Belaboring the Obvious

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mr. Gone...

... is gone.

Joe Zawinul, the keyboardist for Miles Davis, and the co-founder of Weather Report (along with Wayne Shorter), died last week at the age of 75, of cancer.

I can't delineate his every move in the jazz world. I mostly knew of his work through Weather Report. I remember, as a grad student at WMU in Michigan, being happy for the signal from WKAR in the late-night hours, when jazz reigned there, and became entranced by Weather Report and Zawinul's shifts from Rhodes piano to piano to synthesizer.

In jazz, from the time of late 1940s bebop onward, the sax players have dominated, perhaps because the instruments have mimicked the range of human voices, and because bebop was so much dependent upon vocal phrasing... it was a kind of singing that not everyone did.

But, there were still keyboardists. Zawinul, I think, took off when electronic keyboard instruments were finally able to bend and shape notes in ways that an ordinary piano could not, but which the saxophonist could with relative ease.

Zawinul, I think, throughout his career, wanted that saxophonist's voice, even though he'd committed to keyboards. It might have been why, when he wanted a group of his own, he gravitated toward Wayne Shorter as a partner.

I saw Weather Report live only once, in the unlikely venue of a small concert hall in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1977. It was a wonderful show, full of fat licks and smoke machines and Zawinul in his knitted skullcap ably managing three keyboards at once. My only remorse about it was that I'd found seats four or five rows from the stage, close enough so that Jaco Pastorius could see me laughing at his sneaking in rock 'n roll licks into his bass lines. He kept looking at me as if I was laughing at him, not with him, and I wish I could have told him, no, bro, you're providing the fun, rather than being the fool yourself.

So, when Pastorius died after being attacked outside a bar in Florida--after a long slide down the chute toward mental illness--I was still reminded of the role that Joe Zawinul had in making him a jazz icon.

Joe was attracted to and attracted musical geniuses. Because he was one.


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