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."
Zawinul's evolution during his three U.S.-based decades has been unremitting and exemplary since his formative era as big band pianist, accompanist to singers and longtime Adderley associate. It was in Cannonball's Quintet that he wrote his first pop-jazz hit, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and since then, he has been on an endless voyage of discovery.
But, along with experiments, he has never totally lost touch with the jazz breeding ground that set him on his way. In the latest album, "Black Water" (Columbia CK 44316), he plays "Monk's Mood" as a piano solo much as he might have played it in the pre-fusion years, then segues into another Monk piece, "Little Rootie Tootie," in which he offers a puckish solo on the Korg Pepe.
On another tune, "Medicine Man," he plays the accordion, an instrument he took up as a youngster in Austria.
Zawinul's powerful social conscience comes through too: The message in the title tune, for which his bassist Gerald Veasley supplied the lyrics, is a strong indictment of apartheid.
And "Black Water"is a family affair. Ivan Zawinul, 21, was involved in the computer programming as well as various instrumental and vocal overdubs. "He's my full time engineer," his father says. Erich Zawinul, 24, now living in Vienna, is a graphic artist who designed the cover. Anthony Zawinul, 28, works in a law office but has been working on movie scores and is the composer/performer on "And So It Goes," the last cut in "Black Water."
Inevitably, as he has diversified his career, Zawinul has encountered criticism. In a recent interview the New York bop pianist Barry Harris said of Weather Report: "What kills me about those kinds of groups is that when someone has a jazz festival they bring these cats together and call them a jazz group. I say they've ceased to be jazz musicians. I know the cats like Joe Zawinul can play all the standards; but they haven't been jazz musicians for 10 or 15 years."
Zawinul, who is the last musician likely to be accused of a lack of self-confidence, laughed. "I like Barry Harris; I have no problem with what people say. He is one of the finest, but he's a copy of Bud Powell.
"I have arrived, you see. Last summer at the Montmartre in Copenhagen they had a list of coming attractions. They had Betty Carter, and they identified her as a jazz vocalist. They billed some band and described it as a rock group. But with my name they had no description. They just said 'Zawinul.' Not jazz, not rock, just me. I am my own category."