In A Silent Way Book Review

In A Silent Way; A Portrait of Joe Zawinul
By Brian Glasser

Sanctuary Publishing
335 Pages
31 Black and White Photos
ISBN: 1 86074 246 7

It’s been 30 years since Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter founded the jazz band Weather Report. Over its fifteen year history Weather Report dominated the jazz world, attaining both critical and popular success. Furthermore, unlike much of the music of its era, Weather Report’s music has stood the test of time. It still sounds fresh today. Indeed, in a recent Down Beat retrospective, author Josef Woodard remarked, “From this historical perspective, it’s reasonable to say that Weather Report is the finest jazz group of the last 30 years.” Now with the publication of Brian Glasser’s In A Silent Way–A Portrait of Joe Zawinul, we have the most revealing look yet at Zawinul’s musical career, as well as Weather Report’s inner workings.

Author Glasser has produced a work that will appeal not only to the casual Zawinul fan, but to his most ardent admirers as well. As Glasser notes in his introduction, the idea for a Zawinul biography arose spontaneously during one of his interviews with Zawinul. Originally envisioned as a ghosted autobiography, production plans were put in place last year only to have Zawinul’s schedule keep him from participating. Thus, Glasser chose to pursue the book on his own.

While there are plusses and minuses to Zawinul’s lack of direct involvement in the project (and it’s interesting to ponder how an autobiography might have turned out), ultimately In A Silent Way is a strong work precisely because it isn’t an autobiography. For one thing, Glasser was able to maintain authorial independence–something that would have been impossible had he ghosted for Zawinul. For another, Glasser was forced to seek material elsewhere, and this becomes a real strength of the book.

“Contact with Joe effectively ceased once he backed out of the ghosted autobiography,” Glasser recently told me, “and we hadn’t had systematic ‘sessions’ before then, merely long and winding chats. After some initial anxiety that I was not going to have access to his full cooperation, I realized this could make for a better book.” As a result, the book is full of fascinating and insightful commentary from folks that have worked with Zawinul over the years, including virtually every former Weather Report musician, the band’s technicians Alan Howarth and Brian Risner, former producers, childhood friends and musical comrades from Austria, and recent Zawinul Syndicate members such as Matthew Garrison, Scott Henderson and Richard Bona.

In A Silent Way is logically divided into three sections, the first of which covers Zawinul’s youth and early career in Austria, as well as his 1959 emigration to the United States and subsequent rise in the American jazz scene. The reader comes away with the sense that Zawinul was determined, extremely talented, equally self-confident, at ease with himself and others, and lucky. It seems as though it was almost effortless for him to assimilate into the American jazz culture. Within weeks of arriving in the states, he landed a major gig with Maynard Ferguson. When Zawinul found himself out of work a few months later when Ferguson overhauled his band, another high profile job virtually landed in his lap as he took over the piano chair for the popular vocalist Dinah Washington for the next two years.

One gets the sense that Zawinul had a vision, a long-term plan as to how his career would evolve. Glasser recounts a 1959 incident that says much about Zawinul’s sense of self, even back when he had been in the United States for less than a year. Miles Davis–the hottest thing in jazz at the time–offered Zawinul a job, and Zawinul turned him down. “I’m not trying to be impolite,” Zawinul remembers telling Davis, “and I’m really honoured and happy that you ask me, but when it’s time we’ll do it, and when it’s the correct time we’ll make history.” And some ten years later they did, when Zawinul participated on Davis’s pivotal recordings Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, for which Zawinul wrote the title track.

Of course, Zawinul’s pre-Weather Report career was dominated by his nine-and-a-half year stint with the very popular and successful saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. It was during that time that Zawinul honed his bebop chops, and with his 1966 composition ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’, established his reputation as a composer of commercially successful tunes. In fact, the period from 1966 to 1970 was one of great development for Zawinul. “Zawinul seemed to locate his compositional well at around this time,” Glasser says, “and his bucket has hardly come up empty since.” His first trip back to Austria in the winter of 1966-67 initiated a flurry of creativity, yielding “In A Silent Way,” “Directions,” “Early Minor,” “Orange Lady,” “Pharaoh’s Dance,” and “Double Image.” All of those tunes were destined to become well-known numbers with either Miles Davis or Weather Report. It was also during this period that Zawinul recorded three albums under his own name for producer Joel Dorn. Dorn says that the last one, simply titled Zawinul, “is one of the most important albums of the era. You don’t have to be a genius to see that it was the perfect set-up record for the first Weather Report album.”

