Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Goodbye Joe

It was announced yesterday that jazz composer/bandleader/pianist/etc Joe Zawinul died at the age of 75 from a rare form of skin cancer. I saw the news and, just like every other time I hear of the death of a musician I admire, I groaned. Not another one!

Even before I recognized the size of his contributions, Zawinul's music drew me in and made me want to explore the sounds he created with Miles Davis and Weather Report. It was in high school when I bought my first copy of Miles' In A Silent Way, which Zawinul played on and composed the title track. Not long after that, a friend played me just enough of the first cut on Bitches Brew -- a Zawinul composition called "Pharaoh's Dance" -- to have me wondering what was happening. Bitches Brew, I had heard, was the beginning of jazz-rock fusion. I was expecting to hear loud, searing guitar work from John McLaughlin fighting for space with Miles' trumpet. Instead, I was hearing this light, slightly funky back beat with some bass, bass clarinet, and the mysterious tinkling electric piano of Joe Zawinul. I didn't quite know what to make of it, but in a year or so, I'd be playing Bitches Brew constantly in my dorm, loving every second of it, not yet knowing that Zawinul was playing electric piano with Cannonball Adderley before the innovative Miles Davis had even thought of going electric with his music.

Zawinul formed Weather Report with fellow Davis sideman Wayne Shorter in '71. This group, like Zawinul's contributions to Bitches Brew, had a strange appeal to it, with its multi-cultural sounds and many different keyboard textures. The absence of guitar (which would have balanced the keyboard-heavy proceedings) on most of their recordings initially made me reluctant to explore their catalog. But then, upon scoring used LPs of Sweetnighter and Mysterious Traveler (their third and fourth albums), I was hooked. The two records were released in 1973 and 1974, respectively, and were as different as night and day. Sweetnighter mostly mined dance grooves, beats which sounded quite ahead of their time for '73. The drum patterns actually weren't all that different from what Tony Williams was playing on In A Silent Way. And yet, Zawinul found new rhythms in his keyboard riffs that changed the way an old drum beat sounded. The acoustic bass was retained, which kept the sound otherworldly -- old rhythmic approach plus new rhythmic approach equaled something unusual. On Mysterious Traveler, the group transitioned to even funkier sounds as Alphonso Johnson joined on electric bass. But still, there were eerie mood pieces present like Wayne Shorter's "Scarlet Woman," and a playful acoustic duet between Zawinul and Shorter on "Blackthorn Rose."

From here, I had to hear it all. Actually, I never did pick up the last two Weather Report studio albums (1985's Sportin' Life and 1986's This Is This), but I explored enough to know that this was one hell of a group. In fact, on my jazz radio show during college, I would start the last hour of music I played with a Weather Report tune, after reading the day's weather forecast (cheesy, I know, but it was fun). I did this every week without fail, except for one special all-Miles edition. But even then, Zawinul was in there in somewhere.

Probably the most surprising fact I had learned about Joe Zawinul's music career centers around the 1967 pop hit "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." I knew the song via the Buckinghams' hit, which used to be played on oldies stations back when they still played songs recorded prior to 1970. It had become fashionable in the late '60s for jazz artists to record instrumental covers of pop hits -- Wes Montgomery did this quite a bit with songs like Roger Miller's "King Of The Road" and the Beatles' "A Day In the Life," among many others. Hank Mobley covered the Four Tops' "Reach Out (I'll Be There)," George Benson recorded a version of the Monkees' "Last Train To Clarksville," you get the picture. It happened a lot. So when I heard Zawinul playing electric piano on Cannonball Adderley's version of that Buckinghams' hit, I was shocked when I looked at the credits -- Zawinul wrote it! And it was recorded the year before the Buckinghams' version hit the charts. Come to find out, this was a rare case of a pop group covering a jazz artist's tune, adding lyrics, and suddenly the cover becomes the hit. It would happen to Zawinul again in the late '70s, when the Manhattan Transfer won the 1980 Grammy for Best Jazz/Fusion Performance for their vocalese cover of Weather Report's 1977 hit "Birdland."

I never did get to see Zawinul perform live with his band the Zawinul Syndicate, which he formed after dissolving Weather Report. I have yet to even explore that section of his catalog. Fortunately, there are many recordings out there, both audio and video.

Check this video out -- it's vintage Weather Report, pre-superstar era, pre-Jaco, pre-"Birdland"... performing a version of "Directions" that is cut from the same cloth as Bitches Brew. It's one of my favorite Zawinul tunes -- open-ended, not too pretty, and ripe for jamming every time. It was the kind of thing Miles Davis loved to play. In fact, Miles used this tune as his set opener for at least a couple of years, albeit in a much different arrangement.

Thanks for the music, Joe. It's been a trip!

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