Once leader of the seminal Weather Report, Joe Zawinul recently took his current project, The Zawinul Syndicate, on the road. Simon Trask talks with an acknowledged master of the synthesiser.
For 15 years, keyboardsman Joe Zawinul was the driving force behind Weather Report; today he's leading The Zawinul Syndicate and still master of the synthesiser.
Synthesisers. Countless musicians use 'em, but relatively few have managed to establish their own unique, instantly-identifiable voice on them. One musician who long ago managed to do just that is Joe Zawinul, co-founder with saxophonist Wayne Shorter of perhaps the greatest fusion group of all time, Weather Report. "The music is a soundtrack for your imagination and head", Zawinul was quoted as saying in the sleeve notes to the very first Weather Report album (back in 1971), yet if the group's music was ever cerebral it was never wholly that. What has always made Weather Report's music special, and given it its lasting impact, has been its ability to communicate on a deeply emotional level - to touch not only the mind but also the body, heart and soul of the listener. Where so much fusion is about cleverness and surface gloss, leaving you with the feeling that the music's only purpose is to demonstrate the technical prowess of the musicians playing it, in Weather Report's music technical prowess has always been subservient to a deeper meaning - the conveyor of the message rather than the message itself.
Zawinul's evocative synth textures were at the heart of Weather Report's music in more ways than one, providing both its musical and its emotional mainstay.
In truth, any instrument is no more than what you make of it. Emotion and authenticity can only come from the musician to be transmitted through the instrument to the listener; in the right hands, a synthesiser is no less effective a conduit than any other instrument. No-one has proved this more effectively than Joe Zawinul.
Although Weather Report made their last forecast in 1986 with This Is This, their 15th album (16th if you count the Japanese-issue Live In Tokyo double album from 72), Zawinul didn't hang up his famous skullcap, switch off his synths and opt for a life of leisure. Instead, he led the touring band Weather Update for a while, then formed a new band The Zawinul Syndicate and released The Immigrants and Black Water in '88 and '89. Work on a third Zawinul Syndicate album was put on hold while he produced Malian singer Salif Keita's latest album, Amen, but recording has since been completed, with just the mixing left to be done - apparently, Zawinul is going to bring in Roland's RSS 3D sound imaging system - and then the finished album, to be titled Patriotism, should be released in March.
In June '91, Zawinul and the band proved themselves a live force to be reckoned with when they flew into London and played a couple of storming nights at the Jazz Cafe. A return two-night engagement in early November as part of a lengthy European tour provided an opportunity to meet up with the man who has been an inspiration to so many synth players over the years - and whose music is now being discovered by a new generation of musicians armed with samplers.
Zawinul greets me at the door to his hotel suite with a firm handshake. In person he's a stocky, muscular figure, medium height with a gravelly voice and a warm but intense gaze matched by a warm but intense manner. He looks in good shape - you wouldn't believe he will be 60 years old this year.
As we settle down to chat, I start by asking him what he thinks of the notion of the synth hero.
"I don't relate to this at all, and I don't care about it", he replies. "I like when people like my music, and that's all I need. All I want is that the music is being interpreted correctly and then everything is going to be fine. I don't have to be no hero or nothing, it doesn't mean anything to me."
Well, that's that one sorted. So how does Zawinul view the instrument which has been his chosen medium of expression for almost 20 years?
"I don't overrate the synthesiser", he replies. "It's nothing but a tool, like a trumpet is a tool. The synthesiser is always put in the category of the piano just because of the keys, which I think is absurd, because it is not more related to a piano than any other instrument. It's a totally different instrument, only it's triggered by something that maybe a piano player might understand better than a trumpet player, say.
"I never was one to translate what I would play on an acoustic piano to a synthesiser, and I think the fault of many synthesists today is that they do just that. They only use the synthesiser for the curiosity of a sound, they don't phrase for that sound. They still phrase like they would play the acoustic piano, and therefore they sound funny, comical at times, because it doesn't make it. Even the good synthesiser players, even the famous ones, I hear that often they sound stiff on different sounds because they look at the keys and play more like they're keyboard players, but you cannot do it, because the tool changes the moment the sound changes. You must move from a hammer, maybe, to some pliers.
"I have for instance developed a violin sound on the T8 which will knock everyone out. Period. It's all on touch sensitivity. But you've got to play it like a violin, not as if you're playing it on a keyboard. You've got to feel it. You've got to feel every sound and you've got to practice every sound, 'cos every sound is to be played differently.
