Even if you aren’t particularly familiar with Joe Zawinul, it would be a surprise if you haven’t heard his music somewhere at some point.
A hugely influential jazz musician, the Austrian keyboardist played a critical role in the development of jazz fusion throughout the 1970s and 80s. In this article, we’ll take a look at ten of the best recording from his five-decade career.
Anyone interested in electric fusion inevitably discovers his role as a pioneer of keyboard technology. At the very least, most people will probably have heard his most famous tune “Birdland” in one form or another.
If you’re more of a jazzhead, you’ve probably heard of some other titles such as ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy’ and ‘In a Silent Way’ – not common toe-tappers to sing along with, but instrumental pieces that continue to sound fresh and innovative to this day.
This was Joe Zawinul’s style – too restless to follow obvious forms, he would instead wander down unexpected avenues and often find a way to make any alien ideas feel accessible and natural.
He was best known for co-founding the iconic jazz-rock group Weather Report with saxophonist Wayne shorter, however his discography extends far beyond this one project with countless credits as a sideman and numerous solo albums.
In this article, we’ll take a tour through some defining highlights and obscurities from his prolific career that spanned jazz, rock and world music.
Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley (1962)
Zawinul studied multiple instruments as a child; the violin and clarinet didn’t stick but the piano did. It led him to move from his native Austria to study in the US at the end of the 1950s, though he ended up on the road with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson after spending barely a week in school.
It wasn’t much longer before his first defining gig, backing saxophonist Cannonball Adderley through most of the 1960s.
Intentionally or not, this collection of songs is almost like two albums in one.
Several tracks show the charismatic singing style that would make Nancy Wilson’s name as both an artist and entertainer. Woven in between were a few tracks featuring just Adderley and his band, which reflected what fun the evolving combo was having on the bandstand every night.
It’s a matter of taste which of the two you prefer, but the instrumental section undoubtedly gave the players much more space to stomp and stretch their instrumental muscles.
For such an endlessly inventive young pianist, grasping the form of bebop would be only the beginning.
Cannonball Adderley – Mercy Mercy Mercy! Live at The Club (1967)
While Adderley was very much for the frontman of his band, he also gave his fellow musicians space to bring their own virtuosity and musicianship to the table.
Joe Zawinul’s own creativity was increasingly coming out in this context, not least with some funky electric Wurlitzer on his soulful title track (which reached #11 on the charts). Leaving that modern jazz standard aside, it’s a set that exudes joy and swings hard.
Miles Davis: In a Silent Way (1969)
Zawinul had frequent flirtations with the electric piano during the 1960s, which flourished once Joe Zawinul joined Miles Davis at the end of the decade.
In A Silent Way didn’t make a huge splash at the time, but is now regarded as one of the greatest and earliest examples of jazz fusion.
After using organ and electric bass on a couple of precious tracks, Davis was easing into his electric phase with this cosy piece of late-night dreaminess.
The central mood grew around the title track – one of’s Zawinul compositions – which sums up the essence of this outing with its elusive beauty.
Miles Davis: Bitches Brew (1970)
While the world of traditional jazz wasn’t quite sure how to handle the weird and wild sounds that electric instruments offered, the Davis crew barely hesitated before exploring the possibilities.
Where In a Silent Way was their way of dipping their foot in the pool, Bitches Brew showed them jumping into the deep end and creating one of the most revolutionary jazz albums of all time.
It leads with the Zawinul-penned “Pharaoh’s Dance,” a mysterious churn of murky trance and psychedelic echoes. Besides confusing listeners with the sheer noise, producer Teo Macero’s cut-and-paste experiments rearranged the pieces into new forms.
This technique was used to the point that on hearing a test recording of one of his songs, Zawinul could not even recognise that the composition was his own.
Listeners and critics were just as disoriented by the album as they were with In A Silent Way, making for a landmark that’s perpetually polarizing.
Like many self-titled releases, Zawinul was a defining statement showing all the elements that made up his identity.
