As a composer, Zawinul somehow manages to incorporate exotic elements from the music of other cultures into his work without relying on clichés.
Joe Zawinul's musical career has been an amazing journey. Born in Austria, Zawinul came to the United States where he apprenticed in Maynard Ferguson's band before joining Cannonball Adderley's seminal quintet. While with Adderley, he pioneered the use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano in a jazz setting and composed such soulful numbers as "Mercy Mercy Mercy", "Country Preacher" and "Walk Tall". He then joined Miles Davis for the albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew where he not only performed as one of the elements in Miles's multi-electric keyboard attack but also served as an important composer, contributing the pieces "In a Silent Way", "Pharoah's Dance", and "Orange Lady" to Davis's electric repertoire. In 1971, Zawinul and Wayne Shorter formed Weather Report, the single most influential jazz-fusion group of all time. With Zawinul's compositions and electric keyboard work a key element, the group managed to become extremely popular without alienating jazz fans and managing to incorporate a variety of elements into their sound that would influence fusion and other musical formats for some time to come. In the late 1980's he formed the Zawinul Syndicate, a group that managed to combine the very best elements of the Weather Report sound while incorporating additional World Music elements. For whatever reason, the listening public has remained largely unaware of Zawinul's work since Weather Report even though he continues to successfully explore similar terrain.
Now comes Faces and Places, an album under Zawinul's own name that offers a sonic travelogue of the many places Zawinul has traveled to in his career. Of course, this is a major theme of all of Zawinul's music going back to his work with Miles. "In a Silent Way" was written on a plane trip back to Austria to visit family for the holidays, and the piece evokes the warm thoughts of home that Zawinul experienced on that trip. His work with Weather Report is studded with compositions like "Jungle Book" and "Madagascar" which try to express in music the influence of Zawinul's travels and experiences with people all over the world. That approach is continued here, with the happy result that this album sounds very much like a continuation of the best of Weather Report's recorded work.
As a composer, Zawinul somehow manages to incorporate exotic elements from the music of other cultures into his work without relying on clichés. The result is music that is as richly textured and spiced as a Thai curry or an Indian masala, with sounds that conjure some distant land but still retain an element of unfamiliarity and intrigue. You won't hear an overuse of pentatonic scales or exotic percussion as shorthand to transport you to Eastern Europe or the Indian subcontinent, for example. All of the music is imbued with the funky sensibility of fusion and there is plenty of room for improvisation, too-something that is often missing from fusion and worldbeat jazz experiments.
Faces and Places starts with "The Search" a piece that serves as an introduction to the album and to Zawinul's philosophy in general: "We travel the world over and over in search of what we need. And we return home to find it," the composer intones over a chattering hi-hat beat and his own acoustic piano solo. That leads quickly into "All About Simon" a piece dedicated to the composer's grandson that bursts forth with the buoyant energy of a family gathering. Then comes the forbidding, karnatak-style vocal introduction of "Tower of Silence" by singer Amit Chatterjee, followed by the piece itself, an evocation of a monument that stands in Bombay.
"Spirit of Julian "C" Adderley" is a tribute to Zawinul's old boss, alto sax player Cannonball Adderley. "He was one of my favorite people and musicians of all time" says Joe. The piece combines the funky sound of the street with some spiritual vocals by the Perry sisters, a combination that perfectly sums up the heart and expansive soul of Adderley. "Familiar to Me" is a vocal showcase for Richard Page, and sounds at first like an overly sentimental pop song, but the beautiful chords and warm keyboard sounds that envelop it allow for a deeper listen. It's a song about coming home, and the perfect fit between message and music make it a moving song and a momentary respite from the fierce spirit of travel that the rest of the album evokes.
There are more travels ahead, though, with "Café Andalusia" capturing Zawinul's memories of a day spent at the title café in Tunisia smoking water pipes of tobacco and drinking tea with honey and mint. "Good Day" is a Zawinul improvisation that demonstrates not only his complete mastery of the keyboard but also his ability to program voices that are organic and compliment the musical structure he is trying to build rather than calling attention to themselves as electronically-generated sounds. That ability was key to the success of Weather Report and remains Zawinul's most identifiable and, for many other artists, elusive trademark. The Perry sisters add some wordless vocal punch to the number as well. Other standout tracks include "Rooftops of Vienna", a postcard from Zawinul's home that features a sample of his father's voice as well as Zawinul playing accordion at a family gathering. "Borges Buenos Aires", broken into two parts, is a piece in honor of the famed Argentinean writer Jorge Louis Borges. "I read that book Labyrinths for three years, man, and still I don't know what he was talking about" says Joe. "East 12th Street Band" ends the album on an energetic high note, with Zawinul offering his virtuoso keyboard work over a burning groove that recalls his early days in New York as a young jazz musician.
Now 70 years old, Joe Zawinul plays with the commitment, drive, and enthusiasm of a man less than half his age. If you were a fan of Weather Report but have lost track of Joe since the group disbanded, you would do well to pick this album up. If you never got a chance to hear that group's groundbreaking work, this serves as a great introduction to what their keyboardist/composer has always been about. Either way, it's hard to imagine anyone with open ears and a generous spirit being disappointed by this CD.