Joseph Zawinul, may his soul rest in peace, was a driving force behind the music of Miles Davis. Zawinul, who passed away from skin cancer in the fall of 2007 was a creative spark behind most of the heralded music from jazz fusion. Between Zawinul, Chick Corea and Larry Young, all three players contributed brisk, driving electric keyboard parts to the pivotal album Bitches Brew.

Photo By Friedrich Rumpelhuber

Zawinul composed “Pharaoh’s Dance,” a murky, but incredibly funky song that gleams with dark undertones and stereophonic mastery. As the story goes, many parts of the recording for this album were largely unrehearsed and this song was one of the few songs brought in, and charted out. How much of it was charted out is up for discussion as many of the cuts from the album ended up being edited by Teo Marcero from hour long recorded jams. But the true organic moments came together through the strength of both the group interaction and the editing. Very few albums take as many risks as this album does, and “Pharaoh’s Dance” is a worthy starter track. The seeds of this song are originally heard at the end of “Doctor Honorus Causa,” a track from Zawinul’s 1967 self-titled debut for Atlantic Records. When listening to “Pharaoh’s Dance,” there’s so much going on within the first two minutes that it’s hard for your ears to distinguish what to dissect. One of the strongest attributes lies within the haunting bass clarinet shrieks of Bennie Maupin. Towards the end of the song, guitarist John McLaughlin adds his two cents to the mix as well but the driving forces throughout the piece are the electric pianos and the choppy funk drums.

It’s important to gain an understanding about the role of the electric piano and how it made its way into the jazz world in the 1960s. Although Ray Charles and Sun Ra both recorded on electric pianos in the 1950s, Zawinul was one of the first to bring the instrument to the forefront of popular music. He reflects on this subject during a 1996 interview with journalist Howard Mandel, “I joined Cannonball Adderley, in 1961. Around then I started using the electric piano. See, in Europe I’d played American military camps in the late ’40s, early ’50s, and they all had those Wurlitzer spinets. The electric Wurlitzer was the same thing. I’d been playing ‘Mercy, Mercy'”–Zawinul’s first big hit tune–“on acoustic piano with Cannon, but we went to Los Angeles to record. It was amazing then: we did everything live, rehearse in the afternoon, in the evening cut a fuckin’ record. Anyway, I said ‘Julian, see that little grey box down the hall? If it’s a Wurlitzer and in tune I’m going to play ‘Mercy, Mercy’ on it, and it’s gonna make a big difference in the way it gets over. Boom! It made a difference. (Copyright 1996, Howard Mandel)” By the time Bitches Brew came out, not only was the Wurlitzer a household name but so was the Rhodes electric piano. Favored by Zawinul and others for not only the crunch but also the textural beauty of the high register, the instrument was one of the prime forces behind the “sound” of Miles Davis during 1969-1970. Below are some links and videos that give the reader more insight into the genius and expressive mind of Joe Zawinul.

CBS Interview with Zawinul from 1985

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Zawinul Syndicate “Zansa”

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Zawinul’s complete interview with Howard Mandel

Words by Jared Pauley

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