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Joe Zawinul & the Zawinul Syndicate: Vienna Nights: Live at Joe Zawinul’s Birdland

Joe Zawinul continues to disprove the myths electronic keyboards can’t be played as soulfully as their acoustic components, and mixing and matching idiomatic elements dilutes song quality. Vienna Nights blends aspects of fusion, blues, African rhythms, funk, while spotlighting Zawinul’s fluidity as a soloist and accompanist. He fuels many spirited dialogues on a series of concerts documented on this two-disc set.

Occasionally Zawinul and company celebrate the past, most notably the outstanding versions of mid-’70s Weather Report cuts “Badia” and “Boogie Woogie Waltz” that rank among the second disc’s highlights. He places equal emphasis on melodic development, harmonic response and frenetic rhythmic counterpoint and/or exploration.

The contributions of percussionist/vocalists Sabine Kabongo, Arto Tuncboyaciyan and Manolo Badrena, plus drummers Nathaniel Townsley and Karim Ziad enhance the Syndicate’s efforts. Kabongo is haunting and endearing on a fine rendition of Salif Keita’s “Y’Elena,” while Tuncboyaciyan is more laid-back on “Do You Want Some Tea, Grandpa?” and Ziad quite animated on “Chabiba.” Still, it’s Zawinul’s keyboard presence that provides the unifying thread in a session that’s alternately sophisticated and heated.

Originally Published