Josef Zawinul served his time in Cannonball Adderley’s band before being drafted into Miles Davis’ group for the groundbreaking albums In A Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970). Zawinul then left to record Zawinul (1971), a classical/jazz album that explored many of the same avant-garde and ambient sounds featured in the contemporary work of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. That album, which featured Miroslav Vitous and (on one track) Wayne Shorter, provided the launching point for Zawinul’s next project, Weather Report.
Zawinul’s restless pursuit of new sounds resulted in Weather Report’s constant state of metamorphosis. The eponymous Weather Report (1971) sounds radically different from Sweetnighter (1973), which sounds radically different from Black Market (1975), et cetera. Throughout, Zawinul continued to embrace new sounds through the use of synthesizers. His performance on “A Remark You Made” from Heavy Weather (1976) is nothing less than sublime.
After Weather Report disbanded, Zawinul released di-a-lects (1986) and soon formed The Zawinul Syndicate. Many of Zawinul’s albums are written from the perspective of the immigrant, and in a sense Zawinul has always seen the world around him as strange and alien. Although not a soloist in the sense of a Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock, Zawinul’s melange of sounds and notes is remarkably complex and can be very moving. His early work has influenced composers such as Brian Eno and Harold Budd, while his mid 70s recordings with Weather Report are still the gold standard for synthesizers in a jazz setting.
Kronomyth 3.0: DIME A DOZEN. If this album were simply bad, I could live with that. But it’s boring, and for a Zawinul record that’s unpardonable. Looking over my notes as I listened to this album, they’re pretty snarky: “Money in the Pocket” (“I would literally pay money for this song to end right now”), “If” (“The bass player should release his own album and call it Pussyfootin’”), “My One And Only Love” (“Who did they hire to tune their piano, Archie Bunker?”). The sentimental tracks are all right (“Sharon’s Waltz,” “Midnight Mood”), although here again they’re nothing that the hard bop era didn’t produce in better quality in barrels. It’s not a question of talent—Joe Henderson, Blue Mitchell and Pepper Adams are strictly top-shelf—but of wasted talent, as the players never rise above the role of hired horns. Zawinul, of course, got better (maybe they should have called this Newt’s Time), which is likely little consolation to anyone who bought this album hoping to hear the music of Weather Report in its earliest stages. Ordinarily, you could dismiss an album like this to youthful inexperience, but Zawinul was already an established player in his 30s. Listen to Herbie Hancock’s Takin’ Off (it’s a near certainty that Zawinul did) and you’d never guess that the pair would soon be comfortably mentioned in the same breath. If you’re a Weather Report fan, curiosity will eventually get the better of you—this despite the album’s generating universal ennui among critics—so all I can do is add my two cents and hope that it’ll encourage you to keep your money in your pocket.
Kronomyth 5.0: SILENT KNIGHT. This is an ambient/classical/jazz album recorded in between Joe Zawinul’s brief but brilliant stint in the Miles Davis group and the formation of Weather Report. It’s in line with his work from the period, a kind of continuation of the ambient jazz introduced on In A Silent Way (1969), recorded with a large ensemble cast similar to Bitches Brew (1970) and featuring future Weather Report co-founders Miroslav Vitous and Wayne Shorter. Although it didn’t change the direction of jazz like Silent Way or Bitches Brew, and nothing on here is quite as lovely as “Orange Lady,” Zawinul is an important milestone in the career and development of Joe Zawinul, one of the great visionary keyboardists of the 20th century. Conceived as a tone poem of sorts, the album contains five songs that have deep, personal meaning to Zawinul, including a return to “In A Silent Way,” here presented in its original form with the introduction intact. In describing this music, I keep returning to the protogenesis of a new world. It’s matter in movement, the death and rebirth of stars and planets in a strange, new galaxy of sound. Yet this is also sentimental music in many ways; in earlier attempts at this review (I often go through multiple intros before I find the right mood), I had cast Zawinul as a science-fiction sentimentalist. He’s an intrepid explorer with a backpack of childhood memories slung over one shoulder, and perhaps it’s that dual residency in the past and the future that allows him to see everything as alien. As for the supporting musicians, they’re only chess pieces to a point, or colors on a palette from which Zawinul is free to paint. In other words, the exciting things that might have happened in an open collaboration between Zawinul and Herbie Hancock don’t happen here. Zawinul’s creation is closed to the idea of chaos in that sense; it’s a controlled experiment and Zawinul is the lone mad scientist in a room full of high-ranking henchmen. At the time of its release, Zawinul charted respectably but was overshadowed by Bitches Brew and forgotten in the wake of Weather Report. It’s an album ripe for rediscovery, especially if your tastes lean toward the aforementioned albums, ambient composers like Brian Eno and Harold Budd, or the free jazz experiments of John Coltrane.