Print this Page

World Music Features

Joe Zawinul

By Larry Blumenfeld
Published January 30, 2006

He made his name as a keyboardist with Miles Davis and Weather Report. But the development of Zawinul’s music since the 1970s has involved a mastery of all things electronic. For the past few decades, Joe Zawinul has not even had an acoustic piano on the stage when he performs.

Within the pages of an Austrian publication of Joe Zawinul’s autobiography, there’s a photo of the pianist seated at his instrument, playing, circa 1963. Leaning over him, looking somewhat teary-eyed, is Duke Ellington.

Some of Ellington’s band members had invited me down to a recording session,” Zawinul says, his voice crackling as he recounts that moment. “And one of them told Duke that he had to hear me play ‘Come Sunday.’ So that picture is of me playing it for him. When I finished, he told me, ‘You play that better than I do.’”

Now, Ellington may have been acting his gracious self. And Zawinul himself is prone to overstatement. Still, the point was well made: The Austrian-born musician has always intuitively understood what African-American music was about, and he’s consistently expressed it in a compelling way. So it’s not surprising that Zawinul nailed “Come Sunday”—a signature ballad composed by an icon of jazz—when he played it some 40 years ago.

The story is believable, for many reasons, including a lovely rendition of the tune he offered at a recent concert in Istanbul, Turkey. There, Zawinul’s Syndicate, as he calls his band, included Sabine Kabongo, a former member of the vocal group Zap Mama, whose family background is both Belgian and African. She sang “Come Sunday” in duet with Zawinul, who this time was sitting behind a battery of electronic keyboards and synthesizers, as has been customary for him since the 1970s. As performed that night, the song would have sounded contemporary to a casual audience member. Yet it retained the gospelish power and authenticity of the more traditional renditions.

Yet this was one isolated moment of a two-hour concert that spanned generations and continents as it brought the Turkish audience to its feet in appreciation. Zawinul’s current Syndicate is about as international a band as you’re likely to find. In addition to he and Kabongo, in Istanbul, there was drummer Paco Sery (from the Ivory Coast), bassist Etienne M’Bappe (from Cameroon), guitarist Amit Chaterjee (Northern India), and percussionist Manolo Badrena (Puerto Rico).

Badrena had worked with Zawinul decades ago in the groundbreaking fusion group Weather Report, which found Zawinul paired famously with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Jaco Pastorius. And the audience in Istanbul seemed well acquainted with Zawinul’s long and illustrious musical career: his early tenure with jazz standard-bearers such as saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley in the early 1960s his brief but significant work with trumpeter Miles Davis in the late ’60s the phenomenal popular and critical success of Weather Report in the 1970s and ’80s his work as a soloist, bandleader and composer in the years since. In fact, after the concert, at least one Turkish fan went backstage with a pile of albums for the pianist to autograph.