At the onset of his Australian tour with the Zawinul Syndicate, Andrián Pertout speaks with keyboard player Joe Zawinul from Malibu, California about his legendary career.
Joe Zawinul, the recipient of twenty-two of Downbeat’s ‘Best Keyboard Player’ awards has managed to forge a phenomenal career over the last four decades, and at sixty-eight is no doubt still a formidable talent that attracts the respect of a true jazz legend. “Zawinul’s curiosity and openness to all kinds of sounds made him one of the driving forces behind the electronic jazz-rock revolution of the late 60s and 70s – and later, he would be almost alone in exploring fusions between jazz-rock and ethnic music from all over the globe,” sums up Richard Ginell on the CD Now Web Site.
The scene for his musical initiation is Vienna, Austria, where Joe begins to play the accordion at the age of six, to then take on piano studies at the Vienna Conservatory that following year. The Second World War breaks out, and along with a group of other students, is evacuated to a country estate in Czechoslovakia. In 1959, Joe settles in America after accepting a scholarship at Berklee, but a week later joins Maynard Ferguson. An accompanying position with Dinah Washington follows on, and in 1961 begins his nine-and-a-half-year stint with saxophonist Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley. During this period penning the 1967 Billboard Magazine Pop Charts hit and Grammy award winning tune ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.’ Miles Davis comes into the picture in 1969, and in the next two years the Joe Zawinul name becomes stamped on classic albums ‘In a Silent Way’, ‘Bitches Brew’, ‘Live-Evil’ and ‘Big Fun’. In 1971, he then forms Weather Report with Wayne Shorter and Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous, which in time ends up incorporating the talents of musical masters such as bassist Jaco Pastorius, percussionist Airto Moreira, and drummers Alex Acuña and Peter Erskine, among many. Albums ‘Black Market’ and ‘Heavy Weather’, and tracks ‘Birdland’ and ‘8.30’ standing as a testament of the band’s great achievements. Some of the highlights succeeding this period include the forming of the Zawinul Syndicate (1987), collaborations with Viennese pianist Friedrich Gulda (1987-94), the Grammy nominated production of Salif Keita’s ‘Amen’ album (1990) and the release of the seven movement symphonic work ‘Stories of the Danube’ on Philips Classics (1995). The long awaited upcoming Australian tour will feature Joe Zawinul along with guitarist Amit Chatterjee (Santana, Sting, Eric Johnson), bassist Victor Bailey (Weather Report, Madonna), drummer Nathaniel Townsley (Stevie Wonder, Mariah Carey, Special EFX) and percussionist Manolo Badrena (Weather Report, Spyro Gyra).
Your last trip to Australia was in 1978 with Weather Report. What has kept you away for so long?
JZ: “Well, it’s a far trip, you know. And I think it was just those kinds of times; we wanted to come back several times, it was in the making, and then never materialized. But this time we’re coming down for sure.”
Take me back to your childhood, when you were gluing green felt to the soundboard of your accordion – the same sound on the tune ‘Black Market’ twenty-five years later.
JZ: “Great! Well, it was a time when I was just experimenting with little things. I was very young, and I didn’t like that musette sound on my accordion. And I saw a little piece of material from the billiard table, and glued it in there. On both soundboards, on the bass side and the right hand side. And it was such as nice sound, and that’s what I kind of based my song ‘Black Market’ on – a little nasal, a little away from the French sound; nothing wrong with it, but it’s just one of those things.”
And how did you initially get introduced to music?
JZ: “I was introduced to music when I was very, very young. My parents were not musicians, but were always singing and my father played a little harmonica. You know, mouth harp. And my mother also played the piano a little, but just at an amateur level, so the music was around.”
How do you remember your experience at the Vienna Conservatory? What did you study there?
JZ: “Well, to study accordion at a conservatory is an impossibility, so I studied piano and violin there. And if I wanted to play accordion, then I’d usually just play to make a little money.”
Did you do composition there, or other things?
JZ: “No, no, no, I was supposed to, but didn’t. That was something I didn’t like, to study harmony and composition. Either you know it or… You cannot learn it anyhow, I don’t think. But you see, I had to go there. I had a scholarship, and that was very important because we didn’t have any money. So that was a good thing to do, and it kept me a little bit away from the streets. And there was war! You know what I’m saying? My father was in the military, and my mother was happy that I could study for free. And I enjoyed it actually, at times, but I didn’t always go. And on the side I played accordion to make a little money, at some weddings. And after the war I got introduced to jazz music, and then my life changed altogether. I still studied a few years, and then stopped and just played. I went out with a hill-billy band, I think it was forty-eight or forty-nine, and from that moment on I never looked back.”
Among many things, in the 60s you went on to record the classic album ‘Bitches Brew’ with Miles Davis. What were those sessions like?
JZ: “It was nice. What I liked about it is the respect… How do you say it? They were all very good musicians, everybody tried to make it. And usually when people try to make it, they’re kind of anxious. Do you know what I’m saying? And in that particular case, what I did enjoy was that in spite of the fact that so many different individuals with already a name, on this session everybody had much respect for the next guy, and that’s what it sounds like.”