The meat of the book is the Weather Report years, and here we’re treated to considerable behind-the-scenes reporting on the making of every Weather Report album and the revolving nature of the band’s members. Along the way, Barbara Burton gets long overdue credit for her percussion work on the first Weather Report album, Peter Erskine sheds light on what happened to the fourth side of live material for 8:30, and Zawinul provides the clearest picture yet of his initial encounter with the then relatively unknown Jaco Pastorius. Zawinul and Pastorius fans have no doubt heard the story in which Jaco approached Zawinul after a Weather Report concert in Miami, proclaiming “My name is John Francis Pastorius III, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” To which Zawinul responded, “Get the fuck out of here!”

Ah, but there’s more to the story. In fact, the concert had been a disaster. Weather Report was in “the dark, drummerless days after Mysterious Traveller,” as Glasser puts it, and Zawinul had flown in a drummer from Switzerland to play the gig. Suffice to say, the drummer didn’t work out and Zawinul was in an angry mood, having to not only pay the drummer’s travel expenses, but having no drummer for the next show, let alone the two drummers he needed for ‘Nubian Sundance’. It was in that context that Pastorius approached Zawinul, and the result was predictable. Fortunately, a Miami newspaper reporter put in a good word for “this strange looking guy,” as Zawinul put it, and he agreed to meet him the next morning. The rest, as they say, is history.

Of more import than the anecdotes, though, are the insights into how Zawinul and Shorter crafted the Weather Report albums. It seems to have been equal parts careful preparation and spontaneity. Perhaps there is no better example than the title track to Mysterious Traveller, the making of which Glasser explores in depth. He quotes Zawinul, “This was one of Wayne’s tunes, which I arranged. The end of it I more or less put together. We just played the wonderful keyboard line with that rhythm at the beginning, and Wayne is very particular about his writing–everything is written out. We practised this tune very hard. I felt now when it’s happening there should be a little more, so we just carried on and built it up a little bit. Glasser says that ”the rhythm section of the drumkit is massively effective, but strangely hard to define.“ Alphonso Johnson explains: “There were two distinct drummers, one of whom was Skip Haden, who played a kind of a swing beat against Ishmael Wilburn, who played a straight-ahead rock/funk beat. It was the combination of the two drums that came up with that pattern. It was too complicated to explain to get one drummer to play that way. I think they lucked out because they had the drummers play separate, and when they brought the tracks together it worked perfectly. It wasn’t like anybody had planned that pattern.”

A hallmark of Weather Report’s recording style was the on-the-spot in-studio jam and post-production manipulation that either improved on original compositions, or led to entirely new ones. Zawinul clearly benefited from his experience recording with Miles Davis (though Zawinul might say it was the other way around), and applied those lessons to Weather Report. Johnson says, “They would just start rolling tape and the song would start immediately from the first note. Then later Joe and Wayne would go back and splice the tape. So what may have been the middle of what we did would all of a sudden become the introduction, so it would start at a high point.”

Peter Erskine reports that the process was basically the same during his tenure: “The band’s mode of operation was [that] at all times some form of tape recorder had to be recording–cassette, a reel-to-reel that they would use over again if there was nothing worth keeping, and the multitrack. The idea is, we’d play something as a take and leave the machine going. At one point, Jaco sat down at my drums and started playing–which was a little threatening to me at the time–and started playing something, and Joe joined in, and that became the tune ‘8:30’, the opener on the studio side [of the album of the same name].”

