Joe Zawinul, a classically trained Austrian pianist who achieved fame as a co-leader of the electrified jazz band Weather Report, died Tuesday in Vienna. He was 75 and lived in Malibu, Calif.
Weather Report, which Zawinul led with the saxophonist Wayne Shorter, was in the front ranks of the music that came to be called fusion. But he already had an impressive list of accomplishments before Weather Report recorded its first album in 1971, and he remained active and influential after the group disbanded in 1986.
He first attracted worldwide attention as a member of the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's band, one of the most popular in jazz, from 1961 to 1970. In addition to playing piano, he wrote several staples of the group's repertory, most notably "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," the biggest hit of Adderley's career, which reached No. 11 on the Billboard singles chart in 1967."I often had to sit in the bottom of the car when we drove through certain parts of the South," Zawinul said in a 1997 interview. But, he added, with characteristic bravado, "Those kinds of things never fazed me; I wanted to play music with the best, and I could play on that level with the best."
It was also one of the first jazz records to feature an electric piano. Zawinul's solo on that instrument caught the ear of Miles Davis, who brought Zawinul into the studio in 1969 as one of three keyboardists on what would become Davis first electric album, "In a Silent Way." Zawinul composed that album's title track and also contributed, as keyboardist and composer, to Davis next album, "Bitches Brew."
Those albums helped plant the seeds for a musical development that remains controversial: The emergence of fusion, a heavily amplified, rhythmically insistent blend of jazz and other music that attracted young audiences and alienated jazz purists. Zawinul became both celebrated and vilified as one of the architects of that movement when he formed Weather Report with Shorter, a veteran of Davis' band, and the bassist Miroslav Vitous.
"Weather Report was an entity of its own," Zawinul said in an interview for The New York Times last year. "You can't call it rock or fusion or all these comical words."
Two years after he and Shorter went their separate ways, Zawinul formed the Zawinul Syndicate. Like Weather Report, that group, which celebrated its 20th anniversary with an extensive tour this year, underwent frequent personnel changes. Unlike Weather Report, it was unambiguously Zawinul's project: The music, incorporating ideas from Africa and other parts of the world, was almost all composed by him, and his vast array of electronic keyboards was always front and center.
Most of the musicians who passed in and out of that group were from Africa or Latin America. Asked last year how he found his young sidemen, he answered: "They find me, man. All these kids in my band, they knew me from since they were young. Like I grew up with Ellington and Count Basie, they grew up with Weather Report."
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