Impressions of “Z”

Musicians Describe the Demands, the Genius and the Inspiration of Playing With the Best

The Late Joe Zawinul in front of Birdland, Vienna | Photo: Ronald Zak

Joe Zawinul: Jazz revolutionary, humanitarian and schnapps enthusiast | Photo: J. Smith

The Late Joe Zawinul in front of Birdland, Vienna | Photo: Ronald Zak

Even his fellow musicians seem at a loss to describe jazz legend Joe Zawinul, who died Sept. 11 in Vienna of a rare form of skin cancer, just weeks before he was to play the first show of the Absolute Zawinul tour.

“There is nothing that can explain his incredibly intuitive style of music making,” said Kristjan Järvi, the conductor of the New York based Absolute Ensemble who were scheduled to perform with Zawinul.

A heroic force in jazz and world music, the Austrian keyboardist is probably best known for propelling instrumental jazz back into the musical mainstream of the 1970s with his project, Weather Report, which he founded with saxophonist, Wayne Shorter.

While most pop spill-over from the 1960s used folk, rock or soul songs with words, Weather Report concerts focused on collective improvisation over theme-based arrangements.  Even in his later writing for Zawinul Syndicate, vocals were added primarily as another melodic or rhythmic instrument rather than as a vehicle for lyrics.  So what is it about Joe Zawinul’s wordless music that speaks to so many people?

“It’s intangible enough for everyone to make it, personally, their own,” Järvi explained in an interview with The Vienna Review.  “As soon as you add lyrics, it doesn’t work anymore.”

Zawinul’s musical drive must have been apparent to those around him from very early on.  He was offered a place at the Vienna Conservatory at the age of seven.  In 1959, Zawinul emigrated to the United States with a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston.  Within weeks he had landed a job with Maynard Ferguson, soon after which he was hired by blues-queen Dinah Washington.  He wrote a number of songs during his nine-year stint with The Cannonball Adderley Quintet like “Country Preacher,” a tribute to Civil Rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson and Adderley’s hit, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” that pianist Herbie Hancock described on National Public Radio (NPR) as having “captured the essence of the African-American heritage….

“For a white Viennese boy to write a tune that’s that black is pretty remarkable,” Hancock said.

In the weeks prior to his death, Zawinul had phoned members of the Absolute Ensemble about their upcoming concerts from his hospital bed.

“He was telling me which pieces he wanted to do in the set and what things I should rehearse independently of him before we got together,” Järvi related.

The group – which integrates classical roots not only with jazz and rock, but also world music and hip-hop –Järvi describes as a chamber orchestra, a big-band and a rock band all in one.

In January 2007, after touring with the project the previous summer, Zawinul met with the group in New York to record an album.

“He was really kind of obsessed with the recording coming out in conjunction with this tour,” Järvi recalls.  “He really wanted to finish it.  In fact, he wanted to do some more overdubs in the hospital.”

Zawinul supposedly requested that recording equipment be brought to his room, but was finally persuaded not to compromise his apparent recovery.

Zawinul and Järvi also discussed bringing completely new material to the project.

“He told me that he had over 700 cassettes, 3,000 tunes or something, that he had written over the years.”  And while the Ensemble’s entire current Zawinul repertoire consists of work he previously recorded, Järvi hopes that the group will be able to tackle some of this treasure trove in the future.

Joe Zawinul: Jazz revolutionary, humanitarian and schnapps enthusiast | Photo: J. Smith

The connecting power of music is something Zawinul understood well.  “He would say things like ‘Religion is bullshit.  The only religion that there is is music,’” said Järvi. Retelling an anecdote Zawinul liked about a concert in Jerusalem, Järvi said it was “the only time when all of the Arabs, and all the Jews, and everyone who was there, held hands – there was complete peace for those two hours.”

Fellow musicians remember Zawinul’s steadfast, almost shamanistic, dedication to his work.  “That’s the kick you get from playing with people like Zawinul,” said singer Kim Cooper of The Rounder Girls.  “He’s an elder, and he radiates this life and this music that you can only admire and take in.  If you don’t, you’ve wasted an opportunity.”

A lion-like presence, Zawinul also had a reputation for being harsh, even offensive during rehearsals.  Gene Pritsker, who serves as Absolute’s primary arranger/composer and turntablist, recalls warnings from other musicians.

“All the jazz cats would tell us, ‘be careful ‘cause he’s a little bit of a tough guy.’”

“You had to take the criticism,” explained Järvi, “because it’s not something he said in some derogatory way.”

It was a valuable lesson the group took from their collaborative experience.  “[He taught us] how to differentiate between what is friendship and what is good for the music.  None of these guys, like Miles, they wouldn’t hire people for the group, just because they were friends.  It takes too much time – too much energy and too much space, to teach people something they will never get.”

Järvi remembered the group’s despair after hearing Zawinul claim that 99% of all drummers, black or white, couldn’t hold a proper back-beat.  Järvi made a face like a worried puppy, then laughed.

“Basically, we said to him, ‘So, what are we going to do?  That’s the whole thing about your music, it’s the groove and if we can’t groove, we can’t do anything.  But, he said, ‘No, you can. You just don’t play it until you can.’ ”

Zawinul’s courage was an inspiration to many.  At the funeral ceremony held at Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof on Sept. 25, his sons, Anthony and Erich, praised him for his strength, that even at the end he had never lost his sense of humor.

“If he were here now,” said Erich “he’d ask, ‘What’s going on?  Did somebody die, or something?’”  Vienna’s Culture Minister (Kulturstadtrat), Andreas Mailath-Pokorny said of Zawinul: “His examination of world music, his long trips to Africa, his unrelenting fight against racism – all of this is an expression of his search for the true, the aboriginal, that exists apart from skin color or nationality. It’s not nationality, but music that counts.  Not origin, but achievement.”

The coffin exited the room to a cacophony of applause, tears, hearty cheers, and whistles – one last standing ovation.

As he got ready to warm up for the evening’s performance, Pritsker remembered a special Zawinul-moment.  “We were in the control room, recording.  [My cellist friend], Franz, comes over and says, ‘I think people get the wrong idea.  I don’t think he’s really nuts, it’s just all about the music, and if you’re getting in the way – if your ego gets in the way then…,” he made a quick-cut gesture with his hand. “Sorry.”

Järvi chimed in, “it’s just like you, man.”  He wagged his finger, “Get out!” he mimicked.  Pritsker laughed.  “Just learning from the best,” he said leaving the room.

“To me he’s like a modern day Mahler.  His music has such depth and sincerity.”  Järvi leaned back in his chair.

“We’ll all feel indebted to him forever for being better musicians.”

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