The Wizard of Austria

At 67, jazz great Joe Zawinul is just beginning to peak

Zawinul's earlier elegiac pieces such as "In a Silent Way" and "Pharaoh's Dance" provided the foundation on which Miles Davis changed modern music in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During that era, he pioneered the use of electronic keyboards as a means to express the endless menagerie of sounds inside his head.

His band these days is difficult to describe. It's easier to say what The Zawinul Syndicate is not: It's not what most people consider "straight-ahead" or traditional jazz. And it's definitely not the so-called "smooth" variety.

In live performances, Zawinul pushes his four much-younger colleagues--a guitarist, percussionist, drummer and bass player--to the limits of their abilities, much like a skilled point guard controls a basketball team.

The Syndicate works with musical themes based on Zawinul's elegant, funky, provocative improvisations that have been codified into composition.

("Improvisation," by the way, doesn't mean making it all up as he goes along. Zawinul's tunes are highly organized affairs, but within whose boundaries his cohorts have much room to show their stuff.)

Those who have reviewed the World Tour CD have devised a variety of ways to discuss its disparate sounds: "world-funk, Afro-Gypsy, electric-trance music"; "high-energy fusion, world rhythms and groovin' jazz"; "percussion extravaganza."

To Zawinul, the labels are meaningless.
"I know what I'm doing, that's all that counts," he says. "And I knew it when I was 7 years old, when I was playing the accordion in Austria by ear, the Gypsy songs. Nothing has changed."

Josef Eric Zawinul was born in Vienna, which is as important a musical city to Europe as New Orleans is to the States. His only sibling was a twin brother who died before his fourth birthday. The Zawinuls were poor, and his parents each worked two jobs to make ends meet. Luckily, he earned a scholarship at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory starting at age 7.

Sitting in his New York City loft more than a half-century later, Zawinul riffs about his childhood:

"Where I come from, anyone can play by the time you're 10, already be a master on your instrument. By the time I was 12, I could sight-read and play, really play. I had the greatest teachers in the world.

"My mom was one of 16 kids from the farm. Every holiday, we'd go to the farm to help my grandparents. Plow with the oxen, everything. We had civil war in the '30s in Austria, economic crisis so bad that nothing in this country compares, not even the Depression. Sometimes nothing to eat, or to drink. A catastrophe.

"My mama was a cook for a famous Jewish doctor--we were Catholic. He sent her to concerts sometimes, because she loved music so much. She had perfect pitch. Never learned music, but could sing like a bird. My dad was a great harmonica player. Played the blues, Austrian folk songs, old Gypsy songs. It all sunk into me, became part of me."

Zawinul long has spoken of searching out musicians who have life experience as well as expertise on their instruments. None is likely to have had more of the former than Zawinul himself, who survived World War II with luck and guile.

"The Russians came in in May of '45," he says. "It was very dangerous. German soldiers hiding in the woods. I greeted the Russians with a white flag and shovel. 'Hello, guys.'

"I got a job, which was to bury dead soldiers, Germans mostly. Sometimes we'd break their medals off to send to the parents. It was no big deal--we grew up like that, bombs and grenades. As long as you live to the next day and you got your family, everything is fine."

But the 13-year-old Zawinul didn't know for weeks after the war ended if everything was fine.

"My mom was in Vienna, and I was in the country. My dad was working somewhere far away. I didn't know then if they were dead or alive. I already lost four or five uncles to the war."

On the second day of the Russian occupation, Zawinul says, he had a close call: "Me and my cousin were angry at everyone, because we had nothing and were starving. We saw a Russian wagon with horses tied to it. We were so hungry. We snuck up and stole a horse. They would have shot us in one second, but they didn't see us. The horse was all beat up. We walked it to the next village, went to the butcher. 'You got to shoot this fuckin' horse.' He did. We got to eat, no bread or nothing. Delicious."

Zawinul says he practiced the piano whenever and wherever he could. He studied the music of his Austrian forebears--Liszt, Brahms and others--as he continued to immerse himself in his region's rich multicultural musical heritage.

In Vienna after the war, the movie Stormy Weather--which included Lena Horne, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway--provided Zawinul with an epiphany. He saw the flick over and over, and resolved to work someday with black jazz musicians in the States. In his early 20s, he started to earn a living playing straightahead jazz in Austria and around Europe, while continuing with his European classical studies.

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