Joe Zawinul has passed. The Viennese keyboard player wrote “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” for Cannonball Adderley, (later a hit for The Buckinghams) and was part of Miles Davis’s early fusion efforts including writing the title track to In a Silent Way and “Pharaoh’s Dance” on Bitches Brew.
He’s best known, however, for founding Weather Report, the influential fusion band whose members included Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Peter Erskine among many others. Weather Report’s I Sing the Body Electric from 1972 was a seminal recording for me, mixing avant-garde classical, free jazz, electric instruments and on the second live side, wild improvisations. I kind of checked out of the band when Pastorius joined and they went into more pop-funk directions. Tunes like “Birdland,” popular faves, always sounded superficial and trite to me, despite the obvious musical sophistication involved in the playing and arrangements. While the earlier albums were full of space and intuitive interplay, the later recordings always sounded hyperkinetic and neurotic. But albums like Sweetnighter and Mysterious Traveler (an unacknowledged space music classic) still get spins in my house and on Echoes. And no matter what era, Weather Report always raised the roof when they played live.
His influence spanned genres and even Brian Eno wrote a song for him “Zawinul/Lava,” from <a href=”Another Green World . I interviewed Zawinul a few times in the 1980s and produced a Totally Wired documentary segment on him. He was an exuberant interview full of anecdotes and forceful opinions. Just what you want. My favorite line from him, and one I pull out all too often is, “You can’t polish a turd.” In a world of too many turds, Joe Zawinul was a diamond.