Jazz Prodigy and Keyboard Phenomenon Joe Zawinul Dies at 75

Joe Zawinul

Vienna, Austria – Joe Zawinul, the renowned jazz keyboardist who revolutionized jazz with the creation of fusion band Weather Report, died in Vienna on Tuesday, September 11. He was 75.

Zawinul had been in the hospital since last month, suffering from skin cancer. His health deteriorated shortly after the death of his wife.

Joe Zawinul was a true music innovator. He was one of the creators of the thrilling jazz rock scene in the 1970s, combining electric jazz with the power of rock. His legendary band, Weather Report, made him a star worldwide, releasing albums that are now classics and performing at the best international festivals.

Zawinul was also a pioneer in fusing jazz with world music, using live musicians and electronic samples as well. He was a great improviser, with a prodigious technique, and adopted synthesizers and other electronic keyboards with passion, generating new sounds that went beyond factory presets.

His last released album was Brown Street, a fabulous double CD recorded in Germany. A new CD tiutled Absolute Z was scheduled for release in October.

Dore Stein, producer of the Tangents radio show generously agreed to share this  tribute  that he sent to his radio email list:

It is with stunned sadness that I pass the news that Joe Zawinul died this morning of a rare form of skin cancer.

There will be a Tangents tribute on Sept 22 from 9p-midnight (91.7, kalw.org).

In the pantheon of ‘Tangential’ artists, Joe shares the top spot with a select few. He was an innovator, compositional genius and cross-pollinating pioneer.

He led the most important world jazz fusion group of all time: Weather Report. Of all the jazz fusion bands that arose from the Miles Davis personnel of the late 60’s/early 70’s, Weather Report led by Joe and Wayne Shorter (and eventually included Jaco Pastorius) stands the test of time better than any other. I say with all due respect to John McLaughlin‘s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, Tony William’s Lifetime and Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters.

Joe Zawinul wrote my favorite song: “In A Silent Way” which he contributed to the Miles album of the same name, In a Silent Way.

He recorded on five Miles Davis albums including the ground breaking “Bitches Brew” recording.

Joe also revolutionized the use of electronics in jazz. No one could make a synthesizer or keyboard sound warm and organic like Joe. Listen to “Peace” from his 1986 “Dialects” solo CD. It is solo synth that is emotive and moving.

Zawinul grew up playing Roma (Gypsy) tunes and studying classical music in Vienna (his birthplace). After seeing the film “Stormy Weather” some 24 times, he got hooked on jazz. He won a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music and emigrated to the [United] States in 1959. He joined Maynard Ferguson’s band and then became a fixture with Cannonball Adderley and stayed until 1970. As part of Adderley’s  group, Zawinul wrote the classic “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” which hit number 11 on the Billboard pop charts in 1967

I interviewed Joe around 1986. It was like talking to the Muhammed Ali of jazz. Joe, after all, was also a boxer and talked the talk, and walked the walk. He was a straight talker and let you know how good he was. But he always backed it up and was as entertaining in person as he was on stage.

Zawinul, along with other pioneering cross-pollinating artists like John McLaughlin, Don Cherry, etc. increasingly explored other music cultures and integrated these influences into their music. Joe especially loved African music. He produced Salif Keita’s “Amen” recording. Sabine Kabongo (former Zap Mama), Richard Bona, Cheick-Tidiane Seck, Souleyman Doumbia, Etienne Mbappe, Pape Abdou Seck (from Wock), among others, all recorded and/or performed with Zawinul. He also worked on a Mahotella Queens album.

Heaven just got a hell of a musician.

Author: World Music Central News Department

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