Tag Archives: Zawinul

Fifty Years Ago Today—April 19, 1972

New York Times review of Weather Report's performance at the Gaslight Au Go Go.
Less than three weeks after their first stand at the Gaslight Au Go Go, Weather Report was invited back for a return engagement. This time the New York press was well represented, with reporters from the New York Times, Variety, and the Village Voice all in attendance, so we have some firsthand reports of what Weather Report sounded like. Variety described Weather Report as “[bordering] on the far out. However, the quintet’s music carried the day.” The review also noted how Joe Zawinul used mallets on the piano strings, continuing his long-standing practice of wringing unusual sounds out of the acoustic piano.

The New York Times review was more extensive. Don Heckman, a musician himself and a longtime observer of the jazz scene, wrote that Weather Report “leaned strongly in the direction of avant-hard jazz. . . . Urged on by the keyboard ministrations of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s stunning saxophone improvisations, the group stepped familiarly through the sometimes mazelike pathways of its music. Everything was grist for the mill; electronic noise effects, unusual percussion instruments, almost anything imaginable except vocal sounds.”

However, Heckman was most perceptive in his next two paragraphs. “It was good music, well-executed and magnificantly executed,” he wrote. “Yet one couldn’t help but feel that it was more enjoyable to the musicians than to the listeners. The inward focus that dominated everything, the sense of total inter-relationship at the cost of outward-going communication made it difficult to stay with what was happening.

“Music, after all, is a kind of celebration, and it should be the kind of celebration that brings players and hearers together.”

Zawinul would have read this review, and it would have struck a chord. While he enjoyed Weather Report’s freewheeling ways—at least to an extent—he was keenly interested in communicating with his audiences. His old boss, Cannonball Adderley, was a master at playing to his audiences without pandering to them.

It would be several more months before Joe resolved to change the band’s direction. In the meantime, Weather Report’s new manager Bob Devere kept them booked throughout the rest of the year, with over one hundred gigs in 1972.

Barry Harris, 1929–2021

Pianist Barry Harris died last week at the age of 91. According to his business partner Howard Rees, Harris’s death was caused by complications of Covid-19.

A “steadfast champion of bebop,” as the obituary in the Detroit Free Press put it, Harris was perhaps the best living exponent of the bebop style of jazz piano, revered by many for his playing and his generous spirit when it came to codifying the bebop language and teaching it to others.

Though he was never affiliated with a major educational institution, Harris was renowned for leading informal sessions in which he taught bebop to other musicians, starting in his home in 1950s Detroit, and later at various venues throughout New York City. Many significant musicians came under his tutelage, but Harris was welcoming to students at all levels. Eventually he taught clinics around the world. Harris maintained informal weekly sessions with students until just before his death. According to Mark Stryker, who wrote Harris’s obituary for NPR, Harris taught his last class, via Zoom, on Nov. 20.

Decades earlier, Joe Zawinul was one of the recipients of Harris’s generosity. When Joe settled in New York City in 1959, the city was full of excellent jazz pianists, none of whom, according to Zawinul, sounded like the other. Joe practiced with many of them, trying to soak up as much knowledge as he could. One style that he wasn’t exposed to in Austria was bebop, and there was no one better to practice bebop with than Barry Harris, who had preceded Joe in Cannonball Adderley’s band. They used to get together at a rehearsal room at Riverside Records, which was Harris’s label.

“Barry and I used to rehearse together a lot at that time,” Joe recalled in 1984. “It was kind of a one-sided relationship in one respect, though. I got a lot from him. Coming to jazz when and where I did, I missed the bebop thing, and that was the style of piano playing I wanted to learn. To my mind, Barry was about the closest there was to the pure bebop style—after Bud Powell, that is. Barry has got that down beautifully; he’s a superb musician. We used to spend all our time at Riverside Records’s studios, rehearsing. As I say, he gave me a great deal, and I will never forget it or be able to replay him for it.”

Around 1965, Harris was involved in an incident that motivated Joe to evolve his own personal style of playing. He related the story to me in a 2003 interview:

I was standing on the corner of 52nd Street and Broadway, which is right where Birdland was. And Barry Harris comes out of a cab, and says, “Joe! I gotta tell you something, man. It’s killing me, man!”

“Yeah, what is that?”

“The tune I just heard on the radio in the cab, it was Cannonball, and I swear to God I thought it was me playing, and then they announced it was you, man. Congratulations!”

I said, “Thank you, Barry.” And I was flattered for a minute. But when I thought about it, I said, well, now… What the hell does that mean, man? He’s already copying Bud Powell, and I’m copying him. What the hell is this? So I went home… I went home, right then and there, and put all my records in cellophane, and they are still in it, stashed away. And I never listen to music. I don’t listen to music, not even to my own. I listen to music now because I have to work on it. The moment it’s done, I don’t even know the name of the tunes. I really don’t.

