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