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Sons of Miles
JOE ZAWINUL : Austrian Folk And Weathered Funk
by Mike Zwerin
9 July 1998


Joe Zawinul likes to play with bands with guys who move as fast as athletes.

The members of Weather Report, which he co-founded, reacted to each other "quicker than the blink of an eye." He considers improvisation a kind of team sport. And every time he plays, it's like the World Cup, the World Series, Wimbledon.

Fronting his current club, Zawinul Syndicate, at the Umbria Jazz Festival, his body language was like a coach or manager manipulating levers of power. He was anything but on the sidelines, however, strutting between banks of synthesizers, spewing such signals as slapping his right shoulder with two left-hand fingers for the musical likes of stolen bases, fast breaks and screen passes.

An abruptly raised pinky prompted an All-American, no-huddle 16th note...Bap!

Fareed Haque from Pakistan, guitar, Paco Sery, Ivory Coast, on drums, the Turkish percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan and the bassist Matthew Garrison, an American (Jimmy's son) who grew up in Rome, investigated Turkish hoedowns, West African high life, polkas, weathered funk and Austrian folk music. They added up to a one-band world music festival.

Call Zawinul a "kraut" in jest and he'll affect a hurt look and then correct you with a smile and much pride: "No, man, I'm a schnitzel!" And at times he'll add: "Anyway, the cats who play this music, sooner or later we all got to go through Brooklyn."

Born in Austria in 1932, he is forever defending his native land even when nobody is attacking it ("a beautiful country, baby, and my people are so warm.") Josef Erich Zawinul was known as Pepe growing up in Vienna. (He would later name a wind-powered synthesizer he invented "PePe.")

And "I used to run with a cat named Thomas Klestil who later, that's right, you better believe it, became the President of Austria. He loved jazz, man. We was real tight. We didn't have nothing to eat. No shoes, no money. It was 1945, we sneaked in to see the movie ‘Stormy Weather' together."

Coming to America in 1959 to attend the Berklee College of Music, he didn't last long. Immediately recognised as some sort of off-the-wall real thing. Maynard Ferguson, Dinah Washington and Cannonball Adderley hired him in fast succession as their piano player.

He was one of those odd few blessed white Europeans - like Django Reinhardt, George Mraz, Michel Petrucciani - who just had it. The gift. A strange conjuncture of time and place but there was no denying it. These guys blew, as the saying goes, their asses off.

Zawinul wrote the hits, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" for Adderley and "In a silent Way" for Miles Davis. He pioneered real-time synthesizer improvisation on stage with Weather Report and is still (now in his 60s) just about the only synthesist to have a personal sound on that fervently impersonal instrument.

Joe Zawinul

His "Birdland" was a unique combination of quality and commercial success. He is one of the few fusion stars of the '70s whose music continues to evolve, sell and excite, even though he still uses basically the same licks and hardware. He constantly renews himself. The band's name "Syndicate" has an intentional mafioso connotation. Zawinul likes to think of himself as a guy who hangs tough.

He once said that he always likes to join a band as the least known and weakest player, and come out of it like Gangbusters. And he did that over and over again.

Seven-year-old Pepe learned how to be tough playing Gypsy songs (his grandmother was a Gypsy) on the accordeon sitting under the kitchen table while his grandmother distilled slivovitz. He picked up his punch-feign-dance philosophy of music listening to his father's friends from the athletic club as they sat around and played cards and talked about Jack Dempsey and Louis Firpo, the Bull of the Pampas, who knocked Dempsey out of the ring.

His father was a weight-lifter of Hungarian origin who walked around Vienna in shirtsleeves on cold winter days. His grandfather, a truck driver, got into fights in beer halls. Young Pepe discovered the pleasures of alcohol licking drops of slivovitz from the cloth filters his grandmother used.

His mother was a "genius," he recalls. "She was a self-taught mathematician, she had perfect pitch, she used to yodel real good. She was one of 16 children from a family of share-croppers in an Austrian village. My mama was a fine sensitive human being.

"She cooked, washed the dishes and cleaned house for a Jewish doctor and his family. They were so kind to her. They gave her books to read. They introduced her to the opera. They instilled a love of music in her. I am grateful to them for what I am today."

After sneaking into the movie "Stormy Weather" all those times, Zawinul became fascinated by African-American culture. Since then, one way or another, he has been living with it. He is married to an African-American woman. He personally integrated many black bands. His accent is Viennese by way of Brooklyn: "My parents gave me a book about Africa and I saw that Africans were like my own family. Africans had animals and worked the soil. We were farmers. We had a cow, chickens, geese. I was up at six working with the animals. I picked apples from trees, berries in the woods, I hunted for mushrooms in September. We had an outhouse with grass for toilet paper. Neighbors paid me in potatoes for chopping wood and plowing their fields with an ox.

"We were selbst versorger - self providers. I was a happy kid in the country. It was a sad day when I had to move to Vienna 100 percent of the time. The war was over, it was time to get on with my life. To be educated. I was the first member of my family to go to gymnasium. I was already a very good musician."

When Zawinul, Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius were all in Weather Report at the same time, Zawinul would go around chest thumping: "We're the best band in the world." While Jaco was saying "I'm the best bass player in the world." And you had to think...well they're not far wrong. They were conceited people who had a lot to be conceited about.

The way he tells the story, it might sound overdramatic and self-serving here and there, but he's never - well, hardly ever - boring ("I'm sincere even when I'm full of shit").

It is a story he told with music in his symphony "Stories of the Danube."

Commissioned by the Anton Bruckner House, an Austrian foundation, the symphony consists of seven movements that he improvised in four days on five synthesizers in 1993 in his home with an ocean view in Malibu, California - not far from the homes of Stan Getz and Miles Davis. (He once said: "People say that Malibu is about to slide into the sea, and doesn't that scare me. But I like living like that. On the edge. That's the way I want to go. Let me slide into the Pacific. Fast, get it over with. Without warning." He's since moved to New York.) Punch-feign-dance.

"Stories Of The Danube" begins when the snow melts, the Danube begins to flow and tribes settle on its banks. He thought of himself as "a giant rock observing it all." The Ottoman Empire (represented by a recital from the Koran) is followed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (a Catholic prayer) and the two world wars (strings sounding like marching troops).

There is a prerecorded air raid siren, and he explained the use of Hitler's voice: "When I found out about the Holocaust, I was like unconscious for about a year. The media had been contolled by the Nazis and nobody came back from the camps to talk about them. How could my people do this? I learned that there were beasts everywhere. How could those monsters come from the same place as Beethoven? I had all the weight of my past on my shoulders like a camel."

An interruption: "Hey, man, may you live a long life." The Syndicate sideman Arto Tuncboyaciyan placed a gift-wrapped bottle of wine on the table in front of his boss Zawinul. They hugged each other. You had the impression that they were really on the same sports team, and that they had just won an important match..

After he walked away, Zawinul said: "I'm so proud to be playing with these cats. Every night is like the World Cup."


Photo: Joe Zawinul
Credit: Christian Rose

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