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!
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