"Z" is for Zawinul -- and that ain't bad 

Styles in jazz are very personal things, and the sharp-eared listener, over time, will learn the signature characteristics of the artists he listens to most frequently. The well-known "ool-ya-koo" embellishments of Charlie Parker, the "sheets of sound" technique of John Coltrane, the breathy romanticism of Ben Webster, the sonic high-wire acts of Cat Anderson and Maynard Ferguson, the pristine alto styling of Paul Desmond -- all these are characteristics as individual as fingerprints.

As jazz passed through its first century, musical mavericks, employing personal style, expanded its vistas ever beyond the point of mere popularity in the juke joint or on the concert stage. Those styles, rather than merging, accrued so that it has now become as difficult to define jazz as it is to shovel water or nail a blob of mercury to the wall.

And that, as the lady says, is a good thing. In fact, it is so good, that any serious discussion that tilts at a definition of jazz is apt to include a consideration of the music's history thus far, and it doesn't take much talking to realize that stagnation simply is not part of the program.

The result, of course, is that jazz is a canopy large enough to enfold a diversity of artists running the alphabet from the always interesting big band experimenter Toshiko Akiyoshi and bluesy-funky Mose Allison to the unclassifiable Frank Zappa and the quirkily experimental John Zorn.

But down at the end of the alphabet also is Josef Zawinul, who can be considered the most tenacious and accomplished adherent of fusion that the sub-genre has produced. In fact, I credit Zawinul with single-handedly demonstrating that fusion is not a sop to the masses enchanted with electronics, but rather a field of possibility quite worthy of exploration.

I used to think otherwise about fusion. After the calming grace of Miles Davis' "In A Silent Way," which generally marks the beginning of the fusion phenomenon, nothing much came along that could satisfy as well. Even Miles' own notorious follow-up, "Bitches Brew," has worn thin over the years. No matter how hard I try to enjoy it, I still find myself thinking as I listen that, with a few momentary exceptions, repeated hearing is more a duty than a pleasure. And by the mid-1970s, even so revered a master as Herbie Hancock was, I felt, wasting his time in his flirtation with keyboards strapped across his chest like a guitar. Woe was me.

But, then, in 1974 and on a whim, I picked up Weather Report's "Mysterious Traveler" [Columbia, 1974]. I went home, slapped it onto my turntable and was slapped right back as the opening bars of "Nubian Sundance" washed out of my rather small speakers and over me like a cooling rain charged with electricity. Almost 11 minutes later the second track, "American Tango," extended the electronic range of this music for me, and by the time "Cucumber Slumber" came slipping and bouncing to my ears, I was hooked.

The masterminds behind all these fresh sounds were Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, I learned from the album's liner credits. I already knew about Zawinul. He was, after all, the composer of "In A Silent Way," and appeared on that Miles album, as well as on "Bitches Brew," not to mention having penned "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," a bluesy hit for Cannonball Adderley and a crossover to the rock charts in the late 1960s for the Chicago-based pop group, the Buckinghams. He also contributed another pair of tunes identified with Adderley, "Country Preacher" and "Walk Tall."

Zawinul had emigrated from Austria to the U.S. in 1958 to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but, after the fashion of the excessively talented and the ever-restless, he left soon to join Maynard Ferguson and, before joining Adderley in 1961, sandwiched in stints with Harry "Sweets" Edison, Dinah Washington and Slide Hampton.

During the 1960s, his style moved from bop to soulful to funky and, finally, into the realm of electronics, a medium only he of all who dabble in it seems to have mastered by actually learning to play and to understand the esoterica of the various synthesizers. It amounts to beginning all over again on a new set of instruments.

The founding of Weather Report in 1970 with Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous seems to have been the first boulder that broke loose in his electronic avalanche. There had been trickles of gravel previously, during his later years with Adderley and, most strikingly in a pair of solo recordings, "The Rise & Fall of the Third Stream" [Vortex, 1965] and "Zawinul" [Atlantic, 1970], both of which show an artist still finding his way in a new medium, and both of which are worthy of attention.

Though his work always has been characterized by that hard-to-define yet palpable quality known as "the groove," his new axes added fuel during the Weather Report years. I still find "Mysterious Traveller" unsurpassed in the group's recordings. A shifting lineup of musicians added texture and flavor and just about any Weather Report album one can find will have something new for the ear.

In 1985, Zawinul and Shorter split. There emerged the Zawinul Syndicate, which further explored the possibilities of electronics wedded with a kind of global sensibility, particularly the rhythms of Africa and Zawinul's native Europe, a music which, one must suppose, most naturally finds its niche under the general heading of world music.

But there is jazz in all of this.

The stock-taking that occurred during the later part of the 20th century resulted in a much-needed assessment of where jazz had been before musicians and fans alike could come to even the most speculative conclusions about where it will be going. Toward the end of that century, the youngsters -- the Marsalises and those of their vintage -- rediscovered the early jazz masters and, in a healthy turn, brought the history of the music up to date essentially by replaying it.

That has meant a decline in the electronic influence, on the whole, not such a sad state of affairs, but in Zawinul's case I'm willing to make an exception because his influence has waned.

Nevertheless, I doubt he worries much about it. Like all fine musicians, his first allegiance is to the music he makes. And, on the strength of that first hearing years ago of "Mysterious Traveller," I'll always give Zawinul a listen. I hope you will also.