DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Joe Zawinul, A Musical Portrait, (2007)

An entertaining film and a fitting tribute to one of the true giants of jazz music.

Published on July 28, 2008

Joe Zawinul, A Musical Portrait, (2007)
Joe Zawinul, A Musical Portrait, (2007)

Director: Mark Kidel
Studio: Arthaus Music [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 widescreen color
Audio: DD 2.0
Subtitles: German, French, Spanish
Extras: Performance Videos
Length: 76 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

The late Joe Zawinul (who died of cancer in 2007) lived a long and diverse life, and came from humble beginnings to become one of the most influential musicians of his generation. At age 12, he witnessed firsthand the atrocities of World War II in his native Austria. In his teens he became interested in jazz music, and he and his friends became what he called “racists,” because they only listened to black jazz musicians. He came to America in the late fifties, and soon was playing for the likes of Cannonball Adderley and Dinah Washington; although he felt he didn’t have a unique style. He often emulated the piano stylings of Horace Silver, and one night, Dizzie Gillespie called him to task and challenged him to develop his own style. He says he went into a depressed sort of funk, and during a break from touring, dropped acid. His entire creative process changed at that point, and he started composing five and six tunes a day, many of which went on to become his signature tunes when he played with Miles Davis on the groundbreaking records In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, which he composed much of the music for. He later joined Wayne Shorter (also ex-Miles Davis) and formed the classic fusion group Weather Report, with which he achieved phenomenal success, especially with 1977’s multi-platinum Heavy Weather. His work with Weather Report also helped launch the global fascination with “World Music.”

The film is a travelogue, of sorts, and basically follows Zawinul from his home in Malibu back to Vienna and his jazz club, Zawinul’s Birdland. While traversing the streets of Vienna, he points out many locations of historical significance not only to himself personally, but also musically. He also spends quite a bit of time boxing and sparring with friends; not unlike Miles Davis, he had a lifelong fascination with boxing, and saw it as an excellent tool to help maintain his health throughout his life. The documentary portion of the film is interspersed with musical performances by the Zawinul Syndicate, his post-Weather Report band, that were taped live in his jazz club in Vienna. In attendance at the sessions is the current president of Austria, who was a childhood friend of Joe Zawinul. He speaks at length about his constant desire to extend the jazz keyboard literature beyond the acoustic piano, which he essentially abandoned from his work with Miles Davis forward. Even though I can’t claim to be a great fan of his musical vision post-Weather Report, it was nonetheless interesting to see and hear his revelations on his musical choices throughout his career.

From a technical standpoint the image quality is quite serviceable, although it just doesn’t have the absolute clarity that a film of such recent vintage should possess. The graininess that’s apparent throughout was, in all likelihood, a conscious artistic decision by the filmmakers. The Dolby stereo soundtrack is also quite acceptable for a film that’s essentially a documentary, although the music sequences would have benefited enormously from a 5.1 surround track. However, this is a truly interesting and entertaining film, and a fitting tribute to one of the true giants of jazz music. Highly recommended.

– Tom Gibbs

 




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