Further insight into Zawinul and Shorter’s genius can be found in the way they adapted and improved the work of others. Alphonso Johnson remembers, “’Scarlet Woman’ [from the album Mysterious Traveller] was a song that I wrote, and I’d conceived it totally differently to the way it turned out! Joe, in his infinite wisdom–and Wayne too, actually–he was the one who said a lot of times, when he was with Miles, he would bring in a chart and Miles would just play the intro, and that became a great song. So that’s kind of what they did: they took that [sings descending four-note melody], and they eliminated the other three-fourths of my song. I like their version better. I’ve never even recorded the rest of the song. What they did was perfect.”

Omar Hakim recalls a similar experience some eight or nine years later with his composition “Molasses Run,” the last track on the album http://www.binkie.net/wrdisc/Procession.htmlProcession. “I brought in the melody and the charts, and what I noticed was that Joe and Wayne played it at first with my original ideas for the harmony. Then, after a while, I watched them rip the harmony apart and I watched them rebuild it, doing these interesting things, but they left the melody intact… [Joe] totally made my song better. He took what I had and made it a Weather Report tune. What I had had the potential for a Weather Report tune, but his synthesizer arrangements, his texture with soundscape and little subtle harmonic things he did–that turned it into a Weather Report track. It was a fantastic lesson for me.”

Ultimately, the Zawinul-Shorter collaboration was one in which each brought out more from the other than they could have created individually. It was a combination whose sum was greater than its parts. Nevertheless, an eternal Weather Report argument seems to be how much Zawinul needed Shorter, or conversely why Shorter’s role was seemingly subjugated over time. As you would expect, Glasser explores the Shorter-Zawinul relationship in depth, appropriately leaving the last word to Zawinul.

The years following the disbanding of Weather Report up to the present make up the final portion of the book, and here Glasser tackles the difficulty
of following up the Weather Report jaggernaut. His remarks about Zawinul’s uneven output in the early post-Weather Report years are on target. Zawinul seemed to become marginalized admist the “back-to-acoustic jazz movement which was being spearheaded by [Wynton] Marsalis.” Of Zawinul’s 1986 album Dialects, one of Joe’s personal favorites and a tour de force in making music with synthesizers, Glasser says “it’s hard to see how Zawinul could have got things more wrong.” Glasser also touches on the mixed reception to Zawinul’s 1986 solo tour, and quotes Steve Kahn at length about Weather Update, the short-lived band that Zawinul formed after he and Shorter parted company. And Glasser doesn’t shy away from Zawinul’s reputation as an overbearing band leader. In fact, there’s a lengthy sidebar entitled ‘Zawinul the Bandleader.’

In terms of Zawinul’s quotes within the book, much of it will be familiar to well-read Zawinul fans. Granted, it would have been nice to get a fresh perspective from Zawinul on some of the events described, but believe me, the comments from the other participants more than make up for it. As Glasser recently told me, “In A Silent Way was lots of fun to write, tracking down and talking to the great and the good from the various corners of his career. I’ve got hours of minidisc interviews which were nothing but fascinating for me to do. In fact, doing the whole project was one of the most satisfying things I’ve done.” A natural question to ask is, how does Zawinul feel about the book? Glasser says Zawinul was sent a copy and initially accepted an invitation to the March 1 launch in London, but he subsequently changed his mind “for personal reasons.” Make of that what you will.

It would have been nice to have heard more from Wayne Shorter. Judging from what I know of him Wayne, it may be that Glasser just didn’t get the kind of material from him that lent itself to direct quotes in the book. I asked Glasser about this and he said, “Yep, [Shorter’s] not a man to provide a straight answer when a twisted one will do. But then that was the beauty about Weather Report, I guess–and what would we all rather have, the great music or an orderly account of its creation?”

Indeed, it does come back to the music, and be forewarned: You’ll want to have your Weather Report and Zawinul CDs handy as you read In A Silent Way. After finishing it I dug out the Weather Report discs that I haven’t listened to in a long while. And that’s the best recommendation I can give this book: It’ll make you want listen to the music all over again. Those interested in Weather Report or Zawinul have to get this book.

Postscript: In 2002, Residenz Verlag published Zawinul: Ein Leben Aus Jazz, an interview-style biography in German by Gunther Baumann. And in 2004 the Pengiun Group published Footprints, a biography of Wayne Shorter by Michelle Mercer.