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Zawinul - a tribute
By Mick Polich - 12/21/2007 - 08:55 AM EST

I need to interrupt the next two columns of musical awareness to pay a short, but hopefully, heartfelt tribute to a personal hero who passed away back in September – jazz great Joe Zawinul. Joe was bigger than jazz, bigger than world music, or the music business, in general. To me, if I would have met Joe in my younger days, personally, I would have been scared  shitless – the guy could intimidate - even thru interviews, in PRINT. But man, what a talent, what a genius – anybody who has ventured into advanced territory on synth, bass guitar, or any inkling of jazz, world music, whatever – again, I hate categories because they are ultimately meaningless –needs to drink a shot of whiskey to Mr. Z. First off, to throw a standard like “Mercy, Mercy,Mercy” into the ring –the guy was AUSTRIAN, for God’s sake – but what an earthy, heartfelt, funkiness to that tune – for a decidedly African-American gospel/jazz twist at the right time in music AND social history –JFK, civil rights, Malcom X, the 1960’s – that melody defined an era and probably brought a lot of hope to a lot of folks looking at FREEDOM. Many cheers of joy and hope happened during an “Operation Breadbasket” rally during the 1960’s when another Zawinul composition, “Country Preacher”, was played over the loudspeakers – for a man born half a world away, Joe really felt one of America’s most cherished, yet ultimately ignored and maligned music forms in jazz – always from the heart with Mr. Zawinul……

I saw Weather Report at the Des Moines Civic Center during the early ‘80’s – it was right before Jaco Pastorius was about to leave the group. Thank God I caught them on a smokin’ night – everybody in the band was burning (and Jaco was still stable for the gig – this was around the time he took a corner with drugs, drink, and not addressing, or realizing, his bi-polar issues).  Back then, Joe still had a massive bank of keyboards – we were still on the cusp of MIDI and synth development – but his sounds, lines (huge bass lines in unison, or along side Jaco’s electric fretless mastery, for one example) were those of a master craftsman who brought and used everything at the table to create his art. Joe Zawinul had a UNIQUE sound with his synthesizers – check the quote by Bill Payne, Little Feat’s keyboardist, who said he took his cues for keyboard sounds and lines from Mr. Z.  Not like Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson’s souped-up Bach and blues lines, or even contemporary Chick Corea’s fusion fury – all acceptable in time and place – Joe had a very, very individual sound that was, well, un-synthesizer like at times. Eerily sounding like a human voice or even naturalistic sounds, Joe could coax damn near anything out of those machines. Yes, there was “Heavy Weather” and the megahit “Birdland”, but check out the live import album from Tokyo, or the first Weather Report album – a Fender Rhodes, acoustic piano, and a handful of effects pedals -  Lord in heaven, just THAT stuff alone texturally fills out the processed keyboard sounds for the band until technology caught up to Joe and provided him with the tools needed to propel him even further….. 

Joe provided inspiration in another form – as I close in on 50 years of age, I look more to older artists, as well as younger ones, for pure creativity. Joe was in 40’s during much of Weather Report’s ‘pop’ tenure – sparring with Jaco on dueling bass/synth lines, but egos just firing warhead after warhead, kicking Peter Erskine in the ass to drive the band  and expand his Maynard Ferguson big-band inspired drumming. All that, and Joe’s friend and symbiotic music partner, Wayne Shorter, floating and diving up above with his sax lines. Fast forward to more recent CD’s – “Live: Vienna Nights” and “Brown Street” – the boxing fan Zawinul going head to head with cats 30,40 years his junior, with all the fire of youth. Maybe Zawinul,  the World War 2 survivour, felt that's the way to deal with the music and musicians -head on, with no compromise. THAT”S how I want to continue to play music as I get older –screw this mellow crap…….gimme some FIRE!!!

In spite of myself, as my family has moved from Iowa to Ohio to Georgia to Texas, my jazz career goes on in part-time mode: trios and duos mostly, standards and soul-jazz stuff, bass or guitar. I continue to learn a lot, and there is one tune that I have always carried into these configurations – the aforementioned “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”. Joe penned this for sax player Cannonball Adderley while Joe was playing keyboard in Cannonball’s group  – again, how could this European white guy from Vienna get so FUNKY?? Well, “Mercy” is a tune with a melody everyone can relate to, plus it’s got a killer groove, so why not pay it forward?  I have played this song in four states in this great country of the US of A – the audiences usually cock an ear our way and perk up when they hear “Mercy”. This is but one example, though. Joe had chops, but also a  sense on when and where to use them. Tender melodies lined up with rocket – fire  gardens of sound – “A Remark You Made” v.s. “Volcano For Hire”, “Nubian Sundance” v.s. “Adios” (of course, you had a lot of great melody writers in Weather Report – Z., Shorter, Jaco,  Miroslav, etc.).

People, as the year draws to a close, I would suggest a Christmas present to yourself – listen to the work of Joe Zawinul – the gruff, but honest, outspoken impresario that gave the jazz world a river of unforgettable melodies, rhythms, sounds, and songs. Thank you, Joe, thank you so much……

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