An Interview with Joe Zawinul—March 26, 2004

Joe Zawinul. Photo by Jos L. Knaepen

With Joe getting ready to embark on a spring tour, I thought it would be a good time to catch up, and Joe was gracious enough to grant me this interview. The Zawinul Syndicate will play several dates here in the states, starting with a week-long engagement at Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, California. After stops in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Cleveland Tri-C Jazz Festival, it’s on to Paris, the UK, and Europe, where the highlight will undoubtedly be the grand opening of Joe’s new club in Vienna, Joe Zawinul’s Birdland.

Accompanying this interview are several fine photographs by Jos L. Knaepen, a Belgium-based photographer known as “The Jazzman.” We are indeed fortunate to be able to reproduce his work here.

Tell me about the band you’ll have on the upcoming tour.

It’s going to be Nathaniel Townsley III on drums. He comes from the church. His father is the pastor of a Brooklyn church that his grandfather founded. Linley Marthe on bass. He’s from the island of Mauritius, off the east coast of Africa. He’s an amazing bass player. Something else, man. I don’t know if there is anybody who can touch him in terms of overall bass playing.

That’s a remarkable statement because you’ve had some good ones.

We have had some good ones, and he’s up there with them. He’s young, and also a very good piano player. He’s one of those musicians who can do anything. He made his living, as a matter of fact, as a pianist. He played all that stuff, all the jazz standards, you know.

Then we have Amit Chatterjee on guitar. I consider him to be the greatest singer there is, as a pure singer, and also an original guitar master. He is from Calcutta, India, but he grew up in America. He was about ten years old when his father, a physicist, came here. A wonderful musician. We do a lot of different things, always a little different, you know?

And then we have Manolo Badrena, veteran of the “Heavy Weather” era of Weather Report. I respect them all, they are all great people and wonderful musicians, but I really like Sabine Kabongo. She is a singer born and raised in Belgium, but her folks come from the Republic of Congo. She is something else, man.

What makes her special?

She’s the fastest learner I’ve ever met in my life. You can give her a phrase—and my phraseology is very different, very difficult—and she just picks it up, so fast. She’s not a music reader per se, but she picks it up and she has a wonderful concept of melody and rhythm. And her voice—a total original.

I haven’t had the opportunity to hear her yet.

When you hear her, you’re gonna be shocked. She’s that good. She’s a wonderful dancer, plays percussion, does anything, you know? She’s a real band member, but her singing and her improvisations are all very original. I think she’s in the class of the great ones. We do a version of “Come Sunday” by Duke Ellington, a 1934 tune, which is devastating.

That’s a tune you’ve played for years.

I love that tune. Our only cover song. Certain things you like to be with, you know? Sabine Kabongo is something else, but they all are.

It’s a little of a problematic time right now. I have a lot of new music, but it’s very difficult to go out there and play totally new music, when you know that two days later there is a CD coming out, before you have recorded it.

Joe Zawinul. Photo by Jos L. Knaepen

You’re talking about bootleg recordings?

Yeah. In the old days it was really easy, because with Weather Report, for instance, or even with the Syndicate in the beginning years, we could play new material on the road. And here and there, okay, somebody picks it up, for themselves, just to have fun with it. But now it is being used in a brutal way.

We played in Moscow last summer, three or four nights, and a week after we left there was a CD on the market from this engagement. And they’re getting better with it, and faster. They had a cover, and they had the tunes listed correctly, and everything. And that makes it rather difficult. But what it does on the other hand, the tunes have to be played so different every night, in order to make it different.

I have about seven hundred tunes ready to play. I’m adding music every day. The positive parts of technology are really cool. I sit down almost daily and improvise maybe 20 tunes or something like that. Usable material, very long at times, and all I have to do is chop it down. On the last CD [Faces and Places], everything I played on the record was exactly like I improvised, then I just edited and added some musicians to it. Originally, I put all this together myself. But if I go out and play this music now, there is no copyright yet. I cannot register 700 tunes. It costs me too much in time, you know what I mean? You pay a certain fee for every copyright. I have thousands of songs I have written over the years.

