I’ve spent a few days reflecting, and there’s more that Joe left in me that I haven’t described yet. Bear with me, it’ll take a minute to paint the picture.
If I said to you, “Carlos Santana!” you’d probably hear in your mind’s ear that buzzing, saturated sound that only Carlos can get and wield properly. Sure, I can get a distortion soaked, infinite sustainy tone out of my rig, but that doesn’t make me sound like Santana. But I believe it propels me towards studying what my own sound is, by comparing the possibilities and reacting to myself. It’s about taste and choices.
If I said to you, “Joe Zawinul!”, what would you hear?
Joe came along at the time when keyboard technology changed rapidly over a forty year period. Think about this: when Joe went to Berklee, nobody was playing Fender Rhodeses yet. When he left us this week, my laptop could put together a synth rig 10 times the size and power of what he played in 1975 without breaking a sweat. That’s a long way to come. Joe rode this wave of innovation and was one of its leaders. He relentlessly studied and found new sounds. He was one of the pioneers. He was on of my heroes.
His sound profoundly influenced my sound, and I pursued a line of study that lead me through the bowels of analog synth programming and equipment schlepping. Thinking back on those days this morning, I’m reminded of two tangible pieces of evidence of how Joe influenced me.
First, the Fender Rhodes. I used to lug one of those around back in the seventies. I’m fortunate enough to still remain friends with some of the other guys whose backs complained every time we had to move me to another jam or gig. I loved the sound of that instrument for two reasons: Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul. I went through a period where I would constantly play the Rhodes through a wah-wah and phase shifter, just to get that Zawinul sound.
Second, Joe’s Arp 2600s. I was immediately turned on as a kid by any track that had synthesizers in it, starting from then-Walter Carlos’ “Switched-On Bach” to “Here Come the Sun”. By the time “Chameleon” hit the scene, synths had become part of the funk lingua franca and would enjoy a decade of over-use until they very much fell from fashion and became a joke.
If you have a chance, look up a cut called “The Juggler” – it’s my favorite cut on “Heavy Weather”, and it’s for me one shining example of what Joe was all about. It’s his tune, it bounces around in a triple/duple kind of way, using his sing-songy pentatonics, and the sweet little lead sound he coaxes out ot the 2600 is priceless and haunting. It haunted me for all those years, a mental backdrop that never got erased by Talking Heads or The Clash. If you’re lucky, you’ll find a used copy somewhere.