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Spotlights [Issue # 16 ]
Joe Zawinul: Still Amazing After All These Years

By Scott Yanow

Zoe Zawinul was not the first electric keyboardist in jazz. A few isolated tracks back in 1955 were played by Duke Ellington on a primitive electric piano and Sun Ra was also soon experimenting on the new musical invention. However Zawinul is arguably the most innovative electric keyboardist in jazz, despite beginning his career as a bop-oriented pianist, and he traveled a long way (both geographically and musically) to arrive at his most recent release, Vienna Nights/Live At Joe Zawinul’s Birdland (BHM 4001).

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1932, Zawinul started out on accordion and had extensive classical piano and composition training including at the Vienna Conservatory. Although he respected classical music, he had much more love for the improvising, chance taking and soul of jazz. By 1952 he was working in a jazz group with saxophonist Hans Koller and he frequently led his own trios. Zawinul recorded by the mid-1950s, playing in a boppish style influenced by Bud Powell and George Shearing. In 1958 he moved to the United States after winning a scholarship to Berklee. However after just one week, he left school to join the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra. After eight months, he switched to becoming Dinah Washington’s accompanist for two years and then became a longtime member of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet/Sextet. During his nine years with Adderley, Zawinul was valuable not only as a pianist but as a composer; he wrote “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” By 1966 he was doubling on electric piano and by the time he left Adderley in 1970, he was no longer playing acoustic piano. Zawinul, who recorded with Miles Davis and composed “In A Silent Way,” was fully committed to electric keyboards by 1970 and permanently left hard bop for fusion. He formed Weather Report with saxophonist Wayne Shorter later that year and was the dominant force with the innovative fusion band during its 15 years. Zawinul did not merely transfer ideas from the acoustic piano to electronics but played the synthesizer as if it were a completely different instrument, sometimes achieving orchestral effefcts and at other times creating unusual, otherworldly sounds. Music from Africa and the Middle East became major influences yet Zawinul never forgot how to play funky, getting a major hit with his original, “Birdland.” After Weather Report ran its course in 1985, Zawinul formed Weather Update, showing that he could build upon the innovations of Weather Report and really did not need any co-leaders. Over time, Weather Update became the Zawinul Syndicate, a group that has to an extent moved away from jazz and towards World Music while still retaining the spirit of improvised music. The double CD Vienna Nights/Live was recorded in 2004 at Zawinul’s Birdland, a club opened by the keyboardist in Vienna. Although he may have returned to his homeland, the music is light years away from what Zawinul played a half-century ago. Inspired by guitarist Allegre Correa, electric bassist Linley Marthe, drummer Karim Ziad, and percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan, Zawinul features the exotic vocals of Sabine Kabongo and Aziz Sahmaoui on some of the selections, which move the performances strongly into the African World Music area. There are also guest spots for the explosive guitarist Scott Henderson and drummer Nathaniel Townsley, but on the instrumental pieces, Zawinul is the main force. The keyboardist wrote most of the music, with the one standard being a respectful rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday.” Whether playing funky lines, adding otherworldly atmosphere, or using the eerie vocoder (which allows him to sing like a synthesizer), Zawinul shows that his musical curiosity and desire to take risks has not slowed down. Listening to this unique music, it is impossible to believe that Joe Zawinul is 72!

Vienna Nights: Live At Joe Zawinul’s Birdland
Birdjam / BHM Productions

Still Amazing After All These Years Joe Zawinul Vienna Nights: Live At Joe Zawinul’s Birdland

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