Tell me about the music itself. What was it like playing with those guys?
JZ: “Well, it was OK. I wrote a lot of this music myself, so I had a concept about it. As a matter of fact, coming out this year – it will also be released in Australia, perhaps next spring – is another series of Miles Davis records. It’s a five-CD set with many compositions of mine. There is also a new unedited version of ‘In a Silent Way’, and that has six songs out of the seven songs, which are on these CDs. So we will hear what had happened. But in general, I had written that music a long time prior to that, so that was a good way of getting it on record. Miles liked it, and we had fun doing it.”
How do you now perceive the Weather Report days, creating music together with Wayne Shorter?
JZ: “We didn’t do that together, we created it together when we improvised. And then we did that on stage, but in general Wayne wrote his music his way, I did mine my way, and we left it like that. And that made it interesting, because Wayne has totally different ways of conceptualising his things as I do. So it made a third thing out of the two.”
And I guess this is where the great Jaco Pastorius comes into the picture, a little later on. I heard a funny story, about the way that he approached you about the gig, I don’t know if it’s true or not…
JZ: “He didn’t approach me about the gig, he only introduced himself as ‘the greatest bass player in the world.’ And I told him to get away from me, more or less, but not as kindly spoken as I do it now. But he stood there and looked at me. And there were two ladies who knew him, who were standing right next to me, one was a promoter, the other a journalist, and they just said, ‘Hey check him out, he’s really good!’ And I met him the next day, he came over with a cassette, and I was very impressed. But it was still another year before he joined the band, because we had a great bass player with Alphonso Johnson. So it is true, he came to me after the concert and said how much he enjoyed it, etcetera, and that his father knew Cannonball. ‘Cause they were all from Florida, and Cannonball was from Tallahassee. And Jaco grew up in Fort Lauderdale. You know what I mean? And so his father knew Cannonball Adderley, and it’s this whole Florida music scene. So it was a nice thing, and then when he came in the band we had a few great years, really truly great years.”
‘Heavy Weather’ certainly put you on the map as a great synthesist? People still remember and admire those great patches. Do you still subscribe to the classic analague sound?
What’s in your collection? What do you still cherish these days?
JZ: “You know what? I still have all of my analogue instruments. And I mix little things here and there, I enjoy all this, it’s a nice process of having fun. That’s the main thing, having fun.”
What do you still use?
JZ: “Oh, I’m using the T-8, this is from the same company as the Prophet 5, and then I have the old Oberheim Xpander, and the Chroma Expander, which I use sometimes. I’m not sure yet if I’ll bring it to Australia. And then I’m using an instrument that Korg has made, which is part analogue; it’s called the Prophecy. This is a great little unit; I like to play on that. And I have a very sophisticated set-up, my son Ivan is doing a lot of work for me in this particular direction, and we’re coming up with good things. And he’s doing a lot of things – you see his name on the last few records, he’s my sound engineer and keyboard technician, and also does the whole sound on our records, so he’s quite involved. So he helps me a lot. You know, we put certain patches together, but do some other things with it, so that’s why people never know what I’m doing, that’s what I like.”
And where is your Arp 2600?
JZ: “Oh man, we just moved from New York, back to California, and they are all here, they are all stashed away. They are not settled yet, they are in transition.”
The vocoder is another big thing for you, isn’t it?
JZ: “Yeah, I like it. I’ll tell you something, if the sound is the same as we just had – we just did a three and a half week tour of Italy, and I think I had the best vocoder sound I’ve ever had. So if you can get that, then it’s really going to make an impact. And I use a Digitech one, but we modified it a little bit. And sometimes I double it with some other kind of instrument, and then it’s really nice.”
Tell me about the flip side of Joe Zawinul the jazz artist, the classical artist. What have been some of the highlights of that career?
JZ: “I’m not a classical musician. I’ll tell you in all honesty that I play perhaps very well, but that’s not really what I’m doing. I did this because I was inspired by a great pianist from Vienna, Friedrich Gulda, who was a mentor. He kind of told me I should do this with him, and we did. We played the Haydn variations from the composer Johannes Brahms, which is a powerful eighteen-minute long work for two pianos. And I don’t know, but it’s supposed to be ‘the consummate work’ for two pianos ever written. And we played it on the world stage and perhaps it’s good as it was played, but I can never call myself a classical musician. I can write symphonies you know, I can do that. I wrote one, I don’t know if you’re familiar with it, ‘Stories of the Danube’? It’s out on Philips Classics, and I recorded it in 1995 with the Czech national philharmonic orchestra. And it’s a hell of a work, you should listen to it. And I orchestrated it myself. It’s a nice work.”
How did you pick up these skills? Did you learn on your own?
JZ: “Kind of. You know, I learnt like everybody else, I learnt how to play the piano at school, at the conservatory. And I learnt violin and all that, and in general after that, I learnt pretty much mostly by myself.”
What about orchestration?
