Joseph Pepe Zawinul

*Austrian born composer and Jazz musician Joe Zawinul poses for in front of his Jazz bar “Birdland” in Vienna, on May 25, 2004. Photographer: Ronald Zak/AP via Bloomberg News

Sept. 13 (Bloomberg) — Joe Zawinul, who died, aged 75, in his native Vienna on Sept. 11, was an egoist who had a lot to be egotistical about.

“My songs are all improvised,” he once told DownBeat magazine. “I sit down and compose an entire song from start to finish. I change nothing. Later, I might think of a hipper chord, but I never go back and put it in. I believe in nature and what nature gives me.”

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter was, with Zawinul, co-founder of Weather Report, one of the few jazz-rock fusion groups to outlast the style it helped create, and the group with which Zawinul achieved his greatest fame (he wrote their polyphonic hit “Birdland”). Shorter told me, “there are very few musicians who are able to improvise a composition on the spot and make it both entertaining and moving. Joe does that.”

With Zawinul, every chord was an event. He had Hungarian, Czech, and — he always pointed out — Sinti blood. He was playing gypsy tunes, “Honeysuckle Rose,” and “anything else I could find” on the clarinet and the accordion by the age of six.

He once stuffed a piece of green pool-table felt into his Hohner squeezebox, thus constructing, he said, with no discernable irony, “the original synthesizer. I loved that sound. It was so nasty.”

World’s Best Band

The musicians in Weather Report were a cocky bunch. If not the best, they were pretty close, and when they said “we’re the best band in the world,” you saw no point in denying it. When an unknown young man from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, introduced himself, “Mr. Zawinul, my name is Jaco Pastorius, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world,” he was on the right track.

Both Shorter and Zawinul were musical sons of Miles Davis, although Zawinul repeatedly denied it: “I wrote `In a Silent Way’ (their benchmark 1969 minimalist collaboration),” he said. “Miles only changed some of the chords. We were brothers, I was not his son.”

“Joe is deep,” the journalist David Breskin remembers Davis telling him in 1983 in a hotel room in Austin, Texas. “He called Zawinul his `collaborateur,’ pronouncing it the French way, like co-conspirator. Still, it seemed clear to him that he couldn’t keep Zawinul around too long because, Davis said with a sarcastic laugh, “I would have ended up playing in HIS band.”

Viennese Funk

Zawinul also wrote the funk hit “Mercy Mercy Mercy” for Cannonball Adderley, with whom he also played piano. It is essential to imagine his Brooklyn-cum-Viennese accent full of hipsterisms and scatology.

“I’m always sincere, man,” Zawinul said. “Even when I’m full of it. My goal was always to get on scenes where I was the weakest one going in and the strongest coming out. Like you learn from your daddy and then go a little bit further. The midget on the shoulders of the giant.”

“I got a scoop for you,” he told me during an interview in 1992. “The drummer with my first band, Thomas Klestil, just became president of Austria. We used to play music all night long, man. We ran the streets together. It started in 1945. Sometimes we stole food, because we didn’t have nothing to eat. We sneaked in to see `Stormy Weather.’ I cut a hole in the fence of a swimming pool and for one whole summer we went swimming for free.

“And then one day in 1948,” Zawinul continued, “we were walking in my hood and Thomas said, `You know, I’m tired of all this. I’m going to do something with my life. You’re a talented musician, you should do that.’ He studied economics, and I learned the piano. Later, when we were both in the States, I took him to Cannonball’s house to hang out with the brothers. He had no problems with any of them. Both our master plans worked out.” (Klestil died in 2004.)

Skull Cap, Schnapps

The band that followed Weather Report was a sort of Weather Update known as “The Zawinul Syndicate.” He took great pleasure from the Mafia implications of the name. He wore an African skull cap on stage, and he tugged from an ever-present bottle of schnapps.

On one tour, the Syndicate split a bill with the Malian singer Salif Keita, whose album “Amen” (1992) Zawinul had produced. Despite mostly negative reviews, “Amen” spent 13 weeks at the top of the Billboard “world music” chart.

“A lot of people thought it was too modern,” Zawinul said. “Too many chords, not `native’ enough. But Salif hired me because of who I was. He could have made the record in Africa. I never listened to his old records. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the past. I’ve been playing world music all my life, I knew we’d mix great.

“I always use all my influences,” Zawinul said. “I grew up with Hungarian gypsy music, Yugoslavian music, polkas. Polkas can be a gas, if you play them good.

“I’m influenced by folk music, classical music, flamenco, African music, Oriental music. Plus I’ve been living with black American culture more than half my life, playing their music with the best cats. I’m not worried about Duke Ellington. Baby, I ain’t worried about nobody.”

This one-of-a-kind instrument was custom made by Korg in the mid-1980s at the request of Zawinul. It is not a synthesizer, as it has no capabilities to produce sound of its own. Rather, it is a MIDI controller consisting of a melodica mouthpiece for breath control, and a set of accordion-like buttons. A picture of Zawinul playing the Pepe appears in the April 1988 issue of downbeat. In the accompanying article, Zawinul says, “Originally, I was an accordion player and it was always my dream to have an instrument like the accordion. It looks like a bassoon mouthpiece, but I used a mouthpiece from a Melodica. On the right hand side, it’s an accordion with buttons. It’s very difficult to learn the accordion with two notes on each button, but with Pepe’s six notes, it becomes a real head trip.”
According to a source at Korg, the Pepe has about 13 buttons that were made from Korg’s DDD-1 drum machine, and are arranged in a manner similar to that of a piano keyboard. The breath controller is attached on the left side of the instrument. The overall dimensions of the Pepe are approximately 15″ x 4″ x 1″. It is played by holding it with the left hand, pressing the key pads with the right hand, and blowing into the breath controller for additional expression.
Zawinul used the Pepe extensively on all of the Zawinul Syndicate releases except World Tour, as well as the album My People.

Zawinul has long been an innovator, not just as a composer and a player, but in the design, creation, and utilization of new instrument technologies. The invention pictured above is a remarkable sounding device called the Pepe, not like anything you’ve ever seen. Pepe has a mouthpiece and resembles a horn in size but is held at an angle similar to an accordion. “I was an accordion player when I was young, and I always liked to play vertically. I like the vertical approach rather than the horizontal approach. I like the horizontal as well, but to play here,” gesturing with the grip of a horn player, “and to play with control over my tone and everything, that’s what I always wanted.”

As a MIDI controller, Pepe is not restricted to one patch or one sound, an idea which sprung from the accordion concept. “On a button accordion you get two notes on one draw and pull. With Pepe (which is my first name). I have developed it such a way that I get up to six notes by fingering one. I’m not harmonizing the note, but I can get a different sound with a switch that I can control on the instrument. the switch is similar to the pickup settings on a guitar, but with six individual buttons rather than one and a much more diversified range of sound possibilities.

If you listen to my solo on ‘ The Devil Never Sleeps,’ all those funny gypsy type of things are a good example. I play it all on Pepe. The trumpet sounds, the saxophone sounds are all played on this instrument.”

The nature of Pepe reminds me a bit of the EWI that Michael Brecker uses so effectively, “Yeah, he is playing the hell out of it. it’s a much different kind of thing, though. there is only one Pepe in the world(and there will only be one). The fingerboard is set up like an accordion, but different. it is a combination. it is set up like a piano keyboard, but with buttons and with a multiple choice of from one to six notes, totally MIDIfiable to anything.”