Record #407: Joe Zawinul – Zawinul (1971)

As I’ve mentioned in the last few reviews, I’ve been digging deep into Miles Davis’ electric period lately. And my deep, I don’t just mean that I’ve been giving In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew repeated listens—I’m also getting into what his sidemen in those albums were doing at the same time. 

While John McLaughlinHerbie Hancock, and Chick Corea have all been loudly celebrated, maybe the most influential voice in those sessions were that of Joe Zawinul. And while it’s easy for anyone to be forgotten in the twin shadows of Herbie and Chick, one listen to this album makes it obvious that Zawinul was running things from those shadows...
As Miles himself writes in the liner notes, Zawinul is an expansion of Joe and Miles’ experiments on In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. And he is not exaggerating. This album has the same spacey atmospheres and frenzied energy as those albums. All that’s missing is Miles’ trumpet (even Wayne Shorter makes an appearance). 

The tracks are masterful composed and deftly played. Especially the two longer tracks, “Doctor Honoris Causa” (From the liner notes: ”Dedicated to Herbie Hancock for his Honorary Doctorate at Grinnell University in Des Moines, Iowa”) and “Double Image” (”A concept of what man thinks he is as opposed to what he really is”). “Doctor Honoris Causa” is a patient work of ambience that unfolds through a slow modal pattern with a steady, gentle drum pattern, gaining momentum as it goes. “Double Image” is a frenetic Bitches Brew style free-for-all that would make it onto Live-Evil. Both tracks are equally effective, showcasing the duality of man Joe was talking about.

Between these two ten-minute-plus tracks are two shorter pieces. Joe’s own version of his composition “In a Silent Way” (what did I tell you? Mastermind. Also, “Impressions of Joe Zawinul’s as a shepherd boy in Austria”) and “His Last Journey” (”A tone poem reminiscent of his grandfather’s funeral on a cold winter day in an Austrian mountain village”). Each are warm, transcendent ballads that ride the line between tunes and soundscapes—years before anyone would throw around the term “soundscape.”

As if the four tunes before weren’t already abstract enough, the closer “Arrival in New York” takes it even further. It’s just shy of two minutes of tape loops and manipulated recordings meant to mimic the sound of traffic and foghorns, described in the liner notes as “Joe Zawinul’s first impression of New York when he arrived here as a boy on a ship from France.”

And while Joe’s contributions to Miles’ work would be enough to warrant any jazz fan’s attention, it’s important to note that Joe is also the mastermind behind the fusion group Weather Report, who also released their debut in the same year. Not bad for a shepherd boy from Austria.

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