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Joe Zawinul

Jazz Keyboardist By Paul Tingen
Published June 2003

Joe Zawinul is perhaps the best-known and most influential keyboardist in jazz. He pioneered the use of electric keyboards and synths, and at 70 he's still at the peak of his powers.

Joe Zawinul is many different men rolled into one. Austrian and American. Black and white. Old and young. Amiable and arrogant. Amusing and abrasive. Keyboardist and rhythm guru. Groomed in European classical music, yet a trailblazer of jazz, African, rock and fusion music. And despite having an almost Luddite approach to technology, he's been an electronic music pioneer since the 1960s.

Joe Zawinul

This lengthy list of seeming and real contradictions takes some explaining. To begin with, there's his age. Zawinul turned 70 on July 7, 2002, yet according to sources close to him, he's got more energy than men half his age — apparently he still goes boxing three times a week. Last year he released a wholly contemporary-sounding album with The Zawinul Syndicate, Faces & Places, and embarked on a lengthy world tour. His band has been called "the hottest band in jazz today" and specialises in boiling, uptempo grooves that would wear out people half his age. And is he thinking of retiring? No way. "I can play another 20 years, man," he declared with a grin.

The lure of his music is illustrated by the impressive sales of and critical acclaim for albums in which he had a hand (or two), by Weather Report, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Santana, Salif Keüta, and of course, his many solo and semi-solo recordings (the latter with The Zawinul Syndicate). By contrast, Zawinul's abrasive side is exemplified by a croaky voice that can be cutting, impatient and intimidating, accentuated by his broken English. One senses that he has a very short fuse. The Austrian-American has a fearsome reputation as a tough man and an extremely demanding bandleader, not afraid to put anyone in his place, regardless of reputation or status. He also has a penchant for self-promotion sometimes bordering on the grandiose — he has, for instance, professed to have begun the entire world music movement.

In addition, during our transatlantic phone conversation Zawinul took credit for inventing the hip-hop beat. "Oh, yeah," Zawinul asserted, "if you listen to the drum beat on '125th Street Congress' [from Weather Report's 1973 album Sweetnighter], that beat is the original hip-hop beat. I played that years before it was recorded. That particular beat has since been used by at least 55 or 60 rap groups, even until now. I did get credit and paid for that, which is a good thing. That was the first time the hip-hop beat was recorded, but I didn't call it that. Peter Erskine [one of Weather Report's drummers] used to call it the Zawa beat."

Weather With You

Joe Zawinul has gone so deeply into African-American music, and has had such a big impact on it, that he has been called the "greatest white black musician alive" in the US. He's also been voted the best keyboard player in jazz 21 times in the American jazz magazine Downbeat. Given that his main roots are in Europe and classical music, it makes his achievements both impressive and mystifying, and one wonders where the roots of his skills and artistry, especially in black music and rhythm, come from.

Some of the answers go back as far as 1932, when Josef Zawinul was born in Vienna. The extremely gifted kid was enlisted in the Vienna Conservatory in 1939 as a classical piano student, but as a child of poor parents, the war years soon became hard and hungry for Zawinul, shaping much of his outlook on life.

The influx of American culture immediately after the war proved another crucial stepping stone. The American dance music and jazz that radio stations broadcast provided Zawinul with a profound sense of direction: "I saw what I wanted to do with my life: to play with black musicians." Following this, he embarked on a successful career in the Austrian jazz scene. After a few years he found this too limiting and a successful application for a scholarship at the Berklee School of Jazz in Boston provided a way out.

When Zawinul moved to the USA in early 1959 he hit the ground running, being enlisted within three weeks of his arrival by well-known jazz trumpeter and bandleader Maynard Ferguson. Half a year later he was sacked, allegedly for trying to take over the band, but within weeks he was hired again, this time by jazz singer Dinah Washington. Two years later Zawinul joined the R&B jazz band of the legendary saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, and stayed there until the end of 1970. In 1965, Zawinul wrote Cannonball's band's greatest hit, 'Mercy, Mercy, Mercy'. Two Zawinul solo albums soon followed: Money In The Pocket (1966) and The Rise And Fall Of The Third Stream (1967).

