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We Speak Luniwaz
Scott Kinsey Plays The Music Of Joe Zawinul

by Robin Kidson

 

 

 

Joe Zawinul

 

Joe Zawinul

 

Josef (Joe) Zawinul was an unlikely jazz man let alone an innovator of the music. For a start, he wasn’t American. He was Austrian, born in 1932 in Vienna, hardly New Orleans or Kansas City. He studied music at the Vienna Conservatory and worked as a jazz musician before moving to the US in 1959. His original intention was to study at Berklee College of Music but, almost immediately, he was snapped up by Maynard Ferguson and went on tour as the pianist in the trumpeter’s band.

Zawinul first came to wider prominence in the nineteen sixties as the pianist in Cannonball Adderley’s group. He was one of the first jazz musicians to develop the potential of the electric piano. Adderley encouraged Zawinul’s composition ambitions – with spectacular results when Zawinul came up with Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, one of the great jazz tunes and a big commercial hit. Here’s a brief clip of Zawinul playing Mercy, Mercy, Mercy live in 1968:

 

 

 

Zawinul composed other memorable tunes for Adderley, notably Country Preacher which was in the same style as Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, a style which came to be known as “soul jazz”. In retrospect, though, these tunes were laying part of the foundations of jazz rock, a genre in which Zawinul is a seminal figure.

In 1969, Miles Davis invited Zawinul to join him in recording an album which would eventually emerge as In A Silent Way. The title track is an adaptation of a Zawinul composition. In A Silent Way became a landmark album in the development of jazz rock although much of the music defies simplistic categorisations. One of the musicians who played on the album was British guitarist, John McLaughlin, and here are Zawinul and McLaughlin playing In A Silent Way live in Austria in 1992:

 

 

 

In 1971, Zawinul teamed up with another of Miles’ sidemen, Wayne Shorter, to form Weather Report. The group was hugely successful and had a wide appeal, reaching far beyond a jazz audience. Its music was exuberant jazz rock and its live performances had all the razzmatazz Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorterof a rock band. It also incorporated other musical influences, particularly African music. Zawinul moved well beyond the simple piano, even an electric one, to embrace all the possibilities of ever more elaborate synthesisers. In Austria, he had become something of a virtuoso on the accordion and he always said that the synthesiser was the natural successor of that instrument.

 

Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter

 

In the fifteen or so years of its existence, Weather Report released many albums, the most successful of which was Heavy Weather in 1977. Zawinul’s ability to write commercially successful tunes was on display yet again when one of the tracks on the album, Birdland, became a big hit.

 

 

Here is Weather Report playing Birdland live in 1977:    

 

 

 

My own personal favourite Heavy Weather track – indeed, my favourite track of all Weather Report’s prodigious output – is Zawinul’s The Juggler. It has all of Zawinul’s skill with a hook and a riff. It also seems to reach back into his Austrian roots with the feel of a Middle European folk song, the sort of song that fellow Austrian, Schubert, might well have built something around. You can listen to The Juggler here:

 

 

 

Many musicians played with Weather Report including the influential electric bassist, Jaco Pastorius. The main axis of the band, though, remained Zawinul and Shorter, but with Zawinul always the main driving force. When the band folded in the mid 1980s, Zawinul founded The Zawinul Syndicate which toured and recorded for the next twenty years. Zawinul was on tour in his native Austria when he died in 2007 aged Scott Kinsey75. He is buried in Vienna’s Central Cemetery along with some of the great names of Austrian music.

Zawinul’s music lives on – anyone who uses a synthesiser in jazz or plays jazz rock owes him some sort of debt; and you can hear his influence (and that of Weather Report) in the more sophisticated end of the rock spectrum. His legacy has also been kept alive in a more direct way through the work of the Zawinul Legacy Band. One of the main musicians behind the Band, keyboardist Scott Kinsey, has recently released an album on the Whirlwind Recordings label called We Speak Luniwaz.

 

Scott Kinsey

 

“Luniwaz” is “Zawinul” spelt backwards. Scott Kinsey explains the concept in the sleeve notes: “Anyone who knows Zawinul’s music realises that he didn’t play licks or phrases that one can simply copy and regurgitate. What Joe did was create his own personal language that was always in the moment and totally fresh! So with time, I also learned to speak Luniwaz, perhaps using my own personal dialect, in the same way a person would learn any language – through immersion, listening and absorbing its essence over time”.

