The Wizard of Austria

At 67, jazz great Joe Zawinul is just beginning to peak

(Former Syndicate bass player and Cameroon native Richard Bona echoed Zawinul's comments, after a Phoenix performance last year as Harry Belafonte's musical director. "A lot of us learned the Weather Report songs like the songs that kids learn in the cradle," said Bona, a virtuosic bassist in his early 30s. "I know every note that Jaco played with Weather Report, every note that Joe played, and Wayne. Joe's songs are like breathing--natural.")

Zawinul says he almost recruited Miles Davis to play on the Keita project, which was titled Amen.

"I told Miles, 'There's this guy from Africa, and I think he's on your level, a real genius, a griot. He tells stories and improvises with his words.' I said, 'You got to be on this record. I give everybody five grand, and they're happy.' He says, 'Okay.'

"When he got back from a tour, I called him. 'Miles, now would be a good time to come by and play.' 'Man, I'm on my way to New York. Can't do it. Give me 25 thousand.'

"I tell him, 'Man, I wouldn't do it if I fuckin' could, 'cause we made a deal.' He said 'I have to ask for more, Joe. I'm an artist.' He died real soon after that. He was the king."

Amen later was nominated for a Grammy, and it vaulted the miraculous Keifa to international stardom.

In 1992, Zawinul released his own Lost Tribes on Columbia--Weather Report's longtime label. But record-company honchos chose not to promote the album, unfortunate because it sounds today as fresh as if it were recorded yesterday.

Zawinul plugged away, ever striving to find a killer band.
He told the audience about the tedious process during a gig in early 1997 at Hollywood's Catalina Bar and Grill.

"It's taken me years to put this thing together," Zawinul said from the bandstand. "You don't know how hard it is. Now we really kick ass."

That band included Richard Bona, Gary Poulson on guitar, Manolo Badrena (who played on Weather Report's Heavy Weather in 1977) on percussion, and the remarkable Paco Sery on drums--"The best drummer I've ever heard or played with, and I've played with them all," Zawinul says.

Bona left, to be replaced by excellent Weather Report alumnus Victor Bailey. And Zawinul also has replaced Sery, he says, because of the Paris-based drummer's undependability (offstage, not on it).

In 1997, the independent label Escapade Records released the Syndicate's My People. It's an eclectic treat, with hard-edged jams and prototypically wistful and poetic Zawinul melodies performed by expert musicians from places such as Turkey, Cameroon, India, and Brooklyn, New York.

On the whimsically poetic "Potato Blues," Zawinul sings in an old Viennese dialect through a device called a Vocodor. It gives his voice an almost disembodied yet still human effect.

"Most people think I'm singing African," he says, laughing. "But the lyrics, they're like this, man. 'I like potatoes, I really like 'em. I love potatoes. I really do. Roasted potatoes, baked potatoes, potatoes with butter. All that's good.' And then the lyric goes, 'I grew up with potatoes, and I grew hard and strong. I ate a lot of potatoes when my parents were still alive. But now they are dead and everything is different. But I still like potatoes.' Then comes the punch line.

"'I like potatoes so much that, finally, I look like a potato from head to foot.' I'm just improvising the words with the music. 'And all this is okay as long as I don't have to look at the potatoes from the bottom up.'"

Zawinul's newest label, Zebra Records, released World Tour last year to outstanding reviews. After more than a year on the road, the Syndicate is off until June. Zawinul says that after he returns from his trip to Africa, he'll continue to work on his latest opus, the musical story of the evil that was Mauthausen.

"Let me tell you about the performance there [last August 8]," he says, "because it's the most important thing I've ever done. We had a soft drone note for an hour to start, with 37 tons of speakers set up, holograms against a wall 60 meters high, a poet reading letters from the inmates, candles being lit. The piece isn't done to whine or to accuse--but to stun, to make sure this horror is not forgotten. There were a lot of bad people in Austria at that time, bastards, but I'll tell you--most of the folks had nothing to do with it.

"I improvised it in two hours, but my preparation was months and months. Some parts are hard to listen to. Check this out--no matter what was going on at this place, the beatings, the tortures, they always had a band out there to play. And they [the Nazis] were laughing when they were beating up the people, killing people. But all the fucking musicians survived--jazz musicians, man."

Zawinul describes the end of the performance:
"After the memorial hymn, I was the only one on the bandstand with the narrator [Frank Hoffman]. I lit a little candle. Two hours after it was over, people were still sitting there, crying. This was something I had to do, even if it hurts. Everybody got to stand for something in life."

With that, Joe Zawinul pours two small glasses of Slivovitz plum brandy, toasts his visitor, and slugs his shot down.

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