A feature of 'Mercy, Mercy, Mercy' that attracted widespread attention was Zawinul's use of the Wurlitzer electric piano, to which he had been introduced in 1959 by Ray Charles. Soon after 'Mercy, Mercy, Mercy' Zawinul featured as a guest electric keyboardist on a variety of recordings with the likes of King Curtis (with Jimi Hendrix in the band) and Aretha Franklin. 'Mercy, Mercy, Mercy' also inspired Miles Davis to introduce the electric piano into his music in December 1967.

Joe Zawinul

"It was the whole kick-off to that electronic thinking," Zawinul recalled. "That was so hip, the electric piano I was playing with Cannonball crossed over to the rock & roll kids. In 1967-68 [pianist] Victor Feldman, a great, great musician and friend, introduced me to Harold Rhodes of the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Rhodes sometimes travelled with me on tour. We were very close. I suggested improvements to the instrument, such as in the attack, that when you get higher the notes don't get thinner. And then they did something so that it didn't detune as fast. Little things."

Between November 1968 and February 1970 Zawinul recorded regularly with Miles Davis, becoming an important catalyst for the trumpeter's foray into jazz-rock. Davis used several of Zawinul's compositions during these sessions, most famously 'In A Silent Way', which became the title track for Davis's pioneering ambient jazz-rock album, and 'Pharaoh's Dance' on Bitches Brew.

Having first released another solo album with a more traditional, European flavour, called simply Zawinul (1971), the keyboardist went on to co-found definitive jazz-rock band Weather Report with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who had also played extensively with Davis. Their self-titled 1971 debut album took the jazz world by storm. By the time of the band's demise in 1986, 14 studio albums, two live albums, and several dozen musicians had come out of and through Shorter and Zawinul's magic pressure cooker. Last Autumn, Sony/Columbia released another demonstration of Weather Report's creative prowess, the double CD Live And Unreleased, with live out-takes from 1975 to 83. Rather then sequenced in chronological order, the tracks are mixed, sequenced, and crossfaded to resemble one continuous live concert. The sound is first-class, the playing exceptional, and many of the tracks sound amazingly contemporary.

Accordions In The Forest

Zawinul did not stop at the Wurlitzer and Fender Rhodes electric pianos he used in the 1960s. By the late 1960s he was extending his sonic palette with effects like phase shifters, Echoplexes, wah-wahs and ring modulators, and when synthesizers came on the market he was among the first to buy one (the EMS Putney). The list of synthesizers he has used since then — among them the ARP 2600, Rhodes Chroma, Oberheim Four-voice and Eight-voice, ARP Quadra, Sequential Prophet 5 and Prophet T8, Korg Trident, Oberheim Xpander, Korg VC10 vocoder, Emu Emulator, Casio CZ101, Korg DW8000, DSS1, DSM1 and M1 — reads like a synth museum's treasure list.

Joe Zawinul's keyboard rig, set up as for live use: from left, Korg M1 workstation, Clavia Nord Lead synth (underneath M1); Korg Prophecy monosynth and Sequential Circuits Prophet T8 synth; Korg Triton workstation. Joe Zawinul's keyboard rig, set up as for live use: from left, Korg M1 workstation, Clavia Nord Lead synth (underneath M1); Korg Prophecy monosynth and Sequential Circuits Prophet T8 synth; Korg Triton workstation.

"The EMS Putney was my first synthesizer," Zawinul commented. "I bought one together with a friend of mine who lived in the same building in New York. The Putney only had one oscillator. It was like a wooden board with a bunch of little holes in it where you put these toothpicks with wires, and you could create one oscillation. It created little radio-type sounds.

"The ARP was great. I still play it today. It was the first keyboard that could be inverted, in other words, when your hands go up, you're sounding down. It's a mirror system where C remains C, D flat becomes B, D becomes B flat, and so on. When you play chords with this, you have to have a good brain. What's good about it is that you get different ideas. Weather Report's 'Black Market' was played on an inverted keyboard. Check it out."

