Posted: Sep 12, 2007
Widely influential jazz musician and composer who introduced world music and electronic keyboards to the genre
Immediately recognisable with his col-ourful woollen hat, Zapata moustache and huge sideburns, Joe Zawinul was a vivid and individual musical personality who wrote some of the best-known standard tunes in jazz and pioneered the use of electronic keyboards.
As a member of Cannonball Adderley’s band in the 1960s he composed their best-known piece, the Grammy-winning Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.As a colleague of Miles Davis in 1969, he wrote the title track for the seminal fusion album In a Silent Way, and in addition to the 1976 disco hit Birdland he also wrote a sizeable proportion of the remaining repertoire for the band Weather Report, which he coled with Wayne Shorter. More recently his Zawinul Syndicate band fused elements of world music into jazz, using keyboard samples and a range of Native North American, African, Asian and Latin American musicians.
Josef Erich Zawinul was born in 1932 in Vienna, where he attended the music conservatory and played his first professional engagements as a jazz and dance band musician, before moving on swiftly to studio work and broadcasting. For a time he was the house pianist for Polydor records, and worked with his fellow countrymen Friedrich Gulda and Hans Koller.
But postwar Austria was not the place to make a reputation as an international jazz player, and when Zawinul won a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston in 1959, he took the opportunity to emigrate to the US, and seek his fortune there.
His time at Berklee was short, because he swiftly landed the job as the pianist in Maynard Ferguson’s powerhouse big band, and opted to go on the road with this dramatic and exciting group, which featured its leader’s flamboyant trumpet and the saxophone of the young tenorist Wayne Shorter, who was to become a lifelong associate of Zawinul. Initially, however, their paths diverged, as Shorter went off to join Art Blakey, while Zawinul became the accompanist to the singer Dinah Washington, before joining the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s band in 1961.
This was the group that made his name, both for his forceful gospel-inspired piano playing and for his capacity to write chart successes for Adderley and his cornet-playing brother Nat, such as Mercy, Mercy, Mercy and the later Country Preacher. Towards the end of the 1960s Zawinul left Adderley and began working with Miles Davis, in particular contributing to the studio albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brewin which Davis charted out new territory in the hinterland between jazz and rock.
A significant element of this was Zawinul’s use of electronic keyboards. He had begun to use the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos in Adderley’s band, altering the ensemble sound to something which was perceived at the time as less dated and hidebound by tradition than the acoustic piano.
In due course, and beginning with Davis, Zawinul added a range of synthesizers to the instruments he used, and by the time he formed Weather Report with Shorter at the end of 1970, the idea of using electronic samples as additional tone colours was an essential ingredient of his style. Few musicians in jazz have been as influential in determining the sound of an entire branch of the music, and Zawinul’s command of the ARP, Oberheim and Prophet synthesizers set the standard for jazz-rock fusion throughout the 1970s.
He and Shorter jointly led Weather Report until 1985. Over the years such players as the bassists Miroslav Vitous and Jaco Pastorius, the drummers Alphonse Mouzin and Peter Erskine and the percussionists Alex Acuña and Airto Moreira passed through the lineup, and the band made a series of extremely influential recordings, including I Sing the Body Electric, Heavy Weatherand Black Market.Several critics have identified this band as changing the way jazz musicians improvise, because of the way soloists were made to function within the context of the overall ensemble, reexamining notions of collective improvisation that to some extent had been dormant since the 1920s.
Zawinul’s finest playing dates from the 1970s period of Weather Report, with an ability to infuse performances with boundless energy and drive – the finest example of which was the Birdland opening with synthesized bass notes that introduce stabbing, urgent keyboard phrases that underpin the repetitive main theme.
In later years the energy was sometimes quick to subside, and somewhat theatrical effects took over from genuine musical substance. This was particularly true of his most recent band Zawinul Syndicate. The Times critic wrote of their appearance at Ronnie Scott’s in 2002 that it was like “a latterday Weather Report without the tunes. Most numbers involve setting up a heavy groove from drummer Paco Sery, guitarist Amit Chatterjee and bassist Etienne Mbappe, decorating it with percussion and wordless vocals from Sabine Kabongo, and then waiting for Zawinul to drop in thunderous riffs or ethnic samples from his battery of keyboards.”
Such internationalism was a Syndicate hallmark, but too often it lacked the dash of inspiration that had made Weather Report a cut above the fusion standard.
More recently Zawinul had once more been active in his native Austria, receiving several awards for his services to jazz, and opening a club in Vienna. There he recorded his most successful recent album, Brown Street, a collaboration with the WDR Big Band, revisiting several of his famous compositions with considerable verve.
Joe Zawinul, jazz keyboard player, bandleader and composer, was born on July 7, 1932. He died of cancer on September 11, 2007, aged 75
From Times online