ROBERT SMITH, host:

With an appreciation of a musical life, here's DAY TO DAY contributor David Was.

DAVID WAS: Of all the European musicians to have embraced jazz in the past half century, keyboardist Joe Zawinul, who died yesterday at the age of 75, was perhaps the truest to the tradition of blues-based funkiness as if he grew up on the streets of Philadelphia instead of Vienna.

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Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

WAS: Then again, his years at the conservatory in Vienna studying classical piano and composition made him an alluring combination of brains and soul, qualities that found an employment with the likes of Maynard Ferguson and Dinah Washington when he arrived stateside in 1958. He would then come to prominence as part of alto sax master Cannonball Adderley's Quintet, where he wrote that band's biggest crossover hit "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy."

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WAS: On that song and others of the time period, Zawinul was among the first keyboardists to break the voltage barrier and introduce the Fender-Rhodes electric piano to the jazz world.

Miles Davis, who was ever remaking his sonic image, hired Zawinul for his "In a Silent Way" album in 1969, where he joined future fusion jazz pioneers like Chick Corea and John McLaughlin.

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WAS: Zawinul wrote the haunting title track a dirge-like tone poem that owed debts to both Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix.

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WAS: Zawinul then struck out on his own, joining with Miles as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous to form Weather Report, a forward-looking ensemble that embraced world music before there was such a category. On the album "Heavy Weather," Zawinul added a battery of analog synthesizers to the mix, creating a hybrid electric acoustic pallet that made mainstream headlines when his composition "Birdland" became a hit record in 1977.

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WAS: "Whether Report" eventually hit the skids, actually because when the band finished recording all the basic tracks, Zawinul reportedly retired to his home studio with a hefty bag of Cannabis Ridiculous, an overdubbed new parts ad infinitum. He would continue making groove-based world music until the end, even pausing to write a symphony. One of his stateliest compositions, "Dr.Honoris Causa," is a fitting way to honor Zawinul's capacious spirit and unbounded talent.

SMITH: Musician David Was, half of the group, Was Not Was.

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SMITH: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com.

I'm Robert Smith.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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