Zawinul traces his passion for synthesizers back to his Austrian childhood. "Creating my own sounds is what the whole ballgame is about," said Zawinul. "I did it since I was seven years old, when I played the accordion, which has different sound registers. I always liked that. I grew up in the forest, my friend, and in the forest it is quiet, and you can hear everything, the wind blowing through."

Is he implying that he is always looking for textural, environmental sounds? "Exactly. The piano alone is a boring kind of thing." And so the development of music technology must have been a Godsend? "Yes, it is. As a young kid I played harmonium in a small orchestra, and later I played a Hammond organ. For me in my head I had already invented the synthesizer, the whole thing. I was always taking about, why can't somebody invent such a thing?"

The Mastermind

Zawinul's use of synthesizers, and eventually samplers and drum machines, expanded gradually. However, it wasn't until Weather Report folded that he embarked on his most radical exploration of technology to date, with Di-a-lects (1986), recently remastered and re-released by Columbia. The album still sounds astonishing 17 years later. In contrast to the bombastic or gimmicky nature of many synth and drum machine-based recordings of the era, much of the album bubbles organically and swings irresistibly.

"I played all the parts, man," Zawinul elaborated. "I think if one person can play everything, then you have a more unique and more organic way of playing music. In all honesty, it's my favourite way to play. Not on stage, because on stage it's tricky. Unless people can see what you're doing, they don't believe it. I performed the stuff from Di-a-lects live and people saw me sitting behind all those boxes and said that I didn't play everything and just mixed the sound, shit like that. But I really played all these things, because I'm really co-ordinated with all this [multi-keyboard] stuff. Of course, I used a rhythm machine for live performance, but I played the bass lines mixed with comping with the left hand, and played melody and other comping parts with the right hand."

Commenting on how he avoided that stereotypical '80s Linn-driven sound, Zawinul said, "You know what, man, I can't even do that. It's no big deal. I can play with a drum machine, and I can make a drum machine sound like a real drummer because of how I play around it. It's an art. You cannot be a slave of something like that. You have to be the mastermind, and you can make this static thing flexible and moveable. That's what I do. I slalom around what the drum machine does in such a way that it's not about what it plays, it's about what I play.

"It's an art to play to sequencers or drum machines, and even some of the really famous guys can't do it. People trying to keep up with it, to keep time with it, and that shit is going to sound stiff. You have to free yourself from that stuff. On 'Carnavalito' [on Di-a-lects] I used a drum machine, it may have been a Linn, but I shook the rhythm up with my playing. That version is the best version of that song I've ever played. I presented the music like I did it on Di-a-lects to Weather Report, with drum and bass parts, so they could feel what the music was going to be like. I needed their imagination, but only to a small degree. But on this particular solo record it was my particular personality playing everything, and for me that was more organic. It's still like that today. With Faces & Places, the way I presented it to the band, it really sounded better than on the record."

So if the things he does alone sound superior, why use other musicians at all? "Because I like to have a band with me on the road," Zawinul retorted. "It's so much work doing it alone. Also, I use a lot of different programs that I've programmed myself that only go by touch, so I can play an entire solo with two notes. For instance on the Chroma Expander I can have micro scales and quarter-tone scales, and scales where the octave on the keyboard is only a tritone, so I can play in such small increments that you can hardly hear the notes, but you can hear the motion. On Di-a-lects I did some of this stuff on an ARP Quadra."

When asked what keyboards and drum machines he used live and on that record, Zawinul became elusive, as if divulging engineering-type knowledge would soil his reputation as an artiste. "I don't know, man. All I know is that I still have some of them now. All f**king instruments are dead, my friend, unless someone plays it. There is no living instrument in the whole world. They don't play by themselves. You can write that in big letters, because people don't seem to understand this. What the f**k is a Stradivarius? You can play it badly and it's a catastrophe. Or a piano, or a synthesizer. Synthesizers especially!"

Joe Zawinul's much-used Korg O1R/W workstation synth, with his vintage Rhodes Chroma Polaris and ARP Quadra analogue synths. Joe Zawinul's much-used Korg O1R/W workstation synth, with his vintage Rhodes Chroma Polaris and ARP Quadra analogue synths. But surely a good quality instrument helps... Zawinul interrupted before the question was finished: "I disagree with that. Who it is that plays the instrument is more important. Miles didn't sound like a trumpet player. Nobody plays as good saxophone as Wayne Shorter. It's a concept that's inside a person. No instrument is better than any other instrument to make you sound good. It's about sound. And synthesizers are even more difficult, because there's a greater menu. It's much easier to choose the best dish out of five dishes on the menu in a restaurant, than out of 400."

