Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait

In Mark Kidel’s revealing documentary profile of the late, great Joe Zawinul, we come to understand the source of the composer-keyboardist’s mental and physical toughness, qualities that informed his outward swagger and fueled his supreme self-confidence throughout an illustrious career: Zawinul was sideman to Dinah Washington and Cannonball Adderley, co-leader of Weather Report with Wayne Shorter, and the leader of his Zawinul Syndicate for its 20-year run.

Born in 1932, Zawinul grew up under Hitler’s reign during the height of WWII. Life as a boy in wartime Vienna was marked by daily and nightly runs to the bomb shelter while existing under catastrophic economic conditions that made the United States’ Depression look like a picnic. In one moving sequence, when filmmaker Kidel returns to Zawinul’s old neighborhood of Edberg, Zawinul reminisces about being 10 years old and seeing his best friend blown apart by an Allied air raid. We also hear him give a vivid account of battling rats on a daily basis in his home, armed with a stick that had a big nail protruding from it. From these and other gripping stories of his harsh, survivalist upbringing, we learn how Zawinul’s tough, Übermensch exterior came to be. But through the course of this insightful documentary, we also come to know the thoughtful, philosophical nature of this remarkably gifted man who, like Miles, never looked back and basked in nostalgia but preferred to look forward and embrace life in the moment. Consequently, rather than incorporating retro footage of Weather Report in concert, the musical sequences for this film shot in 2004 are strictly of his Syndicate lineup of that time, which featured bassist Linley Marthe, guitarist-vocalist Amit Chatterjee, drummer Nathaniel Townsley III, percussionist Manolo Badrena and vocalist Sabine Kabongo.

Throughout the film, Kidel also effectively weaves in boxing as a metaphor for Zawinul’s toughness-survivalist aesthetic (Zawinul was an ardent fan of the “sweet science” and continued to work with a professional trainer at his seaside home in Malibu, Calif. up through the last years of his life).

At his Malibu home studio, Zawinul demonstrates how his curiosity for creating new sounds led to some of his signature synth timbres. “I was always really ready to do something else than play acoustic piano,” he explains. “I think I was about 6 years old when I realized that one sound alone wasn’t what I would really like to hear.” He goes on to recount the tale of how as a kid he stole some green felt from a billiard table at a local Vienna pub and glued it to the soundboard on his accordion. “It was not as loud, but man, it had something. It was made to sound more like a woodwind. … I always hoped that one day there would be an instrument where I could do many more things than that, where I can really feel a tone with which I could express a melody in a way as I hear it.” His lifelong search for unique timbres would lead to provocative, groundbreaking new sounds.

Included here are scenes from the Syndicate performing at the opening night of Zawinul’s Birdland nightclub in Vienna (May 25, 2004), a gig that was attended by Zawinul’s former schoolmate Thomas Klestil, the 10th president of Austria, shortly before Klestril’s death. Zawinul also reveals how discovering jazz early on changed his entire outlook. “The moment we started listening to the music of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, we were knocked dead, man. So in Vienna, all us young musicians, we became racists in a way that we didn’t like any white music anymore … only liked black music.”

But in the end, Zawinul truly became a planetary citizen with a pan-global mindset. As he puts it while sharing a toast of his favorite Slivowitz plum brandy with the filmmaker, “Music cannot save the world but music can bring something out in a human being which makes them simmer down a little bit … and brings a little friendship in the heart. Music is a holy thing.”

Originally Published