Image commons.wikimedia.orgInterview between Joe Zawinal and Matt McMahon in 2002.

I first became aware of Joe Zawinul’s music when I heard my brother Michael’s copy of Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather”. I’ve been a fan ever since – enjoying his playing with Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Weather Report and many other projects. His approach to music always exhibited a focus on inventive ensemble playing – from Cannonball’s soulful group to Miles’ open ended, multi-layered explorations, and beyond. The many incarnations of Weather Report with Wayne Shorter and later the Zawinul Syndicate show his ever-evolving concept of what an improvising group could be – drawing from his own powerful vision but open to the contributions of the exceptional musicians with whom he was associated. His innovations as a pioneer of electric keyboards are well-documented as is his sense of shaping long-form pieces with a distinctive mix of vamps, angular melodies, and a harmonic language which drew from his love of jazz, classical music and the folk music of his Austrian up-bringing. Something that always attracted me to Joe’s music was his awareness of rhythm – both in his compositions, which made use of the influences of funk, soul and increasingly the music of Africa, and also in his own playing which always exhibited a powerful pulse and commitment to groove. I had a chance to interview him in 2002 – after the release of the album Faces and Places. He sadly passed away in September 2007.

Matt: I've seen you play in Sydney and in New York too, so it's a pleasure to be able to interview you.

Joe: Yeah, this is nice, I hope we can come down there again. I have a very good band – actually a better band than then.

Matt: What's the band now, Joe? Who are you playing with now?

Joe: Well it's Paco Sery on drums.

Matt: Oh, he's wonderful, yeah.

Joe: He's wonderful yes, indeed, and I have Etienne Mbappe on bass – it's the same rhythm section as I had on the Salif Keita record Amen, if you know that one.

Matt: I do, yes.

Joe: And then Manolo Badrena is in the band; he was with me in Sydney and Amit Chatterjee, the guitar player, is also still with the band. And we have a regular singer now with the band. Her name is Sabine Kabongo. She used to work with Zap Mama and she is now a regular member in the band. So we have a sextet and it's very powerful, very interesting group of musicians, because we do play, actually, everyone is, if I may say this, a world-class player, without the singing, but by having such great singers in the band, it would be a shame not to use the talent. So that's what I'm doing. We're having a quite few vocal songs and they are very interesting. The live actually better than the record.

Matt: The new album is beautiful Joe, I'm talking about the new album Faces and Places.

Joe: Thank you.

Matt: It's very interesting to me that you have a very diverse bunch of musicians and yet it's such a unified sounding record. Maybe you could talk a bit about how you get that special Zawinul quality even though there's such a …

Joe: I can tell you this in a very few words, that all the music is improvised by me. And what you hear… what I play at the keyboard, they are not changed, they are exactly like the first improvisation was; but I also played the drums on it and bass, and prepared it so, when the guys hear it – when I prepare a record and I play it for the people who will play – I let them exactly hear what I want; but not by explaining it to them, but by playing it. And I had everything together, as you hear – only it was replaced by live players, by live drum instruments, because I use machines, drum… but I improvised my drum tracks. What I do, I start… often I start a song and I take a drum… let's say a drum program which starts in the lowest note… has bass drums and then has snare drums and high hats and cymbals and then percussion sounds, over the span of a keyboard, over the range of a keyboard, all different sounds. So I have a click track and with that click track I improvise a drum improvisation, a drum piece, and out of that drum piece then I put a bass part on it perhaps, sometimes something else.  And then I play simultaneously the left hand with the right hand, okay, there's a bass line with the left hand and the right hand is often the melody and maybe some type of chords, you see?  
So I have it all prepared so when I play it for the guys they know exactly what I want. Therefore the result, if you have – you do have to have world-class players – you cannot do it with anybody else as I am doing it because you need a lot of spread of  … making it also sound like it is you. I don't want that it just imitate what I already played. I want them also to put their personality in it. And what we did when Richard Bona, for instance, over-dubbed in my studio here, I had the bass part  – as he is playing it, I had played it – so he played about three, four times, with the 'guide' bass. And then by the time he got it – there were no earphones, we just talked, we had fun and he was playing with me while I was playing – and after about three four times he had it so down. And there were only a few cues, where I said, okay in four bars –and I could speak to him – it was a direct hookup so there was no microphone involved—I said in four bars we go in this one bass line, for instance in “Tower of Silence” which was in bar 123, let's just give it an example, and let's just kick it off, one, two, three., Bauw do dey do do dey dauw do dey. to get in this ensemble, do you see?”