Although there's an impressive array of keyboards and modules in The Music Room, Zawinul's live rig is relatively modest in size: "For live I'm using a couple of rackmounted modules like the Triton, which is really nice, and the Wavestation and M1/R rack units. I only have four actual keyboards on stage, the Prophecy, the M1, the Triton keyboard and the Sequential Circuits T8. In my studio I use the Peavey 9000 as a sampler, and I still have all my old keyboards. I also have the Korg Pepe as a rack unit."

The Pepe (Zawinul's nickname when he was a kid) is an instrument custom-made for Zawinul by Korg in the mid-1980s, exemplifying the fact that the Austrian is a high-profile endorsee of the company. ("They are very good people, who have been relentless in supporting me, more than 30 years now. They're like family to me.") The Pepe is a MIDI wind controller with a melodica mouthpiece and buttons that resemble an accordion. Apparently the 13 buttons came from a Korg DDD1 drum machine. Zawinul does not seem to use it much any more, in contrast to the vocoder, which remains one of his favourite tools.

Keeping It In The Family

Joe Zawinul's son, 34-year old Ivan Zawinul, was engineer and co-producer on Faces & Places, My People and WorldTour, and is responsible for the day-to-day running of Zawinul's studio in Malibu (near Los Angeles), called The Music Room. Ivan attended engineering schools in Ohio and Florida, but learned most of his engineering skills hands-on from having worked for 15 years for his father on the road and in the studio. His DIY education has clearly not left him struggling at the back. On the contrary, the albums he's recorded for and with Joe Zawinul sound spectacular, and since the early 1990s every single album on which Ivan played an important part has been nominated for a Grammy.

Talking on the phone from a French hotel room during the Zawinul Syndicate's latest European tour, Ivan explained in detail the impressive setup of The Music Room. Based around an 80-channel Amek Einstein desk, the studio was tailor-made to suit the needs of the two Zawinuls, in particular to marry easy of use with maximum integration, flexibility and freedom.

The heart of The Music Room recording setup is formed by three Apple computers, plus a 2MB Atari 1040. "We have one G4 for running the latest 24-channel Pro Tools system and software, one G4 dedicated to Digital Performer (and occasionally Logic), and one 9600 which runs the MIDI and USB systems, with software such as Sound Diver and [Bitheadz] Session 3 as well as software for our M-Audio Delta 1010. The 9600 is a stand-alone unit for programming stuff like Firewire, the USB and MIDI ports, the keyboards, the Opcode 64XTC, and so on. Joe's main MIDI recorder is the Atari, which is running Hybrid Arts stuff. When on tour he now uses a laptop and the Korg 1200 digital recorder, a 4GB portable recording unit. The software on his laptop is Opcode Vision v2.51. He likes old software because he knows it, and it's easy for him. All he wants to do is play and record.

"The Music Room is located 25 feet from the main house, and consists of a control room and a recording room. You can see the ocean from everywhere. Joe has an office in the main house, where he has an acoustic piano and a midi setup. He can control Pro Tools and any keyboard in the control room or studio from his office. We have about 84 MIDI tie-lines in the studio, with 'A', 'B', 'C' and 'D' banks. The 'A' bank basically covers all the master keyboards, 'B' all the rhythm and sync equipment, 'C' all the keyboards in the studio, and 'D' is for flexibility. All banks are live to all computers all the time. Any keyboard can show up on Pro Tools, Performer, and the Atari.