Considering the mind behind it, that meant there were a whole lot of elements to squeeze in. It’s easy to draw a line back to the Davis crew’s crazy improvisations as well as forward to the globe-spanning reach of Weather Report, which was formed the same year.
While it’s easy to overlook in favour of what follows, this album displays many seeds of what was to come, fusing elements of soul jazz, fusion and hard bop.
Weather Report: I Sing the Body Electric (1972)
In the early 1970s, Joe Zawinul formed Weather Report which went on to become a truly iconic jazz fusion band that was almost synonymous with the genre.
Besides feeling their way into the new jazz-rock crossover field that was blooming in the States, Weather Report’s earliest incarnation didn’t shy away from the wacky avant-garde either.
The group drifted into freeform sound-sculpting impressionism more than once on its second LP (half of it recorded live for a doubtlessly baffled crowd), though a degree of groove insistently kept returning to offer the ears something to grab onto.
The sense of rhythm would only grow deeper and more prominent from here to become one of the band’s central efforts.
Weather Report: 8:30 (1979)
After several years and several lineup changes, the iconic jazz fusion band had found its most famous and stable lineup. Zawinul and the band’s co-founder and saxophonist Wayne Shorter were joined by Peter Erskine and bass guitar virtuoso Jaco Pastorius.
Their best-selling release Heavy Weather provided some hefty crowd-pleasers, including the pianist’s catchy staple ‘Birdland‘.
Songs from the band’s past continued to evolve with new arrangements and dynamics. Each album in the band’s catalogue deserves an essay of its own, but this late-’70s live set is probably the most defining single package.
By this time, Zawinul’s studio work was rooted in rhythms from all over the world, though it was surprising and impressive how few tools he needed to make it.
He used and processed vocals including his own, splicing them up using a primitive type of sampling. Otherwise, everything else was made with synthesisers and drum programs.
Though it could have been a gimmicky experiment, Joe Zawinul spun the pieces into organic music that breathed, always making sure the technology served the melody and the groove.
Quincy Jones: Back on the Block (1989)
Quincy Jones’s musical ambition reached War and Peace levels in assembling this monster project, packing old-guard legends like Davis and Dizzy Gillespie into the same hour with crooners like Barry White, soul diva Chaka Khan and the gospel sextet Take 6, topped off with rap verses by Ice-T and Big Daddy Kane.
It also happened to include the final studio recordings made by both Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, alongside the first recording by a still-pre-teen Tevin Campbell, which has to be one of the weirdest juxtapositions in music history.
The album gives another outing to ‘Birdland’ for which Jones and his cohorts won that year’s Grammys for Best Instrumental Arrangement and Best Jazz Fusion Performance.
Stories of the Danube (1996)
After arranging so many pieces for ensembles of various sizes, composing for an entire symphony was a logical step for Joe Zawinul.
The trademark sounds are all there: the fluid synthesizers, picturesque melodies and plenty of frisky drums and percussion, this time joined by the tones and grandeur of a full orchestra.
The sequence follows an extended arc, representing several periods of the region’s history. While it inevitably lacks the spontaneity of his smaller groups, it is an ambitious and unique album in the keyboardist’s catalogue.
Though the Syndicate bands had sizzling chemistry in every form, there was a very special energy at the Swiss festival where they celebrated the leader’s 75th birthday.
Weaving smooth eloquent lines, bending pitches and playing with robotic vocal processing, Zawinul sounds energetic and playful enough for someone half his age.
Frisky exotic jams fit alongside now-classic Weather Report staples for a colourful and epic summary of his whole career.
The live recording is joined by one extra track from a different show in Hungary, where Zawinul was again joined by Shorter for an extensive rendition of “In a Silent Way” that patiently blooms into something wonderful.
Zawinul passed away from skin cancer barely a couple of months after the release of 75 leaving behind a legacy that continues to influence musicians to this day.
Keep exploring the innovative sounds of jazz fusion by heading over to our rundown of the albums that defined the era.
And be sure to check out our list of the best albums from Zawinul’s long-time collaborator Wayne Shorter.