Author Archives: Curt Bianchi

A Note to Readers

Just wanted to let you know that the bulk of my pieces about Joe Zawinul and Weather Report are being posted at my Weather Report website. Since the publication of my book, I have been pretty active in posting additional information there, including things that didn’t make it into the book, and highlighting fifty-year anniversaries in Weather Report’s history. So feel free to check it out.

All the best, Curt.

Zawinul Online Gets a Facelift

It’s been almost twenty-two years since the first post here, but this site hasn’t been getting a lot of love lately. So I finally bit the bullet and gave it a much-needed facelift to bring it into the twenty-first century. I think everything is working again. Better, it is responsive, meaning that it adapts to different screen sizes, making the experience on a phone or iPad much better. Zawinul lives on in spirit.

Announcing my new book!

Greetings all. Has it really been five-and-a-half years since my last blog post here? Yikes. Well, there has been a stream of posts at my Weather Report site, so I encourage you to go there and have a look.

I also want to let you know that my new book, Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, is about to be published. Timed to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Weather Report’s debut album, it is available for pre-order now at Amazon and booksellers everywhere.

More details are at my Weather Report site. I encourage you to check it out here.

Keeping Joe’s Music Alive–Fall 2015

I got a note from Risa Zincke, Joe’s manager for the last thirty years of his life. She reports that the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra performed Joe’s symphony, “Stories Of The Danube,” on October 17 under the direction of Kristjan Järvi. The performance was part of part of the October Festival in Leipzig, Germany, and was paired with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6. Järvi worked with Joe on his last studio project, the album Absolute Zawinul by Järvi’s Absolute Ensemble. You can read an interview I did with Järvi about Joe and that album here. This was the first performance of Joe’s symphony since his passing in 2007. Guest musicians included Aziz Sahmaoui, formerly of the Zawinul Syndicate. You can see photos from the concert here.

The Syndicate, which Frau Zincke manages, continues to perform Joe’s music at venues throughout Europe. The band will celebrate “Zawinul Music Day” in Vienna on Nov. 24 at Porgy & Bess, followed by a Nov. 25 date at Treibhaus in Innsbruck. Those shows will feature vocalist Tini Kainrath, who has written words (in German, I assume) to Joe’s tune “Walk Tall” from his time with Cannonball Adderley. “Walk Tall” will be performed by Kainrath and the band. “Zawinul Music Day” is an event that Frau Zincke has organized in Vienna several times since Joe’s passing. I don’t think she’s been able to arrange one every year, but she continues to champion live performances of Joe’s music.

B.B. King

B.B. King died on Thursday at the age of 89 years old. He was a true legend in American music, claiming the mantle of King Of The Blues for six decades. He was also one of the hardest working men in the music business–something that Joe must have appreciated. It is said that in 1956 King performed an astonishing 342 one-night stands. He maintained a vigorous touring schedule well into his eighties.

There are two connections between King and Zawinul that I am aware of. Back in the early days of Weather Report, the band would sometimes open for popular acts such as The Ike & Tina Turner Revue, Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention, or Fleetwood Mac. Their music didn’t always go over well with these audiences, who were there to see the headliner and not some “spacey” jazz band, as so many reviewers referred to Weather Report.

In the summer of 1973, Weather Report performed as the middle act on bill that included The Climax Blues Band and the headliner, B.B. King and his nine-piece band. Having won a Grammy in 1970 for his recording of “The Thrill Is Gone,” King was very popular at the time; in fact, he was the most popular blues artist there had ever been. More than 3,500 fans came to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center to see him, but had to sit through the opening acts first. According to one review, by the time King hit the stage, the audience had “first been rocked into a frenzy” by the U.K. based Climax Blues Band, but was “bored to varying degrees” by “The Weather Report,” who played songs that were “much too long and featured soloists who were imaginative, but often out of reach of their audience.” Eric Gravatt was “a very steady drummer,” and Dom Um Romão “looked like an overly ambitious Swiss bell ringer as he performed a continuous shake-along with the rest of the group.”

The second connection has to do with Earl Turbinton, who turned in such a beautiful performance on soprano sax on Zawinul’s 1971 eponymous album. Turbinton hailed from New Orleans, where Joe got to know him while he was a member of Cannonball Adderley’s band. I wrote about that here. As I said in that article, Turbinton–who died in 2007–often said that he was asked to be a part of the original Weather Report, but turned down the offer in favor of touring with B.B. King–a gig that would have been more steady and financial secure. The Weather Report story is highly improbable, but it wouldn’t be surprising at all that Joe and Earl talked of forming a band after recording Zawinul in August 1970.