JZ: “Oh, that was nothing. That was really nothing, because I was always a good reader, and could always write music. I’d been composing music for many years, and just to orchestrate for an orchestra is much easier than for a quintet like Weather Report was.”
So you feel that way, yeah?
JZ: “Oh yeah! You do have to know things, but it is not difficult, it’s not difficult at all. It’s a lot of work! My symphony has seven movements, and they’re very long, it’s about an hour and ten minutes, but it’s a tutti force. And it’s a nice work; it has been played many times as a matter of fact. Live, you know, which is nice. And in that respect, if you were thinking of this being in the classics, it’s not, it’s another way of writing for orchestra, that’s all.”
How did the Deep Forest project come about?
JZ: “They are fans you know. And everything they ever had was from Weather Report, and they admitted that. But they are nice kids, and I met them one day and they asked me if it would be OK to play a little solo on one of their tunes. That’s all I did, but I enjoyed it. They are not great musicians, but they have a nice concept, and they have a concept of some mellow little music which you can enjoy.”
You have always been regarded as one of the pioneers of what we now call ‘world music’, as well as a great jazz innovator. What do you envisage for the future of contemporary jazz?
JZ: “I don’t really know. I think we’re experiencing a general downfall, because the recording industry have done so much harm – and also good, but more harm than good – and have absolutely recorded everybody and their mama. And in the older days, you had to do a little more in order to make a record, and it took another effort. In the older days there were individuals, today you’ve got mostly imitators, copies and that’s the way it is right now. And it doesn’t mean that it has to remain like that, but unfortunately that is the way that it is in America today, it’s nothing fresh, everything is Coltrane related or not even Sonny Rollins or Wayne Shorter related, it’s Coltrane related, four hundred thousand notes in a minute. You know, and it never stops playing. And in general, if you want to go and listen to someone practice, go and listen to bands in America today.”
And how do you feel about the ‘world music’ thing since you’ve always been really doing that yourself?
JZ: “Well, you’re totally correct about this, and I feel that it’s very important. And wish that especially in America today, young musicians – some of the older guys do – pay attention to what’s coming up. I’m not a music listener, but I know what’s coming out of Africa, because I play with African musicians sometimes, I go to Africa sometimes. But I’m not a record listener, you’ll never see me with earphones, but I don’t dismiss things and there are good things coming out of Africa. There are good things coming out of other countries. I just did small tour to Italy, with a very different kind of concept. I had Richard Bona, who’s also on my record, a bassist from Cameroon, and also I worked with this wonderful singer, Maria Joao, a phenomenal singer, she’s Monzambiquen and Portuguese. And an accordion player from Belgrade, a wonderful Gypsy accordion player. And it was interesting, and that’s what I’d like to do, play with great musicians regardless of where they come from. That doesn’t really matter, and what music they play doesn’t matter, as long as it is great in their own way, in their own form, I can do something with it.”
Let’s talk about today… The inclusion of jazz icons Victor Bailey on bass and Manolo Badrena on percussion makes for a formidable line-up. Tell me a little about the musicians involved in the upcoming Australian tour.
JZ: “Well, there’s Victor Bailey, Manolo Badrena, and then a great, great guitarist from Calcutta, India, who grew up in the United States. And his name is Amit Chatterjee, a wonderful musician that you are going to enjoy. And there’s a young drummer from Brooklyn in New York. His name is Nathaniel Townsley. And his grandfather founded a church, and his father was the pastor of the church, and since a little kid sang in the church choir. So it’s a very enthusiastic, great little unit.“
And what can Australian audiences expect to experience?
JZ: “A lot of fun. To go home and say, ‘We spent our money for a good purpose.’”
What will you be doing?
JZ: “I don’t know.”
You’re not sure about the repertoire yet?
When will you think about that?
JZ: “When we get there. In the afternoon, at the sound check we’ll think about that. You don’t want to do that in music. You’re either a musician to play music for the music’s sake, or otherwise you can call it in. If I knew exactly what I’m playing, I wouldn’t have to come there.”
And what will you do next?
JZ: “I just did this, it came out a few months ago in Europe, it’s called ‘Chronicles of the Ashes.’ It is about the story of a concentration camp, and I don’t think it will come out in Australia, because you all didn’t have to go through that. But it could, and it’d be nice for it to come out there, it’s a very interesting record. It’s a solo performance in the camp; I played it in the camp itself with four thousand people. And I had a narrator on it, the great Frank Hoffman, who was also on my world tour; he read a poem (by Eric Fried). And we did thousands of sound effects, it was really a phenomenal record, but it’s not an entertaining record, it is something if you want to know history, and if you want to make sure that you do a little something not to repeat history.”
‘World Tour’ out on ESC Records. For further information contact Simon Higgins, Vorticity Music, 529-531 High Street, Northcote, Victoria 3070, Australia. Tel: (03) 9482 4603, Fax: (03) 9482 1623, Mobile: (0412) 675 106. Email: email@example.com
'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #78, October 4, 2000
BEAT MAGAZINE PTY LTD
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