Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Joe Zawinul, 1932-2007

One of the world's greatest musicians (IMHO) died yesterday at the age of 75. Joe Zawinul was a pioneer in the jazz and especially jazz fusion (no - not smooth jazz...) world. He played on early electric Miles Davis sessions that set the stage for the whole fusion movement. He founded Weather Report, which remains my all-time favorite band of any genre, even 20 years after they disbanded. In conjunction with Wayne Shorter they produced what I consider the two most beautiful songs every written/recorded - namely "Blackthorn Rose" (on Mysterious Traveler) and "A Remark You Made" (on Heavy Weather). Probably his best known song was "Birdland".

His keyboard abilities were singular and astounding. Recently while watching some archived concert footage from the late 70s, it was amazing that a 5 piece band - keyboards, sax, bass, and two percussionists - could generate the quantity and quality of sound using the tools available in that day. I would dare anyone to listen to any album beyond their first and identify the era - the recordings are flawless and timeless. Zawinul was a master of multiple genres of keyboard music - classical, traditional jazz, funk, contemporary jazz, anything. He even inverted the keyboard note order on one of his Arp 2600 synthesizers - so that the ascending musical scale was played right to left. Said it gave him "more ideas" to work with. Like he needed them.

His compositions were more like tone poems - strong attention to melody, but equal attention to sonic inventiveness and surprise. He didn't write too many melodies that one would easily sing in the shower (besides Birdland, perhaps). My "currently listening to" list has had his most recent release - "Brown Street" - in place for a couple of months. It is a phenomenal blend of his keyboard pyrotechnics in a big band setting. I'm not usually a big band music fan, but this set of music is an exception. Anyone that can sit still through the "Badia/BoogieWoogie Waltz" medley needs to have a full physical exam.

Zawinul remained active musically with his band Zawinul Syndicate until he was hospitalized in mid-August with a rare skin cancer. His web site tribute says it best:

Joe Zawinul was born in Earth time on 07 July 1932 and was born in Eternity
time on 11 September, 2007. He, and his music, will continue to

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