"We have six M-Audio 8x8 MIDI ports: two are for Pro Tools — one is for bank 'A' and bank 'B', one is for banks 'C' and 'D' — and four are stand-alone mergers. Each computer has 16 MIDI ports in and out. Ports 1-8 are designated for the main 'A', 'B', 'C' & 'D' banks, 9-12 are for Performer, and 13-16 for Pro Tools. All banks are merged. For instance, MIDI ports 1 in Pro Tools, Digital Performer, and the Atari are all going to bank 'A'. Port 1 out can be four master keyboards, of which two are active. Pro Tools uses OMS, and Performer FreeMIDI, so we've linked the OMS and FreeMIDI. We also have a lot of USB ports in the control room, so you can connect anything: M-Audio USB keyboards, floppy drives, hard drives, and so on. The system was developed so that that when necessary Joe and I can work completely independently. For instance, if I'm working in the control room, Joe can practise in the studio with his whole setup, all his keyboards, drum machines, all the extra stuff, and it won't affect anything that I'm doing via MIDI, the mixer, or the computers. Things can be off-line, on-line, however you want them."

The Music Room contains dozens of sound sources, both rackmounted and as keyboards. Ivan Zawinul runs through just a few of them: "Joe's live rig normally stands in the studio room — Prophet T8, Korg Prophecy, Triton, M1, 01/R, Clavia Nord Lead, Roland VP9000, and the Korg Pepe. In the studio he also often uses an 01/W keyboard, Prophet 5, Rhodes Chroma Polaris and Chroma Expander, Overheim Xpander, Korg MS2000, ARP Quadra and 2600. All keyboards, apart from the ARP 2600, are MIDI-fied. The drum machines we use are the Oberheim DX, Alesis HR16, Korg DDD1, Korg Electribe, Korg AR1, and an ARP eight-step sequencer. As far as samplers are concerned, we originally began with the Korg DSS1, and then we had a Korg DSM1, followed by the Ensoniq ASR10, and eventually an Emu ESI4000. Today we use the Triton and the Roland VP9000. We have a Triton for the studio and for live; we have SCSI and hard drives to interchange and swap data. We have an extensive collection of samples, collected during years of travelling and often programmed and layered at home."

The Music Room

The Music Room control room contains a lot of outboard gear, three ADAT recorders, and an old Ampex 1200 analogue 24-track, which Ivan Zawinul professes to miss using. It hasn't been in action for three years, having been superseded by an all hard-drive approach for the recording of Faces & Places. One question that immediately arises is why the Music Room has so many different formats and software: Pro Tools, MOTU, M-Audio (synchronised by a MIDI Time Piece AV when Performer is the master and SMPTE Slave Driver when Pro Tools is the master — synchronisation to analogue tape is courtesy of a CM50 sync box).

Some Music Room outboard (from left, top to bottom): PreSonus ACP88 dynamics, TC Electronic M*One, Korg A1 and Ensoniq DP4+ effects, Roland VP9000 Variphrase processor; patchbays, M-Audio Tampa preamps (x2), Korg Triton Rack sound module, Emu ESI4000 sampler, Korg M1R Ex and M3R sound modules. Some Music Room outboard (from left, top to bottom): PreSonus ACP88 dynamics, TC Electronic M*One, Korg A1 and Ensoniq DP4+ effects, Roland VP9000 Variphrase processor; patchbays, M-Audio Tampa preamps (x2), Korg Triton Rack sound module, Emu ESI4000 sampler, Korg M1R Ex and M3R sound modules. Zawinul explains that the different formats are present partly for financial reasons (although the equipment in The Music Room may suggest otherwise, the Zawinuls are working on a limited budget), while some of the studio's gear, such as the Korg and the M-Audio equipment, was come by through sponsorship deals. "We originally got the MOTU Performer 2408 system for Joe in his office. Then we got the 2408 MkII, and then M-Audio became sponsor, so we decided to change engines to the Delta 1010. It's also handy to have so many different formats. For instance, we recently did a couple of radio commercials for France, and they could only have it on Performer or Tascam, so we sent them the material as a Performer file. I think every studio needs a selection of hard disk formats. The Delta 1010 is very straightforward to us, while the 2408 is great because you can route ADATs through it and use its D-A converters. World Tour was recorded to 48-track digital tape. We didn't have that, and rather than rent in a digital 48-track, we transferred things to 24-track analogue, ADAT, and Pro Tools."