RIP, B.B. King.

Keeping Joe’s Music Alive–The Syndicate

The Syndicate continues to perform concerts in Europe. This year they performed at the festival Nogent sur Marne in France on May 24, the Copenhagen Jazz Festival on July 11, and DimaJazz in Constantine, Algeria on September 24. The latter concert included Amit Chatterjee.

The clipping at right is a write-up about the Algeria concert, which included Amit Chatterjee. I don’t read and write French, but a rough translation includes:

After Joe Zawinul passed away The Syndicate wanted to continue playing his music, keeping his music alive. They brought out an album File Under Zawinul, and what an adventure to continue what started 40 years ago.

Percussionist/vocalist Aziz Sahmaoui said, “There is a magic in his music an energy, a music which travels around the world.”

“I joined Joe for eleven years on stages around the world,” Amit Chatterjee said. “I came to his house to work with him on different projects. The music of Joe Zawinul is the richest I ever found in my life. There is no limit in his compositions. He was also a great pianist of classical music, but he never he forgot the music of the folk, the music for the people. With Joe on stage it was always like an entire life.”

Joe’s First Mention in Down Beat Magazine

Those familiar with Joe’s story know that he came to the United States in 1959 thanks to a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music. Why, at the age of 25, did he apply for study at a school in the United States? In his native Austria, Joe was considered one of the top jazz musicians, but opportunities to play jazz were limited, as was exposure to visiting American musicians. Joe understood that to realize his ambitions, he would ultimately need to come to the United States. The Berklee scholarship was his ticket.

He applied for the scholarship after reading an announcement in Down Beat magazine. “My friends and I used to go to the English Reading Room in Vienna to read Down Beat,” he told Conrad Silvert in 1978. “There were maybe two copies in the whole city, but it was our main connection to find out about all the great musicians and maybe gain a little knowledge about the English language. I still read it every issue.”

I’ve often been curious about this. Last weekend I was at the library and I decided to look up the 1958 issues of Down Beat. Sure enough, the January 9 issue contained an announcement for “The First DOWN BEAT Hall of Fame Scholarship.” (Click the image above-right to see a large version.)

Down Beat has set up a full year’s scholarship to the famous Berklee School of Music in Boston, the present home of the DOWN BEAT Hall of Fame and one of the nation’s most prominent schools in the use and teaching of contemporary American music.

This scholarship will be in honor of Benny Goodman, chosen by the Down Beat readers as the 1957 Hall of Fame member. The scholarship award shall be awarded to an instrumentalist or composer to be selected by a board of judges appointed by Down Beat.

Per the instructions, Joe requested an official application form and submitted a recording of the Woody Herman tune “Red Top” that he had recently made with the Fatty George band. He had to do this by Feburary 28, after which came a three-month wait to see if he won.

Down Beat promised that the winner of the scholarship would be announced in the April 17 issue. Who knows how long it took for a copy to arrive in Vienna. Joe would have been full of anticipation, and perhaps apprehension, when it finally did arrive. He must have scoured every page, only to find nary a word about the scholarship results.

That wouldn’t come for two more issues, when it was finally announced that Nicholas Brignola, a “21-year-old reed man from Troy, N.Y.,” had been named the winner of the Hall of Fame scholarship, entitling him to $700 in tuition for two semesters of study at Berklee. Joe wasn’t a good reader of English at that time, but he probably quickly determined that he didn’t win. Nevertheless, he would have scanned the rest of the article hoping to see his name, and there, near the end, it appeared.

“The flood of applications for the Hall of Fame scholarship unveiled many fine jazz talents,” the article said. “This led Down Beat to name five additional winners of scholarships for study at Berklee.” Two applicants received $350 scholarships; Joe’s name was the last one listed among three musicians who received $200 scholarships.

It was a close call, but Joe had his opening to the United States, provided he could muster the funds to travel to, and live in the US for four months. At the time, this was no mean feat. But in early January 1959, he boarded a ship for the journey across the Atlantic, with a suitcase, his Berklee scholarship, his bass trumpet, and $800 in cash. “I knew that it wouldn’t be easy,” he once recalled, “because I had no relatives, didn’t know a single person in America. But when I came over on the boat, I did it with the purpose to kick asses.” The rest, as they say, is history.