"Let me tell you something. I've played many instruments. Synthesiser is by far the most difficult instrument, when you really want to play it well, because you've got to live with each sound, you've got to become that sound. It doesn't mean you have to change personality all the time. It's like a decathlon, where you have to go from the high hurdles to the discus throw to the hammer to the shotput to the pole-vault. You've got to be quick, and when I play I'm very quick. For me, growing up with an instrument which did that, the accordion, it was no problem."
Zawinul began playing the accordion when he was five years old, back in his native Austria, and has returned to it in recent years, using it on a track from Black Water called 'Medicine Man', and also on Salif Keita's album.
Listening to 'Medicine Man', it's striking how well the sound of the accordion fits into the characteristic Zawinul sound world. He was once quoted as saying that the accordion was the original synthesiser. So did the instrument influence his conception of the synthesiser?
"I think so, subconsciously", he replies, "because also then I made my music according to the sound. On an accordion you have different registers, meaning whenever you hit one of those registers it gets another sound up, you can change the sound."
Zawinul also discovered a more unorthodox means of changing the accordion's sound: "I had arranged a piece of music called 'The Caliph of Baghdad', but the tone I had on the accordion was not quite what I needed, so I took the soundboard off and glued in some material which changed the sound to a nasal type of sound, almost a double-reed instrument. The closest I would say I came to it with the synthesiser was the ARP sound on the melody of 'Black Market', a nice mellow tone and yet you couldn't miss it. So yes, I'd say the accordion was without a question the real father of the whole synthesiser movement!"
In the past few years, Zawinul has been playing a MIDI controller instrument which goes by the endearing name of Pepe. Don't be surprised if you haven't come across it in your local music emporium, however, as there's only one in existence. Conceptually a cross between a wind instrument and an accordion, it was designed by Zawinul and built - reportedly at a cost of $40,000 - by Korg. Playing it involves blowing into one end of what looks like a microphone gooseneck while pressing buttons on the main body of the instrument to select the notes and to change registers. It does look a little unusual, but Zawinul is fluent on it, and uses it at the Jazz Cafe to play saxophone solos, triggering a sax sample on his Korg M1R.
"By having the breath control I can do many things with it", he says. "If you blow into a saxophone you get a tone, and then what you do with this tone is what's happening. The notes you play are important, but also what you do with the sound of those notes. And with Pepe I have it right there in front of me."
In case you're wondering how Korg came to be producing the instrument, Zawinul has been involved with the company informally since 1977.
"Analogue has that little uncleanliness, and for me that's part of music - no natural instrument in the world is totally dean. None."
"They came to me when I was in Tokyo with Weather Report and I met this man, Ryo Takahashi, a very kind human being", he recalls. "They were fans of my music and they said how much they were interested if I would try out their instruments and tell them what could be made a little different and a little better. Nothing was ever signed. I just felt they were very sincere in making good instruments, and that was good enough for me."
As you'll see from the equipment list at the end of this interview, Zawinul uses a lot of Korg gear on stage. He also uses a mixture of analogue and digital synths. In fact, at the Jazz Cafe he divided his time mostly between the M1 and the T8. The Wavestation, being the most recent addition to his setup, was used sparingly but tellingly, always making an impact when it came in. The 707, which sat atop the T8, was used primarily as the MIDI input for the vocoder, but came through very effectively at one point with a harmonica sound. The two DSM1s appeared to be confined to occasional orchestral hits.
Courtesy of a MIDI routing box which was custom-designed for him by one of his former keyboard techs, Jim Swanson, Zawinul is able to route any of his keyboards to any of his expanders. Another feature of the Zawinul live setup - one which he has made use of for many years - is a semi-circular spread of 11 volume pedals, each one of which is labelled with the name of the instrument it's plugged into. Using these pedals in conjunction with the routing of the MIDI box, he's able to spontaneously layer and balance sounds on different combinations of instruments.
"It's good because you're working with your dynamics. Sometimes something a little louder is good, and you bring it in softly and you can just deal with it. Or you can bring something in and out very quickly. It's not for everybody. You have to be really coordinated. I forgot one change last night."
Zawinul seems to be able to get the results he wants out of any synth, whether it's analogue or digital. But where does he stand in the eternal analogue versus digital debate?
"Well, I tell you something, man, I still use my old instruments. The Prophet T8, the Rhodes Chroma Expander, the Oberheim Xpander... These are my three main analogue instruments that I have used for years. For me it's analogue, because analogue has that little uncleanliness, and for me that's part of music. No natural instrument in the world is totally clean. None. And that makes music, that's part of the ambience, for me. Often when I have a sound, I create a little growl thing in there, I can maybe just put a little noise on it to give it that humanity."