You’d spend all your time copyrighting.

Exactly. And it doesn’t allow you, unfortunately today, to do it live, because it comes out before you ever record it.

So for this tour, you won’t be playing new music, but will wait until an official CD comes out?

What we’re going to do is pick up on some things which people don’t know, where there is a copyright, and we have hardly ever played live. Inject different things. The way the band operates, it is very good at improvising, you know? And changing things. It will not be recognizable. But that music is not that recognizable in the first place; in a way, this is unfortunate.

Another thing which is not so good is that because of our geographic locations—where everyone lives—it’s very difficult to get together and put in serious practice time. With Weather Report, we rehearsed for three weeks before a tour, everyday. We just got the guys out from New York, or when Jaco was in the band, from Florida. But everybody else was living out here [in Southern California]. [Peter] Erskine, Wayne Shorter, myself. It was very easy. We would go in my house and rehearse everyday for two or three weeks.

Now, Linley lives in Paris, Sabine lives in Brussels, Amit Chatterjee is going between Prague and New York, Manolo lives in New Jersey, I live in Malibu. It’s hard to put all of this together, because everything is so damn costly.

So do you try to inject these tunes you are talking about during sound checks, and does it just kind of evolves over the tour?

That’s what we do, right in the evening. We are masters with that. We have some certain meeting points, cues, where we can play melodies and lines together. We had phenomenal success worldwide. We have new music. The music is very complex, but played correct it is very easy to feel. Let me just say this, there are still young guys in the band and they have tendencies to show off a little bit, you know? Because they can do it, to show it. Not everybody.

That’s something you mentioned about Linley the last time we talked.

There are many great virtuosos.

He’s got phenomenal chops, but he has the tendency…

My new music is getting more and more transparent. And when I play my own bass lines, it has another kind of feel to it. Because I don’t have to play all the time. Here and there the right bass note is enough, but when you are on stage, and you have a young guy, regardless of how good he is—and he is. He can out-solo anybody. Anybody. He’s got the goods man, and the facility that is mind-boggling. I am happy to have him in the band.

We play all over the world, you know, and many great bass players come by. And they are all red in the face and sweating, man. They say this is not possible on the bass. But then, all I’m sayin’ is, a little bit less of that would be welcome.

Joe Zawinul. Photo by Jos L. Knaepen

Tell me about your new club in Vienna, Birdland.

We open up on the 25th of May, and it will be without question one of the greatest clubs ever.

How long have you been planning it?

Well, for several years, with my agent in Vienna, Risa Zincke. She used to manage Friedrich Gulda, one of the great classical pianists of the twentieth century, and she used to do a lot of things with philharmonic orchestras. She comes from the classical side. And in 1987 when I started working with Gulda again, she started really liking the way I played and the way my band sounded. And we started doing little things together, with Gulda, and then slowly, really taking over, and she’s been working now, since ‘88, steady with the band.

She had this idea already in 1990, to perhaps think of the later days when I get very old and don’t want to travel all over the world every year, to have a place where I can be five, six times a year with different projects. And bring people in that I think would do something for our cultural life in Austria, in Vienna, especially. And that’s what I’m doin’.

It took more than ten years to get it all together. We had several spots, and finally, the last place, it’s funny, because that was the first place that I wanted. Because it’s in the neighborhood where I was produced. It all happened in maybe a 250 feet circle, where I grew up, where I was produced. My parents lived there in a small little flat. Another door next to it, I studied piano for seven or eight years. Right next door, maybe ten meters from where the club will be, I wrote “In A Silent Way,” “Doctor Honoris Causa,” a lot of tunes, you know?

Did you write them in the same hotel as the one where the club will be?

