People

Subscribe

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Archive

Thanks to Josef Zawinul, Jazz-Rock Boasts the Only Infallible Weather Report

Posted on

‘We don’t fuse,’ insists the leader, ‘we play from the heart’

In this go-with-the-flow era, a band that calls itself Weather Report would surely be ready to bend with the wind. But at this time of jazz-rock fusion (and confusion)—with pioneers like Chick Corea and John McLaughlin switching between electric and acoustic—the high-wattage Weather Report has never plugged out. The only thing its leader and keyboard maestro, Josef Zawinul, 46, resists is the label. “We don’t fuse nothing,” he says. “We just play from the heart.”

That would seem like a commercial death wish except that Weather Report’s eighth LP, Mr. Gone, ballooned to the top of the jazz charts and is nearing gold-record status, a rare feat in that bag. Moreover, the group was last month named band of the year for the seventh consecutive time in Down Beat’s respected jazz rankings. So when Zawinul says, “We’re first in a field of one,” he’s being overly modest. Not only was Josef named Down Beat’s synthesizer player of the year, but soprano saxophonist Wayne Shorter, 45, and bassist Jaco Pastorius, 27, also led their categories. (The band’s fourth member, drummer Peter Erskine, 24, might have finished higher if he hadn’t joined up just last June.)

Zawinul is the only jazz-rock star around who studied with a Vienna conservatory. Born in Austria to a metalworker father, he first played gypsy and folk tunes on an accordion, then studied piano with “a pupil of a pupil of Liszt.” During the Nazi and Soviet occupations, he stole potatoes to feed his family and once rustled a horse from a Russian troop train. “We had to hustle for even a loaf of bread,” he remembers. “We could have died at any time.” Any thoughts of a classical career were forgotten when he saw the Hollywood musical Stormy Weather, with Lena Home and Cab Calloway. “From then on I wanted to play music with black people,” Zawinul explains. “You talk about Mr. Gone? I was gone! To me all that was meaningful was America and how to get there.”

A scholarship to Boston’s Berklee College of Music did it in 1959. In New York (with his name Americanized to “Joe” over his objections) he met Shorter when they both played with Maynard Ferguson. Zawinul left to join Dinah Washington and then Joe Williams and cut some 20 LPs with Cannonball Adderley (for whom he wrote the hit Mercy Mercy Mercy).

Shorter, who grew up in Newark, N.J. in a welder’s and dancer’s family, gave birth to a local neighborhood expression, “Weird as Wayne.” He played nearly a decade with Miles Davis, who helped define jazz-rock in the late ’60s with his classic LP Bitches Brew. Zawinul was brought in for the recording, and soon after he and Shorter formed Weather Report—so named, Shorter said, “because it would allow us to change, just like the weather.” They went through eight drummers, three bassists and four percussionists before arriving at the present ensemble’s seamless blend of Zawinul’s lilting melodies and dramatic chords with Shorter’s compelling sax riffs. Pastorius, the group’s token rocker onstage, also played prominently on Joni Mitchell’s last two albums. Erskine, like the two charter members, paid his dues with Maynard Ferguson.

Zawinul now lives in Pasadena with his 37-year-old wife, Maxine, whom he met at a gig at New York’s Birdland, and their three sons: Anthony, 18, Erich, 13, and Ivan, 10. He jogs and plays soccer and badminton. The intense Zawinul rarely socializes with the easygoing Shorter, who lives nearby with his Portuguese second wife, Ana Maria, and their daughter, Iska, 7. (Pastorius lives in Pompano Beach, Fla. and Erskine commutes from Wewoka, Okla.) “Our rapport is to the point where Joe and I really don’t have to speak,” justifies Shorter. Happily so, considering Zawinul’s fiercely uncompromising standards. Brooding back to his frightening youth in Austria, Josef says with accustomed seriousness: “Wherever you go in the world, you have to fight for every note of music you play. I only play how I want to play.”