Joe retained warm feelings for Harris throughout his life. But as the 1970s unfolded, Harris grew disillusioned with the music scene in general, which he expressed in a 1977 Down Beat profile. “Harris doesn’t go out to listen to other musicians very often,” the article stated, “explaining that ‘the music has no class now at all.’ ‘I don’t go to clubs much, ’cause musically I can’t deal too much with most of what’s going on—the commercialism, the avant garde musicians.’”

“I’ve been able to make it here (New York) a little bit, not much,” Harris added. “I make enough to send my family some money sometimes. The last few years I’ve been much luckier than I’ve been in my life, and I’ve still never made any money in my life. I’ve made a lot of records and I’ve never received a royalty check off a record in my life. And yet, everywhere in the world I’ve been, I’ve seen my records. It’s pretty weird . . .”

Like a lot of his contemporaries, Harris felt that the younger generations of jazz musicians had sold out the music. He made those feelings clear when he was part of a 1990 jazz piano roundtable that appeared in Keyboard magazine. “Right now, the word ‘jazz’ is like a garbage dump,” he said. “Everything that they can’t classify, they say—ploop!—‘Jazz.’”

When the other panelists brought up the subject of Weather Report in the context of defining jazz, Harris went off: “What kills me about those kinds of groups is that when someone has a jazz festival, they bring these cats together and call them a jazz group. See, I’m one of those people who believes that you cannot lie twenty-three hours of the day and be real for one hour. You can’t be untruthful to something, and then suddenly be this real person and show me that you can do it.”

The interview session went on:

Richie Beirach: Barry, the thing about Weather Report is that there’s no doubt about their jazz credentials. I loved that group; they did great music. But the emphasis was not on improvisation. It was on color, orchestration, and composition.

Harris: Zawinul and all those cats wrote certain tunes that showed their intent. I mean, if you wrote those tunes under the auspices of them being jazz tunes, then you knew they were leading somewhere funny. Joe Zawinul—oh, man, I hate to talk about that cat. It’s almost like we should be blessed because he brought his music to us from Europe.

Beirach: I saw him playing with Dinah Washington, though.

Harris: I know, but when I used to be over here on 46th Street, and I’d go to the studio and practice all day, Joe Zawinul was the first person to come in and stay with me all day [i.e., learning from Harris]. So when you mention those names, I’m real negative about them. I can’t call them jazz musicians.

Kirk Nurock: What you’re saying is fascinating, because it illustrates that this gray area is very controversial.

Harris: Oh, yeah. What makes me mad is that the musicians who were working, young cats—Herbie Hancock, all these cats—they were the ones who was working! They was working more than me! They were the ones who were really helping jazz! And they are the ones who went over to somewhere else. Now, that I don’t understand. They were making it with the music—they were making it!

Beirach: Well, they were making it in your eyes, but maybe it wasn’t enough for them.

Harris: Money, you mean.

Beirach: Well, money, exposure…

Harris: Money!
. . .
Harris: See, I get funny when you mention things like Weather Report.

Nurock: I noticed.

When the journalist Leonard Feather brought Harris’s comments to Joe’s attention later that year, Zawinul laughed it off. “I like Barry Harris,” he responded. “I have no problem with what people say. He is one of the finest, but he’s a copy of Bud Powell. I have arrived, you see. Last summer the Montmartre in Copenhagen they had a list of coming attractions. They had Betty Carter, and they identified her as a jazz vocalist. They bill some band and described it as a rock group. But with my name they had no description. They just said ‘Zawinul.’ Not jazz, not rock, just me. I am my own category.”

Of course, the beauty of it all is that the world is large enough to accommodate both Zawinul and Harris. The former learned bebop so that he could leave it behind in order to forge his own style, while the latter devoted his life to spreading the bebop gospel so that it continues to be played by new generations of jazz pianists.

Rest in peace, Barry Harris.

Harris photo credit: Mirko Caserta, A Day With Barry Harris, 2007.

Fifty Years Ago Today—Oct. 22, 1971

On Friday, Oct. 22, 1971, Weather Report played the Beacon Theatre, opening for Dr. John the Night Tripper on the first of two back-to-back nights. (The ticket stub above is from the second evening.) This was Weather Report’s first public appearance in New York City—where Joe, Wayne, and Miroslav all lived—and it was also the band’s first gig with drummer Eric Gravatt.

