Joe Zawinul Biography

Josef Erich Zawinul, 7 July 1932, Landstraße, Vienna, Austria, d. 11 September 2007, Vienna, Austria. After studying music at the Vienna Conservatory, Zawinul’s musical ambitions soon outgrew the limited opportunities for a jazz musician in Austria shortly after the war, but financial necessity meant that he spent the 50s almost exclusively involved in local session work. Playing piano in dance and radio orchestras, and working as the house pianist for Polydor Records, he played only briefly with the talented saxophonist Hans Koller in 1952. However, his fortunes improved suddenly in 1959, when he won a scholarship to Berklee College Of Music in Boston. Emigrating to the USA, he immediately received a huge amount of attention, and decided to spend the rest of 1959 touring with Maynard Ferguson. Two years with Dinah Washington followed this, and then in 1961 he began a musical collaboration with Cannonball Adderley (Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!, recorded in 1966) which was to last nine years. Although he recorded with other musicians during this period - most notably Miles Davis (In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew) - it was Zawinul’s work with Adderley that spread his reputation as an inventive improviser and talented writer. His composition ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’, now a jazz classic, won a Grammy Award for the group, and his use of the Wurlitzer and Fender Rhodes electric pianos helped popularise the instrument in the jazz world.

At the end of 1970 Zawinul joined Wayne Shorter to form the highly influential Weather Report, the band with which he will always be primarily associated. During his time with Weather Report he gradually moved over from the piano to the synthesizer, and was regarded as one of the few musicians to actually use the instrument as a compositional tool rather than a mere accessory. When Weather Report disbanded in 1985, after 15 years of phenomenal success, Zawinul began touring Europe and the USA again as a soloist, forming Weather Update and then the Zawinul Syndicate. The latter unit showcased his increasing interest in world music: World Tour, recorded in Germany in 1997, showcased a particularly stunning performance. Zawinul also recorded several solo albums during this period and also composed a complete symphony, Stories Of The Danube.

Zawinul’s stellar contributions to Adderley’s group, his work with Davis on In A Silent Way (he composed the title track), and his highly successful contributions to Weather Report, will ensure that he will not be forgotten. His dark, ominous chord voicings and electric piano sound will remain a distinctive part of fusion for many years to come.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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