It is a super-cliché that the word “jazz” cannot contain the diversity of talent in many musicians. But Joe Zawinul—who clearly started his career as a jazz pianist accompanying Dinah Washington and Cannonball Adderley—transcended the label more than most. He wrote a couple of the Adderley group’s most distinctive hits (“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Country Preacher”, for example), played a critical role as a composer and performer on the seminal Miles Davis records In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, and then founded the fusion band Weather Report with Wayne Shorter.
Up to that point in his career, Zawinul was a genre-bending jazz musician, but still made sense under that word’s common meaning. He wrote tunes played by a band, the themes were improvised on, that kind of thing. But as Zawinul embraced the orchestral power of his ingeniously employed synthesizers, he started to create music that seemed poorly described as “jazz”. And as he incorporated more and more music from other traditions into his compositions, Zawinul’s music started to lose its grounding in “jazz” and to become something entirely its own: Zawinul Music, if you like—complex and richly orchestrated/synthesized, with limited touchstones in American blues-based music.
His band, Zawinul Syndicate, was a post-Weather Report incarnation of this aesthetic. For me, the band was a limited success, producing music that was too often blandly eclectic in sound and focus, even though Zawinul’s feel for an original melody and a sharp idea never lessened.
Zawinul died of skin cancer in 2007 at the age of 75, and it’s quite thrilling to get a final recording from him now that is neither a rehash of his most popular Weather Report material nor a disappointing last dose of the Syndicate. Instead, Zawinul’s last work is a stirring collaboration with the Absolute Ensemble, a classical chamber group directed by Kristjan Jarvi. Members of the Syndicate are on hand too, but the primary sound of Absolute Zawinul answers this question: What if a sympathetic acoustic ensemble could effectively orchestrate Zawinul’s contemporary ideas, bringing them a sonic body and humanity that erased 80 percent of the gimmicky facelessness that was always the Syndicate’s downfall?
And here it is. Some of the music still sounds like recent Zawinul—with the world music chants, the polyrhythmic grooves, and the too-frequent vocoder moments from the man himself—but it is immensely richer here, as reimagined for strings and flutes, bassoons and trumpets. The sounds of Zawinul’s piquant synthesizers are still here, but that is no problem, as no one humanized the synthesizer like JZ. But setting it against a large acoustic ensemble that is playing Zawinul’s own ideas with contrapuntal conviction gives the Viennese master his first true foil since the partnership with Wayne Shorter ended in 1985.
“The Peasant” is a strong, tantalizing example. A few synth squiggles begin the tune, like calls out of a forest, but the humming background is strings rather than a Moog, and, when the tune begins in earnest, it is a figure for strings and woodwinds, with brass stabs on the edges. Then enters an instantly recognizable Zawinul melody, a rotating figure of intrigue with a beautiful, slow-moving bass line that no one else would think of. But as articulated by symphonic instruments, it all feels more dramatic. There is no improvisation or standard song form, but, rather, slow motivic development. In short, this is classical music that incorporates jazz, African percussion, and Latin rhythm. That it simmers for a long time, and then never really climaxes or resolves itself—ending on a long repetition between the ensemble and a stringed instrument—is also true.
The fun groove and African chant of “Bimoya” delights, particularly in the perfect wedding between the synth’s ground rhythm, the klezmer flavor of the strings, and tight percussion work. “Great Empire” is a textured tone poem that develops into a beautiful oboe melody that gives way to a spooky synth solo by JZ. “Peace” is a ballad, equal parts sunshine and melancholy.
Every composition on Absolute Zawinul is new. Zawinul had written them in recent years, and not one had been recorded before. Rather than producing any kind of retrospective as his last statement, Zawinul gave us a slice of his latest thinking, a welcome valedictory by any measure. At least one tune, however, seems pointed backward specifically.
“Ballad for Two Musicians” starts with a duet between Zawinul’s classic synth sound and another, single-note line in the soprano register. Every Weather Report fan will immediately know that the second of those two musicians is Wayne Shorter. The two musicians (presumably both JZ here) smile at each other like two birds playing above trees on a mild day in summer. Happily, the ensemble then enters and plays a long middle-section fantasia, filling out the melodic ideas of the two musicians with a moving arrangement for the full group: delicate, dramatic, lovely, and the best thing on the record.
As much as I like Absolute Zawinul, it is hard to know whether the credit primarily lies with Jarvi’s ability to realize Zawinul’s concepts or with the music itself. There are still moments of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink awkwardness, and Zawinul’s vocoder seems all wrong every time it appears. The range of what works here is also somewhat limited, with two modes (ballads and interlocking grooves) dominating. But as the last expression of a man who delighted many while still going his own way, Absolute Zawinul is mostly a winner.
“Ice Pick Willy” is the showiest number and also the last, a rave-up with rock drums and surging low brass that is based in a boogie feel and some swinging groove. It’s what’s best and least good about JZ all in one tune, perhaps—all the variety and excitement of his music, but also a triple-decker sandwich of stuff with limited development. Strings and saxophones trade riffs, but so do all the parts of the group, with scat singing accompanying a guitar line, George Benson-style, then a woman improvising a long blues vocal line against the increasingly grooving band. It’s a ton of fun, staying on a single chord throughout, as if to remind us that Zawinul was, in fact, a jazz player.