While My People was largely recorded to 24-track analogue, Faces & Places was an entirely hard-disk based affair. However, Joe Zawinul's MIDI material on the Atari remained in this medium until the end. "Most audio ended up on Pro Tools," Ivan Zawinul remembered, "with a little drum MIDI as well, so I could easily line up the audio and MIDI drum tracks. The rest of the MIDI remained in the Atari, linked via SMPTE. We had take after take of live drums, sometimes as many as six 12-track performances for one song. Add to this bass and singing, and Pro Tools was very quickly at maximum capacity. So we used Digital Performer for live horns and matched them up with acoustically recorded things like guitars and Joe's non-MIDI performances, so if we needed to edit there was quick alignment. We wanted to be able to line things up by visual inspection."

The Music Room has the usual broad collection of outboard gear and plug-ins. One unusual feature is Ivan Zawinul's extensive use of the QSound surround sound plug-in. "I used it a lot on Mauthausen [Zawinul's harrowing account of life in Austria's largest second world war concentration camp]. The live sound for that had been designed for a 43-speaker system, and to get that down to stereo was pretty hard. With QSound I have additional panning and depth options. You can hear it in many of the sound effects, for instance at the end of track 1. On Faces & Places a lot of the guitars have gone through QSound. I didn't pan them hard right or left, but more forward left or forward right. By the way, all the mixing for that album was done via the Einstein; that's our analogue path. We mixed down to Alesis Masterlink 96."

Ivan's interest in the future, and surround sound in particular, is also illustrated by a 5.1 mix for a DVD called Live Concert At The Leverkusener JazzTage he was planning to undertake in Brussels at the end of the European tour. The DVD is scheduled for release in the autumn. Meanwhile, The Music Room has also been equipped with seven-channel surround sound.

Rotating Beats

Vocoders, keyboards, sounds and samples aside, there's one topic Zawinul keeps coming back to: rhythm. "I always call it 'rotation," he elaborated suddenly. "The rotation is everything. Rotation is the pulse, and if you have the pulse and the rotation of the pulse, there is something about that. It's very tricky. Most people, most drummers, are not really rhythmically that good. They can play in time, but that's not rhythm. Rhythm is something else than time. To have a rhythmic talent, to take things out of the time, and be more of the time without being in that structure, you know, this has to do with the rotation. You cannot, I don't think correctly explain that. It's something in the feeling."

Any mention of rhythm instantly sparked lengthy discourses, such as in the case of the hip-hop beat, when he hummed a bass and snare rhythm, and explained, "You see? The secret of that beat is the distance between the bass drum and the snare drum. The backbeat I had originally on '125th Street Congress,' if it is not hit correctly it will never groove. There is a longer distance than in a real two and four [the beats the snare normally accents]. That little 'pop' gives that uplift. It's like that little snap in boxing or in sports. You can not really learn or teach that. Ninety-nine out of 100 drummers don't have the correct distance. Most of the guys, and they are famous guys sometimes, they cannot play it. Most normal backbeats sound bad, they sound stiff. In general I don't like music with backbeats. It's boring because it closes everything up tremendously. And therefore 99 percent of the music in the world doesn't groove."

And of course, by implication, most or all of the beats Zawinul creates and/or plays, do groove. Is it a grandiose claim, or a case of a man with great talent and utter self-belief telling it like it is? The answer lies in his music. Most of it does, indeed, swing. In fact, much of it positively sizzles. Take just some more recent albums such as Faces & Places, My People (1996) and the live double CD World Tour (1998). They contain orgies of rhythm, often fast-paced, intricate, complex, and heavily influenced by world music. On these three albums Zawinul employs some of the world's best rhythm players, among them drummer Paco Sery, percussionists Triluk Gurtu, Alex Acuna and Zakir Hussain, and bassists Victor Bailey, Etienne Mbappe and Richard Bona. Yet Zawinul insists that whatever the talents of his musicians, it's him that comes up with the rhythms. "I put every rhythm exactly together beforehand. And then I let them play that and I'll ask them to use their imaginations. The fundamental musical idea is connected with everything that's in the music, including the drums. The rhythms must work. So all the bass lines and all the rhythms are prepared by me.

