Thursday, September 27, 2007

Trolling the Underground : Another Legend Passes.

It's been a rough couple of months in the jazz world. First, legendary drummer and be-bop originator Max Roach died in August, and then keyboardist and jazz fusion innovator Joe Zawinul passed on on September 11, 2007.

You may not know his name, but I'm sure you've heard of the famous band he co-founded with saxophonist Wayne Shorter - Weather Report. You may not have heard one of their albums, but if you've lived in the western hemisphere at any point since the late 70s, I'm sure you've heard the song he's most famous for - fusion classic Birdland.

So, upon his passing, a similar thing happened as I reported in the Max Roach post - his history started popping up for download at a rapid rate. Much more so, in fact, than Max, perhaps because Joe's jazz music was appreciated by rock fans to a far greater degree. There was so much that I still haven't given it all a listen. The ones I have listened to have amazed me, and captured my undivided attention in a way that few things have in the past year or so. I should, in fact, have paid a lot more attention to Joe while he was alive.

Hailing from Austria, Joe first recorded with Cannonball Adderley in the 60s. He wrote Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, as song that quickly became a staple in Adderley's live act. I find it interesting because in that band he was playing much more conventional jazz than he would soon be helping invent. Toward the end of the 60s and the end of his tenure with Adderley his style had grown toward that which he'd be more known for. I have to offer something from that era, a sweet and not too long rendition of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy from Graz, Austria on March 15, 1969. Joe's piano solo is as close to country as I've ever heard jazz get. It contrasts the free forms he'd be discovering very soon after this show.

After his stint with Cannonball, Joe worked with Miles Davis on two historic albums; In a Silent Way and Bitches' Brew. These albums gave birth to a new form - jazz fusion. It was this band that not only brought electric instruments into jazz, but also played with rhythms that were much more at home in the rock world while loosening up the melodies to improvisational heights like those that Coleman and Coltrane had previously reached for. They not only started a new branch of jazz which is still strong, but also heavily influenced the progressive rock movement of the 70s (not to mention the Grateful Dead). Since Joe played on both albums, I always assumed that he toured with Miles during those years.

I assumed wrong. While doing some research and looking for pictures, I learned that Joe never played live with Miles Davis until a star studded show ( I mean everyone was there) at La Grande Halle de la Villette in Paris on July 10, 1991. Joe played on two songs (the band changed members completely ten times throughout the show). Both songs are one one track, so I can share them both from the FM recording of the event. The track starts with Joe and Wayne Shorter (ss) playing Joe's In a Silent Way, followed by It's About That Time with Bill Evans (ss) joining Shorter and Davis (tp), Kenny Garrett (as), Richard Patterson (el-b) and Al Foster (d) rounding out the band. It's a great example of the style that fathered one new form and heavily influenced another.

After that, Joe got together with Davis cohort Wayne Shorter to form one of the most successful yet exploratory fusion bands, Weather Report. This band went through a lot of changes and did a lot of fantastic music that I am just discovering now. I've had two of there more popular albums, Heavy Weather and Black Market for many years, but only now, when concert recordings from 1970 to 1980 are literally falling onto my hard drive from afar am I realizing what a great groove every incarnation of this band had and how much interesting stuff they had to offer. So much so that I am nowhere near even the halfway point, and obviously will need to make a separate post of it. I've already heard a 24 minute version of Boogie Woogie Waltz that almost made me splat my spats. I can't go without doing some WP, though, so for now I'll go with the obvious.

Like I said above, you HAVE heard Birdland. Yes you have, if you've lived, as I said earlier, in the western hemisphere, especially if you have gone shopping. This is a really great song, despite being heard on AM radios and shopping mall PAs for the last 30 years. It's one of the rare, those oh, so rare times when good music and mass appeal actually meet and don't spit at each other.

Of course, I have to play a live version, and I'm not happy with the one that I have on audio, so it's very fortunate that YouTube has a far better one on video. You can not only check out Joe, but you'll also see brilliant, tragic bass legend Jaco Pastorius at work. Check it out. You recognize it, don't you?

Finally, I have a slinky, funky tune from his most recent band, The Zawinul Syndicate. I'd never heard this band before, and I have to say I'll be hearing a lot more of them. I couldn't find anything about them on the web but I didn't have that much time to look, preparing as I am for a short road trip. This song, Scarlet Woman, comes from the Rose Theater in NYC on the 27th or 28th of October, 2006. It is so unlike the previous songs in this post it has to be heard to be believed.

That is the crux of what made Joe a treasure. He purposely pushed himself to change his style at all times. He didn't buy records because he didn't want to pick up anyone else's chops, and he hated repeating himself. While he was raised on more traditional jazz forms, once he latched on to fusion he constantly took the point and made sure the form didn't stagnate. There are too few like that in any genre.

This post took quite a while to get together due to my unfamiliarity with much of Joe's music, a weak spot soon to be strengthened by considerable listening. I've downloaded enough to keep this fresh for months. It's a shame that it took Joe's death to really get my attention past a few discs but I guess there will always be things I haven't gotten around to listening to yet. He won't be forgotten, and I have no doubt that there will be a dedicated Weather Report post once I wade through the 70s with Joe and Wayne.

Next: Barring any more jazz memorials, we'll be returning at long last to rock and roll.


Natsthename said...

Oh, how sad. Love the post, and I had no idea this guy had a hand in Birdland! (FABULOUS song!)

O' Tim said...

THAT's Birdland?! Why yes, it is ubiquitous, and I think I even heard it Target the other day.

I think it's tragic that Jaco didn't wear a shirt for that concert.