No. That was the AEZ Hotel. The club will be in the Hilton Hotel, right next to it, not even a street between, just connecting. It was built much later. Vienna really grew in an incredible way. I don’t know if you have ever been there, but if not, you really should. It’s the best city in Europe. It was chosen as the best city to live in. And it’s so beautiful, you cannot believe it.

You know, my wife says, Paris is Paris, and Rome is Rome. Madrid is Spain. But Vienna is Europe. It’s the finest of the fine. You don’t see a chewing gum, a piece of paper on the street. All the wonderful old buildings. We were very badly destroyed in 1945, but they were smart. They kept the plans in vaults, and rebuilt the city with the same style, with the same material. Because right after the war for three or four years, we were doing nothing but cleaning bricks, and chopping bricks into parts that could be used.

So anyhow, the city gave me a lot of money to do this, and it’s in the new, totally renovated Hilton Hotel. And the club is being built fresh, and it’s going to be something.

You mentioned that it would be a place for you to perform when you slow down.

Joe Zawinul. Photo by Jos L. Knaepen

Well, not only when I slow down, because I’m really moving, you know. But I’m gonna play three, four times a year with different musicians. I’m gonna have a record company down there—just for live recordings—and have every year, maybe one, maximum two CDs, with the best of the year. And I’m not only bringing jazz bands, by the way. I want to bring world class music regardless of where it comes from.

So are you involved in booking?

I’m not involved in the booking process, but I’m the decider: who is supposed to play there. And I want the best of the best. And that includes not just jazz music. I want to do what Birdland did, the old one in New York. I want it to be a place where people meet, you know? The philosophers, the actors, the sports people, the man on the street, and musicians, to all meet and have a good time. It’s going to be quite amazing. After live shows I’m showing movies every night, mostly jazz movies. And it is going to be quite interesting, the whole thing. The place is not very big. It’s only 200 seats. But very comfortable. World-class cuisine. Drinks from the entire planet. Smoking. It’s called the music corner of the world. In New York, Birdland was called the jazz corner of the world.

Tell us about the DVD that’s coming from ESC Records.

It is coming out in April or May. It will end up a nice era of fine music. The DVD was done in Germany for my 70th birthday, in November 2002. We recorded it at the jazz fest in Leverkusen. The West German Radio Big Band played four or five pieces of Weather Report material, like “Night Passage,” “In A Silent Way,” “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” and “D Flat Waltz.” And it was Peter Erskine on drums; Alex Acuna, percussion; Victor Bailey, bass; and Scott Kinsey, keyboards. I played keys on “D Flat Waltz.”

Vince Mendoza adapted my arrangements from Weather Report and orchestrated the big band. Bob Belden orchestrated “D Flat Waltz.” And it came out really, really good. The version of “In A Silent Way” is a good orchestration by Vince of the original Wayne/Zawinul duet in Tokyo, Japan, note-for-note adapted. And “Night Passage” is also a very good adaptation of the Weather Report version, but arranged by Vince for the big band. Very nice.

And then we played with the Syndicate with Paco Sery—for me the best drummer, from the Ivory Coast—and Etienne M’Bappe. This was the rhythm section on the record I did for Salif Keita, Amen. And there was Sabine Kabongo, Maria Joao, Amit Chatterjee, and the band. And we had other special guests, singers from Madagascar. It was a wonderful evening, a real party.

It’s called Night Jam. It’s coming out on ESC in four different formats, including 5.1 surround sound, which we mixed in the finest studio in the world: Galaxy, in Mol, Belgium. They are phenomenal for surround mix. It’s a great performance. It’s just one night, and we have played sometimes better, perhaps, but the grooves are unbeatable.

Anything else new?

Well, a postal stamp is coming out in Austria with my image on it. And things are goin’ good, man.

What about the Cannonball Adderley CD of your tunes?

That’s coming out. That is done. Everything is finished. It’s coming out at the end of April, I think, on Blue Note.