Listening to Joe Zawinul’s “Dialects” through the lens of history

Have you ever disliked a recording when it was first released but ended up enjoying it years later? This is happening to me with Joe Zawinul’s landmark solo keyboard album, “Dialects.”

When Zawinul released Dialects in 1986, he had recently disbanded his jazz-fusion group Weather Report. Weather Report was extremely popular among young jazz musicians like myself since the group incorporated extended improvisations into its jazz-influenced compositions, which were played over a rock beat. For a teenager who was into jazz, rock, and improvisation, it was the best of all worlds all rolled into one!

With Dialects, Zawinul took the “solo album” concept to the extreme, playing all the keyboards and programming the drum tracks into a synthesizer. (He also used a few vocalists, including a then-unknown Bobby McFerrin.) Synthesized drum programming was a new concept at the time and many listeners considered it more suited to pop music than jazz, which was “supposed” to be more spontaneous. Zawinul’s drums sounded “canned” and the music monotonous, with none of the “human touch” that made a band like Weather Report so exciting. Even worse, the album featured very little jazz-like improvisation(!) Even though I LOVED the analog synth sound of the time, I found Zawinul’s new work to be a step in the wrong direction. Commercial, repetitive, and uninteresting.

Now, 30 years later, I hear the music differently. Three decades of electronic dance music have accustomed our ears to the type of steady pulse that Zawinul tapped into so early in its development. Instead of hearing a lack of “jazz feel” on the recording, I now marvel at how much music Zawinul does play over the rhythm track. Compared to what we often hear now, Dialects is literally bursting with jazz-like improvisations, rhythmic vitality, and a stunning palette of synth sounds! All the jazz you could want is right there; improvised lines, chromatic side-stepping, bebop phrasing, and rhythmic comping. Although many of us couldn’t hear it at the time, this music is permeated by jazz through and through. It could only have been made by a master jazz musician like Zawinul.

Check out the final track from Dialects: Carnivalito

It doesn’t matter if we consider this music “jazz” or not. I find that I enjoy the album much more if I put aside all my opinions of what I want Zawinul to play. You can do it too; just soak up the vitality of the sounds and rhythms as you soak up this latin-inspired groove. It is a carnival, just not the one we were expecting in 1986!

Do you want to improve your jazz keyboard playing? Here are some tips to help you learn music effectively. Good luck with your playing!

Take your left hand playing to a new level with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You’ll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration

7 thoughts on “Listening to Joe Zawinul’s “Dialects” through the lens of history”

  1. Glad to hear that you’re digging this MASTERPIECE! One of the beautiful things about music is that the doors to the party never close and the party never ends. It’s never to late to get into music. No expiration date.

    I dug this record the first time I listened to it soon after its release; on cassette, no less! One of the most influential albums of my lifetime. I believe this is Joe’s best solo effort, showcasing his compositional genius and his amazing improvisation skills. The synth voices he programmed were organic, yet, futuristic. The sounds haven’t aged at all and will persist for future generations to enjoy.

    That said, what Joe did on this album wasn’t totally surprising to me since I’d already listened to Jean Michel Jarre’s “Zoolook”, which came out two years earlier, in 1984 JMJ’s record wasn’t nearly as “African” as Di•a•lects, but it does have the synthetic voices and samples and the funky grooves. Check that record out!

    Long live Mr. Josef Zawinul!

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights about this great recording, J.R.! Good connection with Jarre. I haven’t listened to his music since the early 80s and forgot about it. Some of these sounds were definitely “in the air” at the time. Patrick Moraz did some similar stuff too.

  2. I was always a WR fan but I didn’t know about this album until I found “Essential Zawinul” on iTunes. My favorite piece is Zeebop. It has such a chaotic feel with layers of increasing complexity on top of the high energy percussion. I love how he emulates an electric guitar, which is interesting because it was never used in WR but was later in the Zawinul Syndicate.

  3. It took me 15 years to understand Zawinuls music.And after Zaeinul gone nobody canno repeat sound he made. It is so unique. At one concert here in BEG RS Zawinul allowed young jazz group to play on same sound equipment .Despite their Berkeley knowledge and excelent play sound was somewhat thin and lack of fullness . And them master came !


Leave a Comment

Sign up for Blog Updates