We Speak Luniwaz has seven of Zawinul’s compositions plus Wayne Shorter’s Port of Entry and two numbers put together by Kinsey’s group as a whole. The group has Kinsey on keyboards, Katisse Buckingham on sax and flutes, Hadrien Feraud on electric bass and Gergö Borlai on drums. The group is augmented by several guest stars, many of whom played with Zawinul. These include bassist, Jimmy Haslip, and percussionists Bobby Thomas Jr., Michael Baker, and Arto Tunçboyaciyan.

The album is true to the spirit of Zawinul’s music. It often feels like an updated Weather Report for the twenty first century with more modern recording techniques (the sound quality is superb) and no doubt better quality instrumentation. The technical virtuosity of the musicians is Scott Kinsey We Speak Luniwazsomething to behold. All of the numbers are upbeat, joyous affairs (Kinsey doesn’t seem to do slow) driven along by an infectious beat which transmits straight to the feet. As Zawinul’s career developed, he seemed to become much more interested in rhythm rather than melody and Weather Report often used more than one percussionist – as does We Speak Luniwaz, where each number has at least two percussionists. Indeed, one might argue that the percussionists are the key members of the ensemble providing the driving beat and stitching together the efforts of the others.

Take something like Running the Dara Down, for example, which is one of the pieces composed by the group but in many respects is more Zawinul than Zawinul. The piece has a pronounced African feel with most of the musicians contributing snatches of phrases which might have felt disjointed and rather aimless if it wasn’t for the steady rhythms provided by the percussion. The beat provides the structure and gives the piece a unity which it might otherwise have lacked. A word, too, for the atmospheric wooden flute playing here of Bobby Thomas Jr.

The electric bass playing of Hadrien Feraud also provides rhythm, of course, but as with Pastorius in Weather Report, the bass is often used as a front line instrument. Feraud’s playing is one of the highlights of the album. He is clearly influenced by Pastorius but there is something else quite magical there. On Fast City (from Weather Report’s 1980 album, Night Passage), for example, he takes electric bass to a whole new level.      

Another feature of the album is the use of the voice. Zawinul was fond of the vocoder, a device for changing the sound of the voice electronically. Kinsey uses it on many of the numbers on We Speak Luniwaz but always sparingly and to effect. Kinsey also follows Zawinul in the use of background voices to create atmosphere. For instance, on Black Market, one of Weather Report’s most popular numbers from the 1976 album of the same name, background voices conjure up the atmosphere of an African market. Here is a   performance of Black Market by the Zawinul Legacy Band live in 2013:

 

 

 


The most striking use of the voice, however, is on Cucumber Slumber (from the Weather Report album, Mysterious Traveller, 1976) which is interspersed with a rap from Katisse Buckingham outlining Zawinul’s career in rhymes. This will not to be to everyone’s taste. Jazz purists in particular, many of whom didn’t really take to Weather Report, may turn their noses up but it is entirely in the spirit of Zawinul who took influences from all sorts of music. You can listen to Cucumber Slumber here:

 

 

As in much of Zawinul’s music, there is a lot going on with We Speak Luniwaz. The synthesisers and other electric effects make the ensemble sound at times like a much bigger band than it actually is. The music is often quite complex and can go off into unexpected directions. After a few listens to the album, I came to the conclusion that the best way to approach it was to let the music wash over you and to treat it viscerally rather than intellectually. It is complicated music which is best listened to in an uncomplicated way.

The final track on We Speak Luniwaz is Where The Moon Goes from Weather Report’s 1983 album, Procession. Kinsey and Whirlwind have made a music video of the track. This showcases all of the features of the whole album – indeed, of all Zawinul’s oeuvre: compelling rhythms and riffs, a prominent bass, interesting electronic effects (including judicious use of the vocoder), and complex but accessible tunes and improvisations. The whole is proof that Kinsey and his ensemble have learned to speak Luniwaz absolutely fluently but in their own distinctive way.

 

 

 


  For details of how to get hold of We Speak Luniwaz, click here. For Scott Kinsey’s website click here.

 

 

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