Joe Zawinul

I heard the news from Robin Young on “Here and Now”, of all things: Joe’s taken a cab, too.

I was in the legion – and it seemed like a legion for a while – of kids who spent hour after hour shedding pentatonic scales and trying to figure out which pentatonic riffs worked over which chord change to make it sound more “out”, all thanks to Joe Zawinul. The quirky little sounds that he would coax from his 2600s are embedded in my musical DNA, and to this day, whether on guitar or mandolin or even the nowadays rare piano solo, I find myself catching a whiff of a Zawinul riff in what’s spilling from my fingers. Automatically. With no help from me.

Jammed up in that musical DNA is also the star-studded litany of fusion artists from the days before fusion became muzak: John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea…. in other words, all the artists I dug through the cutout and used bins searching for. Joe has a special place in there. I played the grooves out of a 3-dolla copy of “Tale Spinning”.

Joe drove me crazy. He had this, kind of, Alpine thing going on that I understood, based on a brief year in my youth in Switzerland. His lines made sense to me and resonated with the little mountain goat I still carry around inside. On the other hand, I grew tired of his compositions. “Birdland” struck me as bombastic and smug from the first time I heard it – and boy did I have to listen to it a lot in those days. It was on everybody’s turntable and even got pretty heavy radio play on the underground FM jazz shows. I remember years after hearing a smarmy arrangement of it in an elevator on the way to the doctor and just shaking my head. But one of my favorite mood pieces is “Boogie Woogie Waltz” – that was my signature cut in the days that I was a fusion DJ in the 70s.

I read once in Keyboard magazine that Joe had a special Yamaha upright that he had modified to add resistance to the keys, making it harder to depress them. I always figured him to the the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the keyboard, and I pitied his OBX with its delicate little keys.

I broke up with Weather Report before they broke up with themselves. Fusion was in decline, I was listening to Talking Heads and Adrian Belew and Elvis Costello and Iggy Pop and the Police and I was trying to recapture the rock thing in me. It was becoming obvious to me at the time that I just didn’t have the chops to be a real jazzer.

I found that I was a rocker who, without warning, would bust out with some Zawinul-sounding licks.

See ya, Joe. By and by.

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