Josef Erich Zawinul, who died on Tuesday of skin cancer, was a major pioneer of jazz fusion. His best epitaph was written by Miles Davis in 1970 for the sleeve of the LP Zawinul: "In order to write this type of music you have to be free inside of yourself and be Josef Zawinul with two beige kids, a black wife, two pianos, from Vienna, a Cancer and Cliche-Free."
Born in Vienna, raised playing accordion, Zawinul was classically trained but came to love jazz and moved to the United States in 1959, working with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson (where he met saxophonist Wayne Shorter) and then singer Dinah Washington.
Zawinul joined saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's band in 1961, an association that brought Zawinul prominence when his composition "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" (on the Adderley LP of the same name) became such a hit in 1967 that it made it all the way up to #11 on the Pop Singles chart and #2 on the Black Singles chart (with the LP hitting #1 on the Black Albums and Jazz Albums charts and #13 on the Pop Albums ranking) and won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance. Much noted was that Zawinul used an electric Fender Rhodes piano. At that point, jazz purists looked with suspicion on electric pianos (heck, many still do), but the goal in "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" was to evoke the feeling of soulful R&B instrumentals, and in R&B Ray Charles and others had already had considerable success using electric pianos. Some American jazz fans were surprised that a white European could be as deeply steeped in black American sounds as Zawinul, though as years passed this became less of a novelty. Adderley and Zawinul were both interested in more than just feel-good soul jazz, though, as shown by their performance of Zawinul's 7/4 meter avant-garde composition "74 Miles Away" on one of the many live albums Capitol cranked out after the success of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (supposedly recorded live at a Chicago club, though actually it was an L.A. studio with an invited audience giving it a nightclub feel).
Zawinul stayed with Adderley through the end of the decade, but was also playing --- only in the studio -- with Miles Davis (Cannonball's old boss -- though it's worth noting that Miles dug Zawinul from his time with Dinah). Again Zawinul's compositions and electric keyboards were integral to the sound; "In a Silent Way" is his (though much shaped by Miles -- compare the rehearsal version on The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions, with its vaguely Latin beat, squared-off melodic contours, and fancy chord progression, to the final version, drumless and free-floating over a single chord. (When he recorded it for his 1970 album Zawinul, the composer reinstated the chords but retained the floating feeling.) Davis recorded more of Zawinul's pieces, though many had to wait years to get issued. Not the dark, roiling, questing "Pharaoh's Dance," though, which opens the revolutionary Bitches Brew album (1970), filling up a whole LP side in its original configuration. Bitches Brew became Miles's first gold-selling album, its combination of jazz improvisation with rock's rhythms and instruments reaching a wider audience despite the music's complexity being far greater than that of rock.
Miles hadn't invented fusion, but it took off under his aegis. Zawinul and Shorter (also a player on those Davis sessions, of course) built on that momentum with their new band, Weather Report, so called because it was expected to change every day. And change it did, in both personnel and sound/style. On the eponymous debut, it emphasized the ethereal, with Zawinul's "Orange Lady" particularly spacey. On the next year's I Sing the Body Electric, there was more variety; Zawinul's "Unknown Soldier" gets downright scary but also shows his ear for colorful arrangements with its addition of piccolo trumpet and English horn.
The band got funkier and heavier on Sweetnighter, Zawinul's "125th Street Congress" being the best example. Co-founder Miroslav Vitous, an acoustic bassist, was supplemented by electric bassist Andrew White; by the next album, Mysterious Traveller, both replaced by electric bassist Alphonso Johnson (though Vitous joins on one track). Improving and expanding synthesizer technology put a much vaster array of sounds at Zawinul's fingertips, and he certainly knew what to do with them. Just playing electronics was no big deal by this point (1974), but Zawinul studied the instruments intently and drew more original sounds from them than most guys who just hit presets. But then, he'd already gotten more sounds out of just the electric piano by combining it with ring modulator, echoplex, wah-wah, and envelope filters. But this was the work not of a techno geek, but a master orchestrator. Lots of fusion albums with electric keyboards sound dated nowadays, but not Weather Report's.
World-music grooves had already been part of the WR sound, but on Talespinnin' they came to the forefront. The beautiful, haunting "Badia" is just one of many high points. Black Market continued the world groove, but also made time to pay tribute to Zawinul's recently deceased old boss on "Cannon Ball," notable in the WR discography for electric bassist Jaco Pastorius's first appearance on record with the band.
With Pastorius aboard, and with Peter Erskine providing the first stability in the drum seat, Weather Report's classic lineup had been achieved and the band hit a new level of popularity in 1977 with "Birdland." Zawinul's commercial mojo was back with this piece, filled to bursting with enough melodies and hooks to power four or five songs. Not only did the album containing it, Heavy Weather, top Billboard's Jazz album chart, it made it to #30 on the Pop chart as well. ("Birdland" became an instant classic, with covers by Zawinul's old boss Ferguson [who'd also "gone electric" by then] and the vocal group Manhattan Transfer, whose 1979 version -- though not a hit single -- received a ton of airplay.) Zawinul, always with a keen ear for distinctive timbres, took full advantage of Pastorius's singing sound on the fretless electric bass by giving him melody lines, not only on "Birdland" but also on the beautiful ballad "A Remark You Made." The latter and "The Juggler" are both highly memorable Zawinul compositions.
Weather Report, and arguably Zawinul himself, had reached its apex. Before the band broke up in 1986, there would be further Zawinul masterpieces, such as "The Pursuit of the Woman with the Feathered Hat" (Mr. Gone), the title track of Procession, and "D-Flat Waltz" (Domino Theory). His 1986 solo release Dialects went in a different direction, with Zawinul playing all the music on synthesizers and singing, with a few other singers (notably Bobby McFerrin, the only one allowed to improvise) added at times. To listen to a track such as the hard-grooving "Carnavalito" and realize it's not a band, but just one guy making all the instrumental sounds, is astonishing.
In 1988 came a new group, The Zawinul Syndicate, which he led for the rest of his life (nearly literally: he'd just finished his last tour when he checked into the hospital six weeks ago). He didn't reach the heights with it that he had attained at earlier points in his career, but neither was he insignificant, or just repeating himself. Lost Tribes (1992) takes his world-music interests into new territory; the two-CD World Tour offers plenty of concert thrills. And at the end of 2005 he revisited his Weather Report repertoire (mostly) on a surprising album recorded at his Vienna club, Joe Zawinul's Birdland, with arrangements for big band, released on Brown Street last year. There's nothing wrong with a little nostalgia at the end of a man's career; even the ever forward-looking Miles Davis did it. Like his old boss, Zawinul had earned the right to look back with pride at his accomplishments. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who last year recorded his original soundtrack to Bystander, a documentary film by John Reilly.