Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Joseph Zawinul

Joseph Zawinul, the Austrian keyboard impressario and architect of jazz fusion, has died.

It might seem unusual that I would choose the death of Joe Zawinul as the subject of my first post in several months, but there is no other musician who has had a greater effect on the development of my musical tastes than he.

Somewhat by accident, in 1971 I visited a friend while home from boarding school for a long weekend. We did what a lot of irresponsible teenagers did in that era (smoked a lot of pot) and he put on Weather Report, the first album just released by the new group formed by Zawinul and saxophone genius Wayne Shorter. Within the first 30 seconds of "Milky Way," I felt quite clearly that my musical taste had been rocked. I was only sixteen years old, and I had thought the musical world began and ended with Jimi Hendrix. I mean, how could anything get more out-of-this-world than Electric Ladyland? By the time I had made it through "Morning Lake" and "Waterfall," I was a goner.

Shortly, I bought Miles Davis' seminal two-album set, Bitches Brew, and was hypnotized by Zawinul's Pharaoh's Dance. It was also my introduction to Davis himself, as well as clarinetist Benny Maupin, guitarist John McLaughlin, pianist Chick Corea and a host of others.

Soon I had bought every Cannonball Adderly record Zawinul appeared on and I was chasing Benny Maupin and Chick Corea around whenever they made an appearance at Paul's Mall.

For the next ten years, I don't think I thought about rock and roll. I followed, and bought, all of the music of those above -- Mahavishnu Orchestra, Herbie Hancock, Return to Forever (which introduced me to Gary Burton) -- but nothing excited me more than the release of another Weather Report album. Nothing. And as new musicians appeared on the latest record (e.g., Alphonso Johnson, Jaco Pastorius), their works, too, were purchased. I tell you, I have quite a vinyl collection of fusion!

Every album is, from beginning to end, crammed full of flawless, astonishingly free composition, redolent of soul, utterly original and so expressive that you can see in your mind's eye the images that inspired the Zawinul-Shorter duo. His philosophy about their music might best be explained by a comment he made (somewhat in anger) in response to an interviewer's remark about the music being "random and thoughtless":

"I don't talk to those idiots, man," snapped Zawinul. "We just play what we feel inside, and this is really the first chance any of us has had to do that. We are members of our own band, we do exactly as we want to and we're so much the better for that."

"Our music is especially relevant to young people because it is so young itself. It's always fresh," Zawinul added, "Young people feel more than they think, so they're not always going 'I don't understand it.' Who gives a fuck who understands it? I mean, people understand so much and they still can't live in peace. Everybody understands everything and don't feel nothing."

I do not believe there has ever been a more powerful collaboration of two musicians than Zawinul and Shorter, who first met in 1959 while playing for Maynard Ferguson. Shorter brought Zawinul into the Bitches Brew project, and they formed Weather Report in late 1970 after completing the recording of Davis' In a Silent Way. They composed and played together like Yin and Yang until their final album, This is This in 1986 (probably their weakest work, done under pressure from Columbia when they were beginning to do other things independently), which includes guitar work from Carlos Santana.

Here is an exhaustive and authoritative discography of everything Weather Report did. It includes thorough biographical and historical notes on the players and their history together. It's a great read, for jazz afficionados.

This man's truly remarkable life is told in a biography entitled In a Silent Way, by British jazz writer Brian Glasser.

Thank you, Joe Zawinul.

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