The booking came courtesy of Bow Wow Productions, which leased the theater for a series of concerts in the fall of 1971. One of Bow Wow’s principals was Wayne’s sister-in-law Maria Booker, the wife of bassist Walter Booker. The Booker home was a lively gathering place for musicians and Maria was intent on presenting jazz to support its popular music headliners. In addition to Weather Report, other jazz acts who performed at the Beacon that fall were Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis—all friends of the Bookers.

Nowadays we think of the Beacon as a premier concert venue, but in 1971 it was still primarily a movie house. Having opened nearly forty-two years earlier, it was also showing some wear and tear, so Bow Wow sought to spruce things up a bit. According to an account in the Village Voice, they “[tried] to do right by having foxy looking usherettes, decent sounds, and a band and dancers on the sidewalk at Broadway and 7th Street to boost the neighborhood’s karma a few notches.” Wear and tear or not, the Beacon’s acoustics, which were created for live music accompaniment of silent films, made it one of the band’s favorite venues and Weather Report would return several times over the years.

Of course, the main draw of this show was Dr. John, and Weather Report, being more of an avant garde jazz band veering toward the freer side of things, probably wasn’t a good fit with Dr. John’s audience. The reviews of Weather Reports’s performance were mixed, but one member of Dr. John’s band stood in the wings listening to their set. He remembers it to this day.

“Those guys were killing it on that gig,” guitarist Kenny Klimak told me. “I thought they were amazing. But what I’ll never forget [is that] when they walked off stage at the end of their set Zawinul started bitching at the guys as soon as they were out of the audience’s view, and he continued bitching all the way up several flights of stairs to their dressing room. At least that’s what it sounded like to me. That one instance made me a better musician because I thought what they just played was incredible, but clearly I wasn’t hearing what Zawinul was hearing—he was hearing something more. That made me want to up my game.”

For more about Weather Report’s early days, check out my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report.

Radio String Quartet Vienna

posting-joe

radio.string.quartet.vienna. has released their new album, Posting Joe, Celebrating the Music of Weather Report-Live, a collection of Zawinul / Weather Report tunes uniquely interpreted by the quartet. It is available from iTunes or from Amazon Germany.

Founded in 2003, r.s.q.v. consists of Bernie Mallinger (violin), Asja Valcic (cello), Cynthia Liao (viola) and Igmar Jenner (violin). The background for the album is described in the press release from ACT Music:

Ever since r.s.q.v was founded in 2003, it has been innovatively broadening the spectrum of the string quartet. The idea to dedicate the fifth album “Posting Joe” to the great jazz genius from Vienna was not new. “Although we have never had a specific plan,” Liao says, “Zawinul’s music has always been there. Already after our Mahavishnu album, which made us internationally known, we were about to start a Zawinul project. But then we became engaged with “Radiotree” together with accordionist Klaus Paier. Even so, the album included two r.s.q.v versions of Zawinul’s pieces.”

However, the expansion of the idea was postponed due to a proposition by the irresistible Rigmor Gustafsson, which resulted in the album “Calling You”. After this project the urge to work with material of their own was even greater. Their own compositions of dream interpretations on “Radiodream”, released in 2011, on which Igmar Jenner replaced Johannes Dickbauer on violin, marked the last tessera of r.s.q.v’s extraordinary work hitherto.

After that the timing was perfect to go about a project that had long been postponed. Not least due to an invitation to play at an updated Zawinul biography presentation by Brian Glasser in London and an invitation to the “Zawinul Music Days” in Vienna by Zawinul’s former manager Risa Zinke. There was a further advantage to the project as well. Valcic: “Not only had Zawinul been in our hearts for ages, but we had also been thinking of doing a live album for a long time, since our concerts had developed certain dynamics of their own in comparison to the studio recordings.”

That is why the second part in all “Radiodream” concerts was dedicated to Zawinul. “We recorded at least eight of these sets. That way we could choose performances that we were completely satisfied with.” Recordings from all over Europe are combined into a Zawinul homage – from the legendary Music Association in Vienna, from Pori in Finnland, from Zagreb, Warsaw, Zürich and Ravensburg. On “Posting Joe” r.s.q.v. is sending musical declarations of love to one of the greatest jazz musicians of all times.

A video teaser has been posted at YouTube, which I have included below. You can also download a free bonus track, “The Juggler,” from the r.s.q.v. Facebook page.

UPDATE: John Fordham at The Guardian has posted a five-star review of Posting Joe.

Joe Zawinul’s New Orleans Connection

I have written a new article exploring Joe’s relationship with Willie Tee and other musicians from the Crescent City. If you’ve ever wondered about the Willie Tee who wrote the song “Can It Be Done?” on Domino Theory, or who some of the seemingly unknown musicians on Joe’s 1970 album Zawinul were, then this article helps to answer those questions.