So which synth out of the many he has used over the years would Zawinul say is his favourite?
"Of all the instruments I ever had? The T8 is my favourite instrument, because for me it's the most simple instrument", he answers. "My technical expertise has been overrated. I'm pretty dumb when it comes to a knowledge of electronics, frankly speaking. I mean, I have to admit this. But I know the T8 inside out. If you asked me now what is written under the second knob, I wouldn't know, but I know by feeling what these things do. I have about 154 sounds in my T8, because it's been modified for me so I can have another bank. I have really good sounds in there."
In his house in Malibu, California, Zawinul has a music room where he records whenever he's at home. Rather than just work on tracks specifically for an album, he records all the time, and has a massive library of tracks stored away on cassette.
"I can do ten tunes in a day", he says. "If I say I have two thousand cassettes full of music, and actually useable music, I would say I'm not overdoing it. 'Cos I've been doing this shit for 20 years, you know? I have rows of organised cassettes, and there's an hour-and-a-half on each cassette. Symphonic music, all kind of folks' music..."
Zawinul describes himself as an instinctive musician who doesn't need to think about things like what harmonies he's using - whatever comes into his head he's able to transfer straight onto the keyboard. He sees the roles of player, composer and orchestrator as one.
"All my compositions are improvisations, and they all come out of sounds", he explains. "I like that original idea which comes through your mind. I don't know how it comes through and I really don't care to know, but I try to preserve it as close as I can. I have found this in my music life: of all the songs I have written which have been recorded, the most successful were those which came closest to the original improvisation, and that shows me that it is the right way."
The spirit of the original...
"Cannot be beaten. And all those songs, like 'A Remark You Made', that was one improvisation from A to Z. And that's the way we interpreted it. And 'Birdland'."
When his band are learning a new track, he gives each of them a cassette of his original improvisation.
"I want them to learn about the original because that's what I'm always going back to, to the original feeling, how the tune was perceived."
So how does Zawinul set about creating a track?
"I set myself up maybe a click track and put a little rhythm together", he replies. "I don't want to waste too much time on programming a drum machine, because while that rhythm is going on I'm recording already. I'll start fiddling with the tone on one of my analogue instruments, maybe the T8. I like to feature my analogue sounds. I'm really quick at finding a sound I like. Boom! I play something, then maybe in the middle I don't like the sound as much any more so I tweak it a little bit and keep on, and there all of a sudden is a song, it don't take no time."
Although these days he uses Hybrid Arts sequencing software for recording, in many respects he treats the sequencer as if it were a tape machine.
"I play everything live, man, and I don't like no quantisation", he says firmly. "For my music, quantisation doesn't work."
"If I say I have two thousand cassettes full of music, and actually useable music, I would say I'm not overdoing it. 'Cos I've been doing this shit for 20 years."
However, there are some features of MIDI sequencing which he is happy to make use of.
"With the sequencer I can get takes from other recordings which I like. I might think 'That would be a nice drum line, but I don't want it played by a drummer, I want this drum middle played by a cello'. It's just a magic game, it's a beautiful game."
And he isn't averse to bringing pre-MIDI sequencing into play every now and then. "I do sometimes use an old ARP sequencer that I have. I connect the Oberheim Xpander to it and I have some crazy programs with the six oscillators playing different sounds. I'll trigger them in a random way, or maybe accentuate the first and third notes in an eight-note, 16ths pattern and take the middle one out. It's really like an African band, where all the different timbres make up little rhythm patterns. They're not melodic sequences, it's just to add something to the flavour, give you something to play on. Then I put a bassline on top of it, a melody line and an accompaniment and the tune is finished, man."
Zawinul sums up his attitude to working with his synths thus: "It's fun, it's just fun. I call it 'games synthesisers play', you know? If you're intelligent and if you are musical and don't let this stuff overwhelm you... If you get trigger-happy then you will never play nothing on the synthesiser, because the possibilities are so vast."
Zawinul's musical career stretches back past Weather Report and synthesisers. Born in 1932 in Vienna, he began his musical studies at the Vienna Conservatory aged seven, where he learnt piano and studied European classical music. It wasn't something he enjoyed greatly.
"I hated it", he recalls. "I hated that horizontal approach, and number two I didn't like the material. I found it to be awfully boring playing Mozart Sonatas and Bach Preludes."