"I have a serious drum setup on my multi-keyboards where each note truly represents another instrument of the drum family. I usually start with making up a drum part, improvising, playing everything by hand. I play the drums like I would play a melody. I just record myself playing everything into Hybrid Arts in my Atari. For me everything is a damn solo. I've had my old Atari computer for 15-16 years now, and I love it. I'm so at home with it. What I do is, I just fool around with sounds, and the moment I have a good sound I start the click track and play into my Atari. I may play the drums with my right hand and the bass with my left. So I start an improvisation which may last seven or eight minutes, or maybe 20. And then I add the next layer. With two keyboards I add the melody and the whole comp. It's a very easy process for me. But in general I play all the drums by hand, and hardly ever program them. Otherwise, why I am a musician, man?"

Shooting The Film

The writing process is so easy, apparently, that Zawinul had 700 songs to choose from for Faces & Places alone, which he edited down to about 35. "It's no big deal. Perhaps it sounds arrogant, and then it shall be, but I do have the talent to do that — the talent to play some damn music. I get so many tunes, it's unbelievable. I don't do much thinking at all, it's just what's coming out. What the hell. When I improvise there's no mind. I'm just there. I fiddled around. It's like a painter would do, just fantasise a little bit. I'm not thinking about this shit, it's just something I do. Mind messes everything up. When inspiration starts, rational thinking stops."

It is safe to assume that Zawinul's adage also works in reverse: when rational thinking starts, inspiration stops. This is probably one of the reasons behind his reluctance to get drawn into detailed discussions about music technology. When asked, for instance, how he programs his sounds, his reply was: "pure instinct. There's nothing to say about that. When I hear a sound which I like to play with, the way the key feels, the way the sounds feels, then I modulate that sound to the point where it really rings like it is my voice, like it is my language. If I can do that, I know I can make some music. I couldn't play with sounds that are not my sound."

The Austrian was a little more forthcoming when requested to divulge more details about how Faces & Places was put together. He suddenly remembered that he hadn't actually written the material for his latest album on his trusted Atari. "In fact it was improvised on a small laptop, the Compaq Presario 1675, and a tiny three-octave Yamaha pocket keyboard, I don't remember the model number. The Presario has a very good music program on it. I don't remember what it's called, but it is a MIDI recorder. All the music on this record was written on the road. After the gigs I was in my hotel room and fooling around and improvising. Some of these tunes, my friend, were 25 minutes long. Really long and very good."

On returning to his Music Room studio at his home in Malibu, Zawinul — with help from his son Ivan, who co-produced the album — loaded his MIDI files into his Atari, and started the process of listening, editing and arranging the music. After this, guest musicians came to the studio, where they would "play pretty much exactly what I played. I had them embellish my bass lines with their personality. Only [drummer] Paco Sery and I improvised 'Barefoot Beauty' together, and on 'All About Simon' I wanted to play the arrangement live with Paco in the studio to get a better feel, and a totally different feel came out of it. This improvisation was played by me without MIDI, which meant that I had to write the arrangement down, rather than just edit it in Hybrid Arts and print it out, as I normally do.

"On a track like 'East 12th Street Band' I had Bobby Malach, the saxophone player, learn my solo. The great [bassist] Richard Bona played on two tracks. He played with my bass lines three or four times, no earphones, just with the sound coming out of the speakers, that kind of naturalness. And then I left my bass line out and let him do it. So he totally had the original feeling, but he also used his imagination to make the stuff that was there sound like him, and then we have an interpretation. It's like a movie. The closer you come to the screenplay, the better it's going to be."

So is Zawinul getting closer to the screenplay? He certainly appears to be at the peak of his powers, with his rhythms and his music more exciting than ever before.

"Well, you're hearing the future, man," Zawinul commented with typical modesty. "I'm in a totally different place already. But I'm grateful, man. That's all I am. When you're born with talent and you're healthy, all you can do is try to be a decent person, and give back."

What a guy. Here's hoping that we'll indeed be able to enjoy another 20 years of Zawinul 'giving back.'

Brian Glasser's informative book In A Silent Way: A Portrait Of Joe Zawinul (Sanctuary Publishing, 2001) was helpful in the research for this article.