Night Lights Classic Jazz

Joe Zawinul and Ben Webster’s “Soulmates”

Webster Zawinul SoulmatesReaction to the death of keyboardist and composer Joe Zawinul will undoubtedly be pouring in today from around the jazz blogosphere for the man who wrote “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “In a Silent Way,” and “Birdland.” Zawinul’s European and conservatory background, his key role in the great Cannonball Adderley soul-jazz groups of the 1960s, his time with Miles Davis, and, of course, his legacy as co-architect of Weather Report make him an important figure in post-1960 jazz–especially in the realm of electric piano, a still oft-disparaged instrument.

Zawinul had been enjoying a resurgence of attention in the past year, what with the release of Brown Street (a big-band revisitation of the Weather Report songbook), a cover appearance on the May issue of Downbeat, a three-CD Weather Report retrospective, and a general sense–building over the past several years, I think, especially with younger players and fans–that fusion (or electric jazz, as I prefer to call it) in its best forms is cool and relevant after all. “Fusion” is perhaps still the word to use for Zawinul, in a broader meaning of the word, when one takes into account the breadth of his discography and his compositional work.

One very early Zawinul studio date, Soulmates, recorded with then-roommate Ben Webster, showcases Zawinul in a straightahead setting circa 1963, laying back with the tenor saxophonist on American songbook (“Travlin’ Light,” “Like Someone in Love,” “Too Late Now”), Ellington (“Come Sunday”), and Webster and Zawinul originals (the title track and “Frog Legs,” respectively). Thad Jones joins in on cornet on some of the proceedings as well. It’s a little-noted moment in Zawinul’s career on record, although it was released under his own name as well as Webster’s. Last year I featured it during the second hour of Afterglow, a weekly program of jazz, ballads, and American popular song that I host for WFIU. Zawinul’s playing is tasteful and empathetic throughout; you can hear much of the album during that hour of Afterglow, posted at the top of this page. (Zawinul’s previously-unknown “Requieum for a Jazz Musician,” which appeared on a CD release of a 1966 Cannonball Adderley concert two years ago, is also included in the Night Lights program Turn Out the Stars II.)

Although I’m not as deep into Weather Report as I probably should be, I’ll offer up Black Market as one potential in-memoriam title to listen to, opening with three straight Zawinul compositions, including the particularly strong title tune and an elegaic tribute to Zawinul’s former boss Adderley (it also marked the Weather Report debut of bassist Jaco Pastorius. Another CD well worth tracking down is the Rhino twofer, Rise and Fall of the Third Stream/Money in the Pocket; the first album finds Zawinul working in a progressive vein with the always-interesting and perennially-underrated Clare Fischer, while the second features Joe in a setting somewhat akin to his Adderley 60′s context, with Joe Henderson, Blue Mitchell, Pepper Adams, and Louis Hayes along for the ride.

“Who knows what happens next,” Zawinul said in the May 2007 Downbeat article. “When you get to be 75, you have lived most of your life. You got to be realistic.” Let’s mourn for Joe Zawinul and cheer for those who hope to carry the music forward as much as he did in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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  • Bill Forbes

    A nice balanced assessment, David. I, too, have misgivings about Weather Report and prefer the Zawinul of the Webster album where he not only excels in his Barry Harris mode, but sometimes sounds positively Tatumesque! In the former style he’s heard again to advantage on The Cannonball Adderley Sextet in New York. Incidentally, in my youth I heard Zawinul play with Cannonball when the sextet visited Manchester U. K. I think the year was 1964. Charles Lloyd was on tenor. A great experience!

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