Davis wanted Zawinul on the road with him, but, as always, the keyboardist had his own direction in mind. In 1971, Atlantic Records released Zawinul, a massive achievement with snatches of Gypsy melodies amid state-of-the-art modern jazz.
That year, Zawinul formed Weather Report with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who had played with Miles Davis for years and also was eager to strike out on his own. The team of Zawinul/Shorter led a revolving door of bass players, drummers and percussionists for 15 years. It's fair to say that Weather Report proved to be one of the most vitally creative working groups ever in jazz.
Soon after the band finally broke up in 1986, Zawinul put his own group together and returned to the road.
In 1990, someone asked him if he'd be interested in producing a record by Salif Keita, a singer from the west African country of Mali.
"I had never heard of the guy," Zawinul recalls. "They sent me a cassette, and it was the only tune I don't like on the record. I told one of my sons it was some kind of corny little bullshit. 'Dad, check this guy out more. Please.' The next tune knocked me out."
Zawinul agreed to produce the record--"I said I would respect Salif's culture, but they couldn't touch what I did"--and recruited many of the musicians.
"The whole project came natural to me," he says, "because when the [west African] stars were kids, Malian kids, Senegalese kids, all they played was our stuff."
(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.