It's hard to determine whether keyboardist and composer Joe Zawinul had a greater impact as a musician or as a songwriter. In both capacities, he was a driving force in two important movements: jazz-rock fusion at the dawn of the 1970s and world music in the mid-1980s. His dexterity on the synthesizer and experiments with electronic instruments (most notably as part of the Weather Report) resonated beyond the jazz realm, inspiring musicians as diverse as Brian Eno and John McLaughlin to dedicate songs to the influential artist.
Born in 1932 in Vienna, the heart of Europe's classical music tradition, Josef Erich Zawinul grew up to be one of the pioneers of American jazz-rock fusion. At age six, he picked up the accordion and went on to study classical piano and composition at the Vienna Conservatory.
An interest in jazz piano led Zawinul to play gigs with Austrian saxophonist Hans Koller as well as with his own trio around France and Germany. In 1959, at the age of 26, he immigrated to the United States after winning a scholarship to Berklee College of Music. The pianist attended the prestigious school for just one week, however, before setting off with Maynard Ferguson's band.
Between 1959 and 1961, Zawinul played with Dinah Washington and joined saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's quintet soon after. He stayed for nine years, contributing the number one hit Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, as well as Walk Tall, and Country Preacher, while also evolving his own sound from hard bop to soul-jazz.
In 1969, Zawinul entered the studio with Miles Davis just when the visionary trumpeter was moving into the electric realm. The pianist contributed the title track on the album In a Silent Way and Pharaoh's Dance on Davis's landmark follow-up, Bitches Brew, released in 1970.
Musical forecast: fusion front moving in
That same year Zawinul formed seminal jazz-rock supergroup Weather Report with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous. The ensemble's first recording, which also featured original members Airto Moreira on percussion and Alphonse Mouzon on drums, was an exercise in freewheeling collective improvisation.
With Sweetnighter (1973), Zawinul steered the band in a more funk-oriented direction. By 1976, following the arrival of bass guitar wonder Jaco Pastorius, the Weather Report's fusion of jazz, rock, funk, Latin and worldbeats had hit the mainstream, thanks in large part to Zawinul's opus Birdland from the best-selling album Heavy Weather (1977).
In 1981, the pioneering group kicked off the second edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. Five years later, Weather Report had dissolved, prompting Zawinul to briefly tour on his own and form the spin-off group Weather Update, which evolved into the Zawinul Syndicate soon after.
World music vision
From the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, the keyboardist embarked on a series of world music recordings, starting with the release of Dialects in 1986. Zawinul returned to his classical roots on collaborations with Viennese classical pianist Friedrich Gulda and, in 1995, with the release of his first symphony, Stories of the Danube.
The musician went behind the scenes as producer and arranger of Amen (1991), the third studio album of Malian afro-pop star Salif Keita. As part of the Zawinul Syndicate, he received two Grammy nominations for My People (1996) and the double album World Tour (1998).
In 2003, the 70-year-old prolific keyboardist made a third visit to the Festival. Following a European tour that ended in August 2007, he passed away in Vienna a month later from a rare form of skin cancer.