Matt: Yeah

Joe: And some of the lines are kept in there from my bass on some of the songs and it sounds very powerful and your suggestion, or your understanding, that it is a unique concept, that it still remains the organism, is because of that.

Matt: I guess it's an interesting time for you too Joe, because musicians who you play with now, I'm thinking of people like Richard Bona or even Salif Keita, have grown up listening to Weather Report and they are familiar with your music from a long time ago.

Joe: Right

Matt: So therefore when they come to your band they know what to expect.

Joe: Yes, well I like to play with them, you know. I like that… there are many great musicians my friend, in America, you know, but the younger musicians I must say and I am not trying to be critical because it always seems like there is that there is that certain generation gap when you get old and you say the younger guys that and this…  It happened when I was young and it's happening now when I am old, you see what I mean? But it's truly not the case in my … I just feel that what happened in America, the music became stale. And all my respect, because this is the fatherland of music, the motherland of music, of jazz music anyhow, and what the great black masters have done in the beginning, in the first three, four decades or even more… there's nothing left of that. The notes are left. They are playing the same notes maybe and they play maybe even better but none of that personality and individualism. It's all gone. Therefore I take musicians from different places. I don't hire musicians because they happen to come from India or from Africa. That has absolutely nothing to do with it. You know, if I found a good guy in Sydney, that's who I'm gonna have.

Matt: Do you think that at the end of the nineteen sixties and into the seventies there was a real explosion of people who like yourself had been sidemen, and particularly piano players and keyboard players – very exciting and visionary performers….

Joe: Yeah, well it really and it also happened because the instruments were exciting. There was something unfortunately … and I must say this not as a critic but rather as one who suffers a little bit, because of ah… I hope that there are more creative keyboard players going to come up in order to not make the instrument such a bad kind of thing. It is always being written down as being a bad instrument, which is the dumbest thing, because there is no good instrument in the world, unless it is played well. Every instrument is dead until it is played by someone and unfortunately with synthesisers you have so many possibilities that it is really more difficult than with other instruments where you only have that and that's all you have. You know what I mean?

Matt: I do.

Joe: You have so many possibilities that your taste – and that's another part of an individual – if your taste is being challenged.

Matt: I see Joe that Scott Kinsey appears on your album in some capacity and you are obviously familiar with his keyboard playing.

Joe: Yeah, he didn't do much with the sound. He helped me to organise certain things in the computer and he was a big part of the production. But musically – but in terms of music – he hasn't added anything.

Matt: I was wondering which younger keyboard players you see…

Joe: I like the guys who are original and Scott is a very great keyboard player but he's not yet an original. I have respect for everybody, you know, but for me to really like somebody I would like to hear someone who turns my head.

Matt: And Joe you were talking about things getting stale in the United States and I was wondering how much you think this is to do with the general tenor of American society.

Joe: What do you mean, now?

Matt: Whether you think it is the record companies that have something to do with this…?

Joe: Part of it, I'm sure because number one they are deaf, you know, and in the older days the executives of the record companies came from music, not necessarily being musicians, or having been musicians, but they came because of the love of music. Today, I think a great amount of the executives in music come from Harvard and from the accounting companies and it's not from music, it's from marketing and making products rather than to help to create…
See, John Hammond and George Wein, and people like Norman Granz, these people were visionaries – even Bruce Lundvall with CBS – they were visionaries. They had the idea 'here we've got something, let's help those guys to be original'. Today they sign a bunch of little kids who can't piss straight yet, on the other hand they are giving them contracts and this is fine, more power to them for that, but they are, suffocating the guys because they make them play, let's say bebop: that's a music which is, for a young guy, not learnable, because it's a lifestyle and it has nothing to do with the life today. It is a great art form and we all should, and I did, and I still am, learning always. This is a great art form. But the greatness of the art form has never been the technique, the virtuosity. It always has been these people who touch you with their stories, with their tone, with their expression, with their ways of phrasing. That gave the individual these particularities which you say, ‘man I gotta go out there, I gotta hear a record by these guys' you know? This is what's missing today. These kids, and it starts with with Wynton Marsalis, man, and I wish him all the best and he went very far because he's not the most talented guy, because talent is the most important thing, you know. He can do anything. He plays classical music, he has quite a knowledge of jazz music and I think that's what he's selling and I wish him all the best, but this wave came in so strong it destroyed the music business in many ways.

Matt: And do you think in some ways it's up to the musicians to say no…

Joe: Here we go!

