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Keyboardist Joe Zawinul: From Weather Report to Rap

February 18, 1990|LEONARD FEATHER

It's a far cry from the synthesizers of Joe Zawinul's Weather Report to the happening scene of rap. But, somehow, the Vienna-born keyboard master who co-led the jazz/rock fusion group with Wayne Shorter from 1970 to 1985 has bridged the gap. His best known composition, "Birdland," which became a disco hit for Weather Report in the 1970s is on the charts again, this time as part of Quincy Jones' smash "Back on the Block," currently one of the country's Top 10 albums, already certified platinum.

Zawinul in the post-Weather Report years has flitted about among fusion, jazz, pop vocal (sometimes with messages) and classical music.

Just before leaving his Malibu home last week for a concert stint with a full orchestra in Cologne, he waxed ecstatic about the new testament.

"I had just gotten back from a trip to Japan with the Zawinul Syndicate and found a message that Quincy Jones was looking for me," Zawinul said. "He needed the exact line; he had seen lead sheets but wanted to have it exactly the way I wrote it. He said, 'Hey man I'm going to record it and I want to use rappers. I'd like to turn on a lot of young folks, the black kids especially, who never saw Birdland but need to know what it represented.' "

Birdland was the self-described "Jazz Corner of the World" from 1949 until it closed in 1965. "All of us in Vienna knew about this fabulous place. Friederich Gulda, the great pianist, played there with a jazz group and told me all about it. We all dreamed about visiting Birdland some day."

His dream was realized not long after he emigrated in 1959. After working briefly in Maynard Ferguson's band, he toured for almost two years as Dinah Washington's accompanist, even working with her at the now legendary club at Broadway and 52nd Street.

"That club made such an impact on me," Zawinul said. "I met Miles (Davis) there, and Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong; I met my wife Maxine there. Everyone I worshiped I met at Birdland."

When Zawinul wrote the song, his manager was skeptical. "Who cares about Bird or Birdland?" Zawinul was adamant: "I don't care what you say, that's what I want to call it. And, of course, it was not only a big hit then in the 1970s, but also when Jon Hendricks set lyrics to it in the '80s and Manhattan Transfer recorded it, they won the Grammy. So now we're in the '90s and it's on an album that will sell 10 times as many as all the rest together."

For his role on the Jones record, Zawinul used the Korg Pepe. "That's a little instrument I invented, with a bassoon-like mouthpiece. I played that in the title tune, 'Back on the Block.' On 'Birdland,' I just played a synth bass line on the introduction. Quincy gave me complete freedom to do what I liked; I could have been with Cannonball's band (of which he was a member from 1961-70) or with my own band."

He gives Jones credit for using the album to introduce a new generation to timeless sounds. "All of a sudden those kids on the street hear Dizzy and Miles and James Moody and Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Hey, he's done something important to get as many people as possible interested in an art form that is more alive than ever."

Jones agrees. "I've felt for a long time that there was a correlation between hip-hop and be-bop," he said by telephone from New York. "That's today language, and they are both forms of rebellion. One of the biggest kicks for me was hearing my 12-year-old grandson, Sunny D, saying that 'Birdland' was his favorite tune on the album, and then asking, 'Grandpa, who's Miles Davis? Who's Ella?' I just came back from a tour of six countries, and this sort of thing is happening all over."

The Jones interlude was just one brief moment in a schedule that has maintained Zawinul's role as an intercontinental idiom-hopper. He has been to Europe 14 times in the last 18 months, sometimes with his Zawinul Syndicate but often for classical ventures with his old friend Gulda.

"With Gulda I've played Brahms' 'Variations for Two Pianos' and some Mozart and some of our own things," Zawinul said. "I was at the Salzburg Festival last year when Herbert von Karajan was still alive, and I started out with jazz, which at one time they wouldn't allow.

"Then I did the Mozart with the orchestra, and after the concert we all went over to the Dom Platz and I played with my own band for two or three hours. A triumph! This year we did the same thing, but it was with Gulda and Herbie Hancock and me, with dual acoustic pianos.

"In May I'll have my own special day at the Weiner Festival; next year they're giving me two days, and for 1995, when we have the World's Fair in Vienna, I've been commissioned to write a symphony and a musical show."

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