What of the other musicians who received scholarships? Nichalas Brignola, the actual winner, went on to have a fine 45-year career before his passing in 2002, cutting some 20 albums under his own name. Biographies of Brignola never fail to mention that he was the winner of the 1958 “Benny Goodman” scholarship.

A “special award” of $350 was made to 18-year-old “Louis [sic] Gasca, a senior at Jefferson Davis high school in Houston, Texas.” After attending Berklee, trumpet player Luis Gasca went on to play with some of the biggest names in jazz and pop, recording his own albums using the likes Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana, Joe Henderson and Stanley Clarke. However, drug addition took its toll and he dropped out of the music business.

Along with Zawinul, Richard L. Wright and William R. Jones each won $200 scholarships, but I haven’t turned up any information about them.

I’ve saved the most intriguing name for last. “Karl Drewo, 21, from Vienna, Austria won a $350 scholarship. A versatile jazzman, Drewo plays tenor, clarinet, vibes, and piano. He has worked with several leading Austrian jazz groups and has headed his own group, too.” That’s right. One of Joe’s Viennese pals also applied—and did better than Joe did! In its short bio of Drewo, Down Beat understated Drewo’s age, but they got the rest of the details correct.

Indeed, back in Austria, Drewo and Zawinul traveled in the same circles and played in the same bands. You can hear them both on the album Joe Zawinul and The Austrian All Stars 1954-1957. They even formed their own band together. Clearly, the two were pretty tight, and when Joe talked about reading Down Beat with his friends in the English Reading Room, no doubt Karl Drewo was one of those friends. They would have encouraged each other to apply, and doing so jointly would have helped overcome the teasing from their fellow musicians who neither had the ability nor the nerve to play jazz in America.

Drewo not only got the more prestigious award, but a much more thorough write-up than Joe as well. Down Beat simply described Zawinul as “25, a pianist from Vienna, Austria.” Drewo went on to have a successful career in Europe and has an annual festival named after him in Austria. He died in 1995. So far as I can tell, he never took advantage of his scholarship.

Of course, ultimately, neither did Joe. Within a couple of weeks of arriving at Berklee, one of his professors recommended him for a club gig opening for Ella Fitzgerald. That led to him auditioning for Maynard Ferguson the next day, and he never looked back.

The Zawinul Legacy Band at Catalina Bar and Grill

After a little re-jiggering of travel arrangements, I managed to catch the March 12 performance of the Zawinul Legacy Band at Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, California. The band played a strong set in front of an enthusiastic audience, starting off with “Gibralter” from the Weather Report album Black Market. From there, it was a nice sampling of Zawinul tunes from various points in his career, as can be seen by the set list. (The Peter Erskine appearance on the set list didn’t materialize.) Among the highlights were an extended synth solo by Scott Kinsey, a rap homage to Joe by Katisse Buckingham during “Cucumber Slumber,” and beautiful piece by Bobby Thomas played on an inverted pan drum.

It felt a bit like a reunion at Catalina, with Brian Risner (aka, “The Chief Meteorologist”) doing sound with Paul Erickson (one of the engineers on This Is This, and former Zawinul keyboard tech Jim Swanson and his son in the audience, as well as Joe’s own sons, Tony and Erich. The band did a great job staying faithful to Joe’s music while also putting their own stamp on it. Special kudos to Scott Kinsey for maintaining the spirit of Joe’s approach to synthesizers while forging his own voice. Well done all the way around.

Click on the photo below for a gallery of images from the concert.

Zawinul Legacy Band in Los Angeles

In addition to the March 8 Carnegie Hall performance, the Zawinul Legacy Band will perform two concerts at Catalina Jazz Club in Los Angeles on March 11 and 12. Tickets can be purchased at the Legacy Band website. The lineup will be Scott Kinsey (keyboards), Robert Thomas Jr. (hand drums), Michael Baker (drums), Hadrien Feraud (bass), and Katisse Buckingham (saxes and flute). More info about the Legacy Band can be found here.

Zawinul Legacy Band Adds Two New York Dates

UPDATE: The Shape Shifter Lab concerts have been canceled.

The Zawinul Legacy Band has added two new dates to its itinerary, March 6 and 7 at ShapeShifter Lab. This is in addition to the March 8 Carnegie Hall performance. The planned lineup is Scott Kinsey (keyboards), Robert Thomas Jr. (hand drums), Michael Baker (drums), Hadrien Feraud (bass), and Katisse Buckingham (saxes and flute).

A previous post about the Legacy Band can be found here.