbres.”

While he offers such accolades now, Zawinul hesitated when Brown Street co-producer Joachim Becker (who runs the BirdJam label) first proposed the concept. He warmed to the idea after handpicking the rhythm section and rehearsing with the WDR Big Band in Prague. But he still dismisses any suggestion that the album finds him re-embracing the legacy of Weather Report. “I don’t see it as that. I just see it as some very good tunes, which—outside of Weather Report—had hardly gotten any attention,” he said. “I never needed any distance. Because it’s all one thing for me…and my music today is not really any different.”

The music on Brown Street works very well in this broader instrumental setting. This is partly because Zawinul and Shorter, who first met in 1959 playing with the late trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, brought a certain big-band sensibility to the way they wrote, arranged and voiced Weather Report’s music. “It was the same,” Zawinul agreed. “When we made Brown Street we were sitting so close together, and it seemed like the saxophonists, especially, were touching elbows. And it seemed like one big fucking wire went through the whole band.”

Ten of the 11 selections on the 90-minute-plus album are from Zawinul’s tenure with Weather Report, the genre-transcending band he co-founded in 1970 with Shorter and Czech-born bassist Miroslav Vitous. Brown Street’s title track was co-written by Zawinul and Shorter. The nine other songs, which include such gems as “Black Market” and “A Remark You Made,” are Zawinul’s alone.

The 11th number is a luminous, harmonically expanded version of “In a Silent Way,” the Zawinul classic featured on Miles Davis’ landmark 1969 album of the same name. This pivotal composition ushered in a vital new phase in Davis’ career and served as one of the templates for the nascent Weather Report. By coincidence, Zawinul composed “In a Silent Way” while staying in a small Vienna hotel barely a block from where his Birdland nightclub would open 36 years later.

The cover of Brown Street includes a sticker that reads: “Zawinul revisits Weather Report classics for the first time,” which isn’t quite accurate. The Zawinul Syndicate’s 2005 live album, Vienna Nights, includes “Badia” and “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” two Weather Report favorites also featured on this new release. And he acknowledges having done one previous European concert, also with the WDR Big Band, of Weather Report material.

But that was back in 1989; just three years after Shorter abruptly left Weather Report. Since the saxophonist wouldn’t allow the band’s moniker to be used without him, the group was renamed Weather Update and ex-Davis band member John Scofield was added on guitar. For business rather than artistic or personal reasons, Scofield was fired by Zawinul’s management before the group began rehearsing and was replaced by fellow six-stringer Steve Khan. (As Zawinul told me in an early 1986 interview conducted the same week Shorter left: “I couldn’t think of anyone who could play like Wayne, so I didn’t even try to replace him [with another saxophonist].”)

Weather Update was also defunct by the end of the year, but no matter. In 1987 Zawinul formed his Syndicate, which he has now led four years longer than Weather Report existed. He has rarely looked back at the pioneering band he and Shorter guided to such dramatic commercial and critical success—until now.

“I haven’t listened to any of those records since way longer than 1989. I don’t listen to music after I do it,” Zawinul said. “But I…got back from Japan [in January], and this gentleman who drove me while I was there played Weather Report in the car. And I said: ‘That was a hell of a good band, and entertaining, too.’ That was the key for Wayne and me, and for [bassists] Jaco and Alphonso [Johnson].

“We were always a jazz band; we just didn’t play the same formula, the same forms…Sometimes we misfired a little bit, but that’s OK. You know, that’s what you’re supposed to do as an artist. Looking back, I’m proud of all of it.”

Zawinul recalled how Sid Bernstein, the pop-music entrepreneur who booked the Beatles into Shea Stadium in 1965, was instrumental in getting Weather Report signed to Columbia Records. The mustachioed keyboardist also disclosed that both Pablo Picasso and Ansel Adams were approached to do the cover art for the band’s first album. And he discussed how Vitous’ departure in 1973, after four albums, was fueled in part by the bassist’s desire to perform more bowed solos and to hire a second bassist to hold down the bottom. “I said, ‘Why don’t we get one bassist who can do all of that?’” Zawinul recounted. “There was nothing disrespectful about it…we had to make this move. And history has proved us to have been right.”

Vitous was replaced by Philadelphia bassist Johnson, who brought a greater sense of groove to Weather Report’s constantly expanding music. The band’s next album, 1974’s propulsive Mysterious Traveler, was a major breakthrough that, in hindsight, seemed to signal the advent of “world music” a decade before that term came into use. The infectious album never sacrificed its polyrhythmic drive for tick-tock funk beats. “We wanted to be melodic, but to also have a groove that was not so goddamn padded down in a backbeat,” Zawinul affirmed. “We avoided backbeats as much as we could. We were happy with every record we made, because we did as good as we could.”

The album also represented a crystallization of the electro-acoustic fusion Weather Report began forging on its previous releases. Having started off as an edgy, almost entirely acoustic ensemble, the group now embraced a brave new world of hi-tech keyboard and wind instruments.

What resulted was a stunning array of fresh tonal colors, rhythms and textural possibilities that would profoundly influence the sound and shape of contemporary music to come. The group won a Grammy Award for best jazz-fusion performance in 1980 with “8:30.” “Birdland,” an anthemic song from the band’s hit 1977 album, Heavy Weather, would win four Grammys, but not for the Weather Report original: The now-standard tune earned both the Manhattan Transfer and Quincy Jones two awards apiece, in 1981 and 1991, respectively. Perhaps because of the ubiquity of the song, which is still played by countless high school and college marching bands, “Birdland” does not appear on Brown Street.

