10/29/06

Fusion Revolution: Zawinul Syndicate

In terms of overall cultural significance, Zawinul playing Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater wasn't exactly Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall, 1938. Still, you might forgive jazz's disinherited problem kids—aka its free jazz and fusion heretics—for noting at least one parallel. For just as Goodman knocked down the door that kept jazz out of Carnegie Hall 68 years ago, so did fusion pioneer Zawinul sneak past the yellow police tape that had marked J@LC's big stage off-limits to all but the boppers-and-before. While there's no reason to expect the joint will become a bastion of ultra-modernity (no need for that, really), Zawinul's appearance and upcoming concerts by iconic avant-gardists Cecil Taylor and John Zorn seem to indicate that the House of Swing's doors are starting to open a little wider. That has to be good news for a lot of terrific jazz musicians who, until now, had resigned themselves to being perpetually ignored by this country's highest-profiled and most lavishly funded jazz presenter.

The Zawinul Syndicate was a good choice to celebrate J@LC's new era of stylistic glasnost. Zawinul himself has impeccable credentials (Cannonball, Miles, Weather Report…the list goes on). His current group—Zawinul Syndicate—while boasting no household names, is nevertheless a multiculti assemblage of outstanding players from across the globe: Zawinul on keyboards (from Austria); Alegre Correa on electric guitar (from Brazil); Linley Marthe on bass (from Mauritius); Roger Biwandu on drums (from Zaire via Bordeaux, France); Jorge Bezzera, Jr. on percussion (also from Brazil); and Aziz Sahmaoui (from Morocco) on vocals and percussion. The group brings a rich blend of cultural perspectives to the table. Jazz is their common frame of reference.

There was one problem, conspicuous if not overwhelming: sound. Rose Theater is designed for acoustic jazz. At first, the Syndicate's electric keyboards, bass and percussion created an amorphous, echoey rumble. Bassist Marthe was particularly ill served. His sound had no definition, his attacks lost in the muddle. Zawinul's keyboard leads were intermittently inaudible. Things got somewhat better—a combination of the engineer twiddling knobs and my ears adjusting, I suspect—but sound was never optimum.

Zawinul didn’t announce the names of his compositions, though he did engage in some good-natured chat with the crowd between songs. One tune ran into another in a barely interrupted stream that steadily increased in levels of intensity and inspiration. From the beginning, the grooves were intense. By concert's end, they were absolutely lethal.

Each musician was a fine soloist. However, creating a roiling, constantly shifting and evolving rhythmic base was the ultimate goal. All contributed mightily toward that end. Bassist Marthe held down the grooves flawlessly. He builds on Jaco's legacy, sharing the late bass innovator's legato approach while possessing his own exceptionally active melodic vocabulary. Sahmaoui's ululating vocals were creatively done and emotionally authentic, and his creative shaker work was a crucial ingredient throughout. The extroverted Bezerra was a powerful, inventive presence on hand drums. He was also an appealing, non-obnoxious showman. Guitarist Correa's role was as much percussive as melodic. His funky, repetitive phrases contributed greatly to the rhythmic stew. His rock-ish solos were excellent, as well. Biwandu had joined the band only days before, but you'd never know it: His African-derived, jazz-inflected style meshed perfectly with the rest, helping drive the band to sublime heights.

The 74-year-old Zawinul conceded nothing to his much younger sidemen in terms of energy or inspiration. His timbral palette was characteristically expansive: an assortment of tastefully implemented digital synth patches, vocoded vocals, and an array of samples, ingeniously applied. Zawinul uses his bank of keyboards like an orchestra, combining timbres, playing multiple parts in both parallel and contrary motion, accompanying his single-line solos with left-hand stabs of synthesized brass or sampled tenor sax (Wayne Shorter's, I'd guess). His chops are razor sharp. His unaccompanied electric piano solo in the concert's second half was a heady and intense brew of classical, jazz, calypso and who knows what else.

Zawinul ran the show. The bandmembers’ eyes stayed glued to him as he cued shifts in dynamics and texture, and directed the music's flow. Surprisingly, despite the fact that the drummer was new and the forms seemed more-or-less conceived on the spot, there were barely any perceptible hints of reticence. The group cooked throughout. Concert's end provoked an instantaneous, explosive audience response. And it was no pro forma standing "o": The applause was loud, sustained and heartfelt, and for good reason. Discounting the sound problems, the evening was nearly an unqualified artistic success.

As he took his bows, Zawinul thanked J@LC's artistic director, Wynton Marsalis—a smart and honorable move. For years, Marsalis has gotten bashed for excluding music like this from J@LC. He deserves praise for changing course even a little bit. Better late than never. Here's to casting a wide net, Mr. M. Good job, everybody.

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