"People are beautiful everywhere," says Josef Zawinul. "I think a real open person, I don't care what music he is playing, is going to be saying something.
"We listen to how people talk and walk. Living is life. That's what you have got to handle: living, not music, or nothing else. If you got that together, all the other things are right behind that. After a while, they'll be on a same level.
"Everything affects you. Jazz is universal, the greatest language of the world, and it came right from our own country. It is a "true American art form."
Pianist Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter constitute the nucleus of Weather Report, playing at Hammersmith Odeon on July 27th, 28th and 29th. Their paths have led them through creative periods with Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, and many others. But Zawinul is quick to point out, "I think the music was always simple. We have learned from living and playing to simplify ourselves, to find the common denominator for expression. It's an actual development, not done from an intellectual point of view. I feel that I have been a very simple muscian always. Wayne is his own way also. We don't want to be in a hurry. We wanted to say. 'Hey, OK. We have a band, and wherever we are going it is going to be different.' It is an acc*mulation of all our experiences."
He was born in Vienna, a bastion of traditional musics, yet Zawinul says he was never a classical musician.
"It was pretty to me, but I was always playing something else. I took piano lessons and was formally trained to some degree, but I always wanted to be a musician that played for people. I never used to go to classical concerts, I even went around putting down people like Schubert. I grew up in the country and city streets, and played for money since I was very young.
"I used to play weddings when I was ten years old. Listening to people who said, 'Play this tune,' you find your thing and you improvise. You entertain. And I was doing this before I was exposed to jazz."
Zawinul's introduction to jazz came via the inevitable cultural assimiliation that followed the war.
"I met this one guy in 1944. He played on the piano some Teddy Wilson stuff and I said 'what is this? This is beautiful.' And he calls it jazz, and I was turned on. We played together, and this other dude brought his Capitol record by Miles Davis around 1948. It just blew us away. The American soldiers had a radio network and they played nice music on it, Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian. I used to run home from school so that I would never miss the programme.
"I used to think that I was the baddest thing around in Europe. I played them all: clubs, gigs, jazz trios, etc.
"I could play all the George Shearing tunes and Miles tunes from the albums. I transcribed them straight from the record, and I could play them well. I had piano teachers, but this was the real education."
Predestined to be a musician, then?
"I think that whatever you got, you are born with. When I was six years old, my grandfather bought a violin for me and also a little accordion, I heard other people play, and found myself always gravitating to where the music was. I see the people playing and I'd say, 'Hey man, I can play that too.' That's what happened from the first day on. In the winter the family would all congregate together and sing. There might not be any food but there was always lots of singing. The folk music was in three-quarter time, and I said, ' that's not all there is in life'."
In 1959 Zawinul emigrated to the United States, where he spent a number of years paying the obligatory dues. By the end of the Sixties an idea had crystallized in his mind, and, along with Wayne Shorter, Weather Report came into being.
"From the earlier music with Cannonball and Miles, I think Weather Report is a step on the ladder, a nice chain. I play it by ear. That is what it is all about. We do what we feel like doing. It's like, 'let's see what's happening, man.' The people love it, and that is the greatest thing in the world. If you play something that is not you, then you really don't know who they love. Our music is something that comes from within. That goes for Wayne, Jaco (Pastorius, bass guitar), Alex (Acuna: drums), all the band. It's a unit, a family. Man, if the people like that and it comes from us, then you really know for sure whom they love."
In some respects Weather Report has become a wayside station for young players, similar to Miles' bands of the Sixties.
Isn't stability important for a collective approach to improvisation?
"I think it is a little like school. Wayne and I have learned a lot from everyone who has played with us. People grow from their time spent with us. We learned from the masters – Duke, Miles and so on. We are prepared to listen, and, consequently, we are prepared to bend. If not, the band would forever sound the same. We must be flexible so long as everybody is happy, and there is no negative factor present.
"The controversy over Miroslav (Vitous, the original bassist) still follows us. At first, Miroslav did not have a great bass mind, although he was a great player. He learned a lot about life during his stay with the band but could not adapt to the evolution we were going through."
The change from I Sing The Body Electric to Sweetnighter was very pronounced.
"Exactly. Miroslav could not put that rhythm down. At the time, maybe four years ago, he couldn't himself, he couldn't cope with being simple. There were too many ideas running around in his mind. We made it clear that we didn't want to hang around and wait for him. There was no way we could continue the way he wanted to go. It just was not there. Let me add, however, that we are still the best of friends and the split was amiable."
Weather Report like to think of themselves as apart from the jazz/rock controversy. "We don't fall into categories. I like to call it what it is; Weather Report plays like nobody else. I think there is room for individualism. This cat, Acuna, is one you are gonna hear a lot about, 'cause he has a lot of talent. He can do all kinds of things. Jaco is a young master on the bass. It is wonderful listening to young artists. The rhythm is the number one thing, always. The rhythm is like life. We have a lot of happiness in this band. We are not trying to run games on the people and be at all snobbish.
"Our audiences are broadening, growing all the time. We really must give credit to the young people who are helping the cause. Radio, record reviewers, the company, are all working hard to bring the artist closer to the people. In five years we will have a huge audience following and the music will be beautiful, not downhill."
Another jazz-rock pitfall is the blind jump into electronics. Few have shown an understanding or even originality.
"I investigated the synthesizer. It was all sounding electronic. I make it sound like what I really like, not what is in the machine. The sound of a bird, that's what I am interested in. I never learned by the book. I remember and I add. Most electronics that I hear I don't like – the machine is getting a hold on the individual."
Their new album, Black Market with its North African references and hypnotic rhythmic propulsion, is just another step on the ladder, reflecting further changes and different spirits, what Zawinul refers to simply as "ethnic music."
Keeping yourself free and open to stimulus is forever on Josef Zawinul's mind.