Zawinul, who still regards his boyhood accordion as his “first synthesizer,” also set an enduring standard with Weather Report by using synths in a decidedly organic manner. Then as now, his playing sounded warm, clear and natural, not cold, distorted or mechanical. “Visually, I didn’t come off so good [onstage],” he said with a smile, recalling the bank of keyboards and related electronic gear that surrounded him during performances in that pre-MIDI era. “I couldn’t, because I was too damn busy.”

Zawinul beamed as he ran through the various incarnations of Weather Report. The band still has a bigger and broader impact than such similarly acclaimed fusion bands of the time as Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. “We were never that cerebral in Weather Report. We just played music like street people play music, because that’s what we are. Wayne and me are educated in music, no question,” the conservatory-trained pianist noted. “But, in general, we are educated streetwise.”

At its apex, Weather Report was unrivaled. This held true not only for the band’s music, but also for its state-of-the-art stage shows, which Zawinul remains proud of to this day. “At the end of the Jaco Pastorius era, we had our own sound system, our own light system,” Zawinul said. “We had three movie screens onstage. We had lasers! Plus, we had a hell of a band.”

The critical tide turned against Weather Report with its 1978 album, Mr. Gone, which—like Heavy Weather—sold 500,000 copies, a then-unheard-of number for a mere jazz act.

The band was accused of pandering to its increasingly large crossover audience by relying on empty formulas. Zawinul still bristles when reminded of the drubbing Mr. Gone received, particularly the now-famous one-out-of-five-stars rating the album received in DownBeat. “That made me very mad,” he said. “Everybody’s entitled to an opinion, but that was something else. It was ugly, because that was never a one-star record. There was a lot of effort made and that was a great sound…John McLaughlin tells me he still likes that record.”

Verve Records approached Zawinul and Shorter in 1996 with a short-lived proposition to reunite under the Weather Report banner. The two have since received increasingly lucrative offers to regroup, Zawinul acknowledged, but he sees no chance of Weather Report resuming. “I don’t think there’s a reason,” he said. “When you collaborate for 16 years on an almost daily basis, making I don’t know how many records and world tours, and playing and improvising together, I really don’t think there’s a need for that. Wayne is doing wonderful things. And I think I’m doing really great things myself. So what is the point?”

Well, then, how about reuniting so that a younger generation of fans that never got to experience Weather Report live could have that chance?

Zawinul wouldn’t bite. “I don’t think there is anything to reconsider,” he said, leaning forward for emphasis. “Wayne and me are like kid brothers…so let life go on. I don’t have plans for the future. I’m here right now. This minute is it.”

Joe Zawinul: Joe’s Bass Line

If he had never played with any bands before Weather Report or the Zawinul Syndicate, Joe Zawinul’s name would still be synonymous with some of the greatest bassists of the past 50 years. And why not, since those bassists range from Miroslav Vitous, Alphonso Johnson and the late Jaco Pastorius to Victor Bailey, Gerald Veasley and Richard Bona?

But the Austrian-born pianist had worked with dozens of bassists across his native Europe, including Rudolph Hansen, before he earned a scholarship to study at Berklee in 1959. “Rudolph was a great bass player,” Zawinul said. “He taught me a lot about bass and bottom and counterpoint. He was also from Vienna and he just died a few years ago.”

Zawinul spent just one month at Berklee. He got his real jazz education playing in the bands of Maynard Ferguson, Dinah Washington, Slide Hampton, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Miles Davis and, of course, Cannonball Adderley, for whom he composed the ebullient “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” which won a Grammy Award in 1968. The bassists he collaborated with during this time included such noted musicians as Walter Booker, Victor Gaskin, Sam Jones, Jimmy Rowser, Richard Davis and Bob Cranshaw. “I worked with some very good bass players,” Zawinul said. “And before I came to America, I played with Oscar Pettiford for a few nights in Vienna, and that was fun.”

Zawinul made two solo albums, 1965’s The Rise & Fall of the Third Stream and 1970’s Zawinul, before forming Weather Report with Vitous and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. In the years since then, the keyboardist has developed a justified reputation as a hard taskmaster and an astute judge of talent with a knack for nurturing promising young talents on the verge of greatness.

“What makes a great bass player? Well, it’s very hard to say what makes anything great,” Zawinul said. “I look for a bottom. I look for imagination. But most of all, I look for steadiness. And melodic content—not just a bass line but a very melodic bass line and a person who can play a melody on the bass. So that when you take the bass part and you hear somebody play it, you think: ‘This is really a part, not just [accompaniment].’ I’ll tell you something, the bass players in my bands, all of them, were outstanding—Miroslav, Alphonso, Jaco, Victor...”

He went on to name not only other well-known bassists who have been in his bands, but also such lesser-known players as Matthew Garrison (the son of John Coltrane’s bassist Jimmy Garrison) and current Zawinul Syndicate member Linley Marthe, who is a native of Mauritius.

Zawinul grinned when asked if there was a common quality to all the bassists he’s worked with. “Yeah,” he said, “they played good with me.”

Originally published in April 2007

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