Musician Cameron Hood sent me lengthy review of the Zawinul Syndicate concert at the Vancouver International Jazz festival, which I have reproduced below.
I attended this concert in Vancouver. As a professional musician (bass player) for over 30 years, I can personally attest to the fact that it was truly magnificent. I have loved Weather Report since the early 70’s, since before my great hero Jaco Pastorius joined the band. I Sing The Body Electric was my first album by Zawinul’s band, with Miroslav Vitous on bass, and I have bought every recording as it came out ever since, including the magnificent Heavy Weather and 8:30—seminal recordings in the history of jazz. Zawinul has and continues to be a major driving force in this music, and is a transcendent master of the keyboards in every jazz idiom that he has touched.
The warm-up band in Vancouver was okay—basically a bunch of hippies with little discipline or technique, just jamming. They tried to be sincere and were kind of musical, but I personally have a great deal of difficulty with musicians with barely enough technique to play mainstream attempting to be “avant-garde.” Even though they were severely lacking in the technique department, and even though the bass player was a bit of a ham-handed Neanderthal (he could barely play a one-octave arpeggio, actually), they were okay as a group thing. Were they all world class musicians, capable of sitting in on a moment’s notice in a bebop gig playing at 300 on the metronome all night? Or a rock gig, or a commercial jingle like every member of Zawinul’s band was? Er, ah, no. They had their schtick, and some less knowledgeable people probably liked it. Pretty good for Victoria, but definitely not ready for the big time.
Zawinul’s group was in a totally different league. In his work he manages to evoked images of many types of world music, folksong, and jazz, masterfully blended into coherent and beautiful compositions, with magnificent complex harmonies, intricate world-fusion melodies, and heavy African grooves courtesy of bass player Linley Marthe, who is the definitive new bass god as far as I am concerned. I have seen pretty much every great bass player to come down the pipe for the last 30 years, and I firmly believe Linley is in a league of his own. Heavy African grooves, with chops that go beyond anything I have heard—even my great hero, Jaco. He was simply astounding, astonishing, and inspirational. If I was the bass player in Lapp Electro, I would have been totally demoralized; that guy needs to spend about 20 years doing three-octave scales and arpeggios, and learn how to really play the instrument like Linley so obviously has. There is no artistry without discipline: with Lapp-Electro, it was pretense, masquerading as art; with Zawinul’s band, it was artistry of the highest caliber.
The rest of Zawinul’s band was similarly astonishing. The guitarist, Amit Chatterjee, was magnificent, and is also a superb singer in the Indian Classical tradition. The female vocalist, Sabine Kabongo, was also absolutely amazing. When backed up by probably the greatest accompanist ever, Zawinul, she produced some profoundly moving moments which I shall remember for the rest of my life. And if you think I am overstating the case with Zawinul, you haven’t heard enough of him: remember his Cannonball recordings in the 60’s? Have you heard Cannonball live with Nancy Wilson? That piano solo of Zawinul’s on the ballad, whose name presently escapes me, that goes on and on for chorus after chorus, and gets better and better with each passing phrase, is arguably one of the best piano solos in the recorded history of jazz. Zawinul was a profound musical individual in the 1960’s, and has done nothing but deepen his perspective and become better with age. He has created entire genres of music, and leaves a legacy beyond anything heard previously. He is, in my opinion, the most underreated and misunderstood keyboardist in the history of jazz. His influence will perhaps finally start to blossom as people finally review his life and career. I think his genius has been too much for some to understand; perhaps they will catch up in 15 or 20 years, like they did with Hendrix and even Coltrane.
Zawinul’s awe-inspiring technical proficiency was also amply demonstrated by his magnificent sounds on his sophisticated and complex synth setup, which included no fewer than ten (!) volume pedals to control the various synths and modules he uses. This technical proficiency in synthesis is highly underrated by the jazz community; getting a good, unique sound on modern synths is a daunting task. It is every bit as difficult as getting a good sound out of a saxophone or a trumpet, only it is not a physical challenge, but an extremely complex mental (and financial) one, and one which is constantly changing every few months as each new generation of synths come out. His choice of sounds was absolutely awe-inspiring, monstrous, wonderful, and overwhelming—especially his magnificent pad patch when backing up Kabongo during her soulful rubato ballad. I stood for Zawinul’s entire set no further than ten feet away from him, right at the front of the stage on the floor, and in spite of the awful sound provided by the stage monitoring system—which wreaked havoc with the band all night—Zawinul’s choice of sounds was luscious, juicy, rich, and with a deep spiritual underpinning that only a transcendent master can provide. And yes, jazz and acoustic snobs, there is a lot more to synth programming than just pressing a button. Give it a try sometime; the possibilities are endless.
I was personally appalled by the choice of venue for this event. A musician of Zawinul’s status deserves the finest concert hall we can provide him, not a glorified beer-parlour like the Commodore, which is notorious for bad sound. The trademark bad sound was present this night, of course, and the worst of it was the musicians’ on-stage monitors. Running through a 40-channel Rane board (the electronic equivalent of a very luxurious, leather-lined, air-conditioned fully-optioned 1985 Hyundai Pony), the sound that I heard from the monitors (I was right beside them) was simply awful. It is a miracle that they could play anything hearing what they heard that night, and I personally do not blame them for not doing an encore with that Gawd-awful sound like they had to put up with all night. They should have been at the Centre Theatre, a much more suitable venue for this magnificent ensemble. I hope the powers that be understand this, and put them in a suitable venue with suitable sound equipment next time.
At 71 [Zawinul’s 71st birthday is tomorrow, July 7], Zawinul continues to be a profound and inspirational voice in modern music, and one which we can only hope will be with us for many years to come.