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Joe Zawinul & the Zawinul Syndicate: 75

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Listening to the kinetic energy and surging grooves generated by his dynamic Zawinul Syndicate on this exhilarating two-CD set, recorded in concert in Lugano, Switzerland on the occasion of Zawinul’s 75th birthday (July 7, 2007), there is absolutely no sign that the maestro himself was deep in the throes of a rare form of skin cancer (Merkel Cell Carcinoma) that would force him to be hospitalized in his native Vienna a month later and eventually take his life on September 11. A lifelong road warrior whose gruff, old-school demeanor was tempered by his forward-thinking musical tendencies and delicacy with ballads, Zawinul battled his cancer on the bandstand with the competitive spirit of a soccer star in the World Cup Finals. His answer to his illness was to play, and in true macho-Austrian fashion he played his ass off right up until the end.

By the time of this live recording, documenting the Syndicate toward the end of its 20th anniversary world tour, Zawinul’s finely tuned pan-global juggernaut was at the peak of its powers. A remarkable rhythm section comprised of the extraordinary electric bassist Linley Marthe from the island nation of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and super-charged drummer Paco Sery from the Ivory Coast of Africa, along with a tandem of hand percussionists in Jorge Bezerra of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Aziz Sahmaoui from Marrakesh, Morocco, underscores the action with uncanny power and precision. In many ways, it’s Zawinul’s ideal rhythm section-disciplined enough to provide the demanding bandleader with the kind of fire he requires, yet flexible enough to stretch out on signature Syndicate vehicles like the pulse-quickening “Orient Express”(from 1992’s My People) and the exotic “Cafe Andalusia” (from 2002’s Faces & Places) or interpret classic Weather Report material like “Scarlet Woman” (from 1974’s Mysterious Traveler), “Fast City” and “Madagascar” (from 1980’s Night Passage) “Badia”(from 1975’s Tale Spinnin’) or “Boogie Woogie Waltz” (from 1973’s Sweetnighter) with a fresh perspective.

On top of that über-grooving foundation, Zawinul layers on dazzling, free-flowing lines with the right hand while deftly orchestrating dense chords and Ellingtonian shout choruses with the left hand, as only he can. His sheer keyboard virtuosity and inventiveness at creating evocative, otherworldly soundscapes with his synthesizers and Vocoder (as on the extended intro to “Orient Express,” the intro to “Madagascar” and the beautiful closing “Hymn”) further speak of Zawinul’s genius. Throughout his career, Zawinul carved out his own unique world of sound, and he continued to create with impunity until his final days, as 75 so clearly affirms.

For collective groovepower, it’s hard to beat “Madagascar” or the aptly named “Fast City,” both paced by the incredible power-precision pocket playing and sizzling swing of Sery (Zawinul’s all-time favorite drummer) and the rampaging Jaco-inspired bass riffs from Marthe. Their updated take on “Scarlet Woman” bears a modern beat-conscious stamp, as opposed to the ethereal, spacious vibe of the original. Another highlight is the sprightly, African-flavored “Zanza II” (from 1998’s World Tour), essentially a duet between Sery’s fleet-thumbed kalimba work and Zawinul’s synth seasonings, which range from marimba sounds to backwards shenai (Indian oboe) to symphonic effects.

“Badia” opens with a stirring duet between Alegra Correa’s berimbau and Zawinul’s glorious synths before singer Sabine Kabongo from the Congo (and formerly of the vocal group Zap Mama) joins in on the exotic melody. Kabongo adds dramatic intensity to the Middle Eastern-flavored “Cafe Andalusia” with her impassioned vocals and freeform scatting, and she also leads the Lugano audience through a heart-warming chorus of “Happy Birthday” to the maestro. Correa contributes the lively and lyrical “Clario,” singing and accompanying himself on guitar as fellow Brazilian Bezerra plays the pandeiro, a Brazilian tambourine closely associated with samba music. And for sheer speed and reckless abandon it’s hard to top their blazing, show-stopping rendition of “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” done here with pedal-to-the-metal intensity.

As an added treat, this collection contains a rare and beautiful moment from an August 2 concert in Veszprem, Hungary, Zawinul’s penultimate performance. He is joined on stage for an emotional reunion with his musical partner and Weather Report co-founder Wayne Shorter for a moving soprano sax-synth duet on Zawinul’s anthemic “In a Silent Way,” a piece the two recorded together on Miles Davis’ landmark 1969 recording of the same name. Their telepathic exchanges and Zawinul’s empathetic, orchestral synth accompaniment over the course of 14 minutes here is pure magic.

Zawinul played his heart out every night on his final tour. You can hear that sense of commitment and incredible soul, the uncanny melodic and harmonic invention, the inner drive and boundless spirit of the man on every one of these live tracks. It’s a fitting finale for one of the all-time greats.