Matt: … “I will not record that – I will record my music?'

Joe: Here we go! That's what it is. And it is both. There you have this fight between making a living and making music, you know. If you decide early enough in life that you want to make a living, you will never be a musician. But if you want to hang in and say hey man I got a little more than just do know a little bit, and okay I'm doing well and I may have a hell of an income for a few years, that's not it. You got to have – nobody can tell nobody what to do in life – you must feel it inside your gut…here… I got this coming up. I don't have it together yet maybe, but I will and I will hold on to that and this is rare today. In the old days it was all about music, you know. Believe me my friend, I could tell you stories. I had an offer…I made three hundred dollars with Cannonball Adderley a week, and I had an offer from Norman Granz to play with Ella [Fitzgerald] because I worked with her one evening and she really liked the way I played, and he offered me one thousand four hundred dollars a week and eighty dollars a day per diem for money for food and all that and my wife and me immediately looked at each other and said no thank you very much. My wife said, and she had three kids you know, we had three children and she said, “I can wait”. So it depends a lot on what … I wouldn't have done it anyhow but it was a very great feeling for me as a confirmation that I was the right way, that my wife said 'no'. She can handle life with the three hundred bucks, and it was rough… “we'll wait until you have your thing together”.

Matt: It's interesting that you mention your wife Joe, because your career is filled with long term relationships, from 10 years with Cannonball and a long time with Weather Report and there are musicians on your current album from Weather Report days, so its obviously something that's important to you, to have that.

Joe: It is! But it's gotta be real. It can't be nothing lingering on, you know. I'm the first one to stop off the train, man I’m fast, when it's not right. And I let somebody go in a hurry if it is not right, because I have this feeling. But when it's right, you try to make it work.

Matt: It's one of those things, do you think Joe, that an improvising musician, like yourself, in some senses has an improvised career too;  you're never quite sure where you're going.

Joe: Absolutely!  See, when you're an improviser, that's what you are, that's your life, that's your lifestyle, that's where everything goes. But you have also… I'm a form improviser, in other words and I may say this, it may sound cocky, so it may be, but form improvising, I can really do that. In other words I can make a long improvisation and it will always coming back as a composition – it's not just noodling around. Like I wrote this orchestra piece, “The Story Of The Danube” and that was a full improvisation and it really sounds good with a symphony orchestra. You can really… the motifs… I never learned this stuff but I do have the gift to improvise with good focus and concentration so it belongs together; it's not some at-random fiddle-faddle.

Matt: Is this something conscious, Joe, or do you find when you just trust the moment, there is form?

Joe: That's what it is; there is no consciousness. Because when inspiration starts, rational thinking stops, and then you just go and you don't know what's happening. When it's over with you're in a trance.

Matt: I've always loved your duets with current people like Amit Chatterjee, or Wayne Shorter; it seems like that's a beautiful way to make music, with one other person.

Joe: It is and with Wayne… I have hundreds of these things with Wayne. They will probably never come out, and that's okay. But they are definitely… somebody heard it you know, and they were great fun to do.

Matt: Well, Joe Zawinul, it's been a pleasure talking to you.

Joe: It's been a pleasure talking to you and I hope we can come back to Australia next year some time – if it is for ten days or something.

Matt: We'd love it.

Joe: And to play with this band because this band  – the first band was a very, very good band, may I add – but this one has something very special.

Matt: We'll look forward to it. I'm a keyboard player too, Joe so I'll be waiting.

Joe: All the good, man, all the good to you! Take good care, man! And happy holidays. 

Watch video of Joe

Matt McMahon is a pianist and composer who teaches in the jazz unit at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He also has a regular radio program on Eastside Radio.

McMahon has been a part of the jazz scene in Australia since completing his studies¬ – B.A.(hons) and A.D.J.S. – in 1994. He leads the Matt McMahon Trio and is a co-leader of the Band of Five Names (with whom he has recorded several albums). He is the musical director for Vince Jones and a frequent collaborator with artists such as Phil Slater, Katie Noonan, Sandy Evans, Simon Barker, Steve Hunter, Dave Panichi and many others. He has appeared with a variety of groups and at major music festivals both in Australia (Jazznow, Wangaratta Jazz Festival) and overseas.

Matt has been a winner of the National Jazz awards a the Freedman Fellowship.

His recent albums include Paths and Streams and Ellipsis, both recorded for the Kimnara label.  Hear his music Jazz Realbook  video with Joseph Tawadros