After the war, he played in American servicemen's clubs in France and Germany for a while, discovering the Hammond B3 organ in the process. During much of the '50s he was part of a popular music trio in Austria, playing the accordion most of the time. However, in 1959 he moved to New York in search of the jazz life, and soon found himself playing in Maynard Ferguson's big band. Later that year he landed the job of piano accompanist to singer Dinah Washington, then in 1961 he joined saxophonist Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley's band as keyboard player, remaining with the band until he and Shorter decided to form Weather Report. Steeping himself in the jazz tradition, he also used to play informally with two giants of the saxophone, Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins; a 1963 album on the Riverside label, Soulmates, brought Webster and Zawinul together on record, and provides an opportunity to hear Zawinul the traditional jazz pianist in action.
While with Adderley, Zawinul not only composed classic tunes like 'Mercy, Mercy, Mercy' and 'Country Preacher' but also introduced the sound of the Wurlitzer electric piano to jazz music. It was his use of the Wurlitzer which first turned Miles Davis on to the sound of the electric piano. Then in the late-'60s he played Fender Rhodes on such classic Davis albums as In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Live-Evil.
Synthesisers didn't appear until the third Weather Report album, Sweetnighter. But even before then he was always after new sounds, delving into the innards of the acoustic piano, or processing the sound of the electric piano with effects like ring modulation.
With the death of Miles Davis a few months ago, I couldn't let the opportunity pass to ask Zawinul, a long-time friend of the trumpeter, for some words on the great man - for instance, what did he feel he personally had learnt from Miles Davis?
"I learned number one not to talk about music", he replies. "We hardly ever talked about music, Miles and me - or Wayne and me. Wayne and me worked together for 15 years in Weather Report, and the times we actually talked about music were very rare. We were not, let's say, occupied with music. Most young musicians I hear, that's usually what they do talk about, music. But we played it. Talks were used for ideas in general. Political views, view's about life - things and ideas rather than people and music.
"I think I picked up also from Miles a certain sense of business. Always regardless of how the situation is, you always have to know who you are, and represent your music with great respect and honour. He took his music very, very seriously. I don't know, what can you say, he was a very, very good friend, I always had great admiration for his artistry in every way. He had it. Some people have it and some people don't, and he had it. He was interested in things, and that made him interesting. He had a way of drawing people to him without being obnoxious. As a human being he made noise around him without making noise, to get attention without doing all that much.
"To me, when I give you an overall view of Miles Davis, I'd say... maybe the best musician I've ever played with in my life. Not just a musician, but an artist who made music. There's a difference. There are a lot of great musicians but very few artists, and he was one of them. A real artist."
As people have been discovering, Weather Report's albums provide a rich source for jazzy sample loops. Is this something that Zawinul is aware of - and how does he feel about people using extracts from his music?
"People do this on my music a lot", he replies. "You know what I think about it? I think it's good, but it's only good if the original people (a) get credit for it, and (b) get paid for it. That's only fair."
He goes on to relate one example of an American group who used '125th Street Congress' from the Sweetnighter album. In this instance, the group's management contacted Zawinul and asked him what it would take for them to be able to use the track; the end result was that Zawinul and the group shared the publishing, and he got credited on the record. "This is OK with me, it's fine", he says. "
To explain what is not OK with him, he gives another example, in this case a track by MC 900ft Jesus called 'The Truth is Out of Style' - an appropriate title, perhaps - which uses 16 bars of 'Cucumber Slumber' from the Mysterious Traveller album as a loop through the track.
"They never contacted me. See, this to me is illegal. Herbie Hancock got me with this guy who is one of the greatest detectives of things like that. He got Herbie back $175,000 dollars for one song. I mean, this is serious money being made. Some of these groups are getting No. 1 hit records using your ideas as a fundament."
So, samplers watch out, the detective's on your trail. I wonder if he's discovered 'Butter', a track on A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory album which samples the opening bars of 'Young And Fine' from Mr Gone?
For Zawinul, it's not sampling but live playing which gives him the greatest buzz in his musical life. Years of touring haven't diminished his enthusiasm for placing himself in front of an audience.
"I love it, man. For me it's the whole ball-game. I like to work at home in the studio, of course, but in general I like to be out there playing for people, because that's the true feeling, where your musicianship... I think for every good musician the greatest thrill is to play in front of people, live. No bullshit, everything is like it is, no hiding, no running. There you are, naked, and that's what I like."