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In A Silent Way: A Portrait of Joe Zawinul by Brian Glasser

Don’t you hate it when a book reviewer rambles on and on about the subject or endlessly points out errors but never tells you what they really think about the book? Fuggedaboutit: I loved this book. The author, a longtime contributor to British music magazines like Q and Mojo, calls it a portrait rather than a biography, a fine point which escapes me. And what a perfect subject for a biography-I mean portrait. Born and raised in war-torn Europe, Josef Zawinul had an unlikely upbringing (hardscrabble really doesn’t do it justice) for a jazz musician who later became associated with some of the greatest figures in the music: Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis and of course Wayne Shorter, his longtime collaborator.

Zawinul’s mercurial and colorful personality spices up an already fascinating narrative. The title itself is doubly ironic, since Zawinul rarely did anything silently and Miles also claimed credit for that song. The book was initially intended to be an autobiography and therefore has the advantage of first-person reportage combined with plenty of primary sources, not only from the Weather Report days but also going back to Zawinul’s sideman days with Adderley and Dinah Washington.

The book zooms quickly through Zawinul’s early years (an approach that I applaud) and gets right to the heart of his development as a jazz artist, starting with his first job in the US with Maynard Ferguson and ending with his recent years as leader of his own Zawinul Syndicate bands. The majority of the book rightly documents the arc of Weather Report and is filled with incredible detail about the shifting personnel and musical directions of this influential jazz-fusion group-a jam band before there ever was such a thing. At one point the author cites Rashomon in describing the comically revolving door of drummers in Weather Report. I found it to be more like Divorce Court (“I’m leaving you!” “No, I’m leaving you!”) or Spinal Tap (“He spontaneously exploded onstage.”).

Whilst his British syntax is occasionally off-putting for us non-whilst-using Yanks, Glasser writes very well and manages to be both expansive and economical, a neat trick on either side of the Atlantic. And although he clearly admires his subject, he is not afraid to address some tough issues, including Zawinul’s implicit culpability in Jaco Pastorius’ demise and who did what in Weather Report. About the latter subject, Zawinul succinctly conceded, “Basically it was always Wayne and me. Other things were small. Only Jaco was big.” About the former, testimony from Zawinul and others points to the close and almost paternal relationship between the two volatile men as proof that Jaco’s fall was largely a matter of self-destruction.

Through it all Glasser vividly depicts the fierce determination and creative drive of the influential and somewhat paradoxical keyboardist. How determined and driven? Here’s Zawinul on coming to the US: “I knew it would not be easy in America-I had no relatives and did not know a single person there-but when I came over on the boat, I did it with the purpose to kick asses.” And in the process he helped usher in a modern era of jazz. For those that were present or wished that they were, this book is a must read.

Originally Published