Remembering Jazz Great Joe Zawinul

The first interview I ever conducted was with Joe Zawinul, the jazz genius who died this week at 75. This took place while I was a junior in college, several years before I would seriously consider becoming a journalist. I was, and continue to be, a big fan. But, man, did I blow that interview. Maybe my folks were right; maybe I should have gone to law school.

A little context: in 1995 I was studying in Grenoble, France, for the year, and hosting a radio show at the college station (for some reason they thought that just because I was American I would put something really cool together for them—silly Frenchies). The two guys who had the slot after me hosted a jazz show. These kids probably knew more about jazz—and had a more impressive record collection—than I do today, 12 years later. When the Zawinul Syndicate played on campus, they managed to land an interview with the man himself for their show. Only one problem: they didn't speak English. So it fell to me to interview Zawinul, never mind the fact that at that time my knowledge of his oeuvre was confined to his association with Cannonball Adderley—which ended 25 years earlier.

In fact, the first jazz CD I ever bought was "Cannonball in Japan" (which came out in 1966, the same year as the much better known live album "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy"). I picked it up my sophomore year—it was the first time I had ever heard Joe Zawinul's name. "Here's another composition by Joe Zawinul, our brilliant pianist," Cannonball says by way of introducing "Money in the Pocket." He pronounces it, as always, Zah-bee-noll. The band launches into its signature sound at the time: straight-ahead hard-bop with a deep soul groove. Zawinul's acoustic piano chugs, rolls and pauses dramatically over a near-funk backbeat ... like a wad of cash jogging in a fat man's trousers. I was an instant convert.

spacerThe most famous Zawinul tune, "Mercy, Mercy Mercy," also appears on the Japan recording, but not the interpretation most people know. The better known version appears on the album "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," released the same year on Capitol Records. This time, in a foreshadowing of things to come, Zawinul plays a Fender Rhodes, an electric piano. It's the only song on the album that he doesn't play acoustically, and it doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the record. But once he plugged in, as he would tell me in my debut as an interviewer, he never looked back. After he left Adderley's band in 1970, he never—to my knowledge—played acoustic piano again (unlike his one-time bandmate Herbie Hancock, who to this day maintains two simultaneous careers: one as an electrified funketeer and the other a straight-ahead acoustic jazzbo). The song—deeply moving, almost painfully soulful—became a hit and a civil-rights rallying cry.

"You know, sometimes we're not prepared for adversity," Cannonball says as Zawinul's opening church chords rumble from his Rhodes. The joyful energy of the crowd—not gathered at Chicago's Club as the record sleeve claims, but at a makeshift lounge at Capitol Records where intimates were served free drinks—is still contagious under the music. "Sometimes we don't know just what to do when adversity takes over. Heh. And I have advice for all of us. I got it from my pianist Joe Zah-bee-noll who wrote this tune. And it sounds like what you're supposed to say when you have that kind of problem. It's called 'Mercy, Mercy, Mercy'." The song lopes along, pauses dramatically and builds to occasional hallelujah crescendos that resolve and dissolve among goosebump-inducing hoots from the crowd. Three years later the band would release "Country Preacher 'Live' at Operation Breadbasket," which included two more Zawinul-penned black-pride roof raisers: "Walk Tall" and "Country Preacher," named in honor of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "All over the country we've been preaching about black music and how it's all the same thing," Cannonball says on this one. "We got the word from the country preacher."

Of course, the "country" in Zawinul's case was Austria. It is both odd and perfectly fitting that this skinny white, well, music geek from Central Europe would write standards in the black American tradition. Odd for the obvious reasons—what could a classically trained pianist (and accordionist) from Vienna have to offer a blossoming civil-rights movement an ocean away? But it makes sense. Austria, after all, was once part of the Ottoman Empire and, as the gateway to the East, was thick with immigrants and ethnically diverse music. Zawinul must have grown up surrounded by the songs of the outsider. After training at the Vienna Conservatory and gigging the jazz halls of Europe, he decamped to America to study at Boston's Berklee School of Music, where after one week of classes he joined Maynard Ferguson's band, and later worked as Dinah Washington's pianist.

As his time with Cannonball wound down, the jazz mainstream was experimenting with fusion—melding elements of electrified rock and funk with traditional jazz. Zawinul played on Miles Davis's watershed albums "In a Silent Way" (Zawinul wrote that memorable title track, too) and "Bitches Brew." After forming Weather Report in 1970—with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, with whom he played in Davis's band, and Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous—he began defining his own jazz subgenre of synth-centered global groove music. With 1977's "Birdland," Zawinul scored another huge crossover hit, even while some purists groused that the music was more electrified pop than true jazz. And I cringe to admit that at the time I was interviewing him, at the wise old age of 19, I was one of those critics. A die-hard fan of his soulful work with Adderley, I couldn't quite get into the semi-funky open-ended noodling he was then playing with the Zawinul Syndicate (he and Shorter parted ways in 1985). I liked "Birdland" as much as anyone, but was it jazz? Now, too late, I see the folly of my youthful prejudice—his music was adventurous, unpredictable and hard-charging until the end.

Can you imagine his disgust at being interviewed by a snotty kid who only wanted to talk about 30-year-old recordings when the music he was making was as relevant as ever? I can, because he snapped at me and ultimately cut the interview short. Fair enough. Let's let the music do the talking. This year Zawinul released an excellent two-CD live set called "Brown Street" on which he plays his Weather Report material (including "Black Market" and, my favorite, "Boogie Woogie Waltz") and "In a Silent Way." It's perhaps fitting that this would turn out to be his final record. Never one to dwell in his own past, he takes his old complex-yet-accessible compositions and imbues them with vigorous, youthful energy. There's no tacky nostalgia here. True to himself to the very end, his groove is deep and unrelenting, his taste impeccable, his energy infectious and his crowd loud. Mercy, mercy, mercy.