Brian Glasser on the Syndicate at the Jazz Café

Brian Glasser, author of the book In A Silent Way, A Portrait of Joe Zawinul, sent this review of the Zawinul Syndicate at London’s Jazz Café on March 19. It is in two parts. The first is a conventional review that will appear in a UK jazz magazine. It is followed by a postscript Brian wrote for Zawinul Online readers.

It’s been three years since we last had Zawinul—who is both almost 75 and totally ageless—in our midst, although there’s been a fair amount of disc activity to tide old fans over and win some new ones: a Syndicate double album recorded at his nightclub in Vienna; the Weather Report Best Of, with its priceless DVD of the Pastorius-Erskine group; and Brown Street, the Vince Mendoza-arranged big-band album of Zawinul compositions, which has garnered universal A-star ratings.

But real live Zawinul has always been something special, and no news is good news on that front—he’s the same as ever, and showing no signs of mellowing, slowing down or otherwise compromising. That’s an admirable achievement in itself, when so many others seem to be forced to conform in one way or another. Meanwhile the Syndicate has had a refresh, with an extra (hand-)percussionist in the shape of Brazilian Jorge Bezerra; his countryman Alegre Corréa on guitar; and Moroccan Aziz Sahmaoui on vocals and percussion. Add the Mauritian bassist Linley Marthe and the Belgian/DR Congolese vocalist Sabine Kabongo and you’ve got a wonderful embodiment of Zawinul’s deep-seated one-world ethos.

These are all good players of course, but the biggest applause for a new recruit was reserved for a recidivist—Ivorian drum marvel Paco Sery. Undoubtedly the group has an extra magic when he’s in it, and it was fascinating to watch how he and Zawinul manned the engine room for the band throughout. (Zawinul’s professionalism in this respect is surely borne of his long early years spent in service as a sideman to the greats.) That said, Zawinul’s lead playing was also a masterclass in rhythmic subtlety and tonal colouring.

As usual, the repertoire consisted of some Syndicate tunes, some Weather Report stuff and a few party pieces for the band members. The best of the latter was the gorgeous duet between Zawinul and an mbira-playing Sery. The best of the former were a killing version of “Madagascar” (originally on Weather Report’s Night Passage album), its wide-ranging dynamics and smouldering sexiness reinvented brilliantly; and “Rooftops of Vienna,” the bring-the-house-down, hundred-mile-an-hour closer.

Zawinul Online Postscript:

If people could read in between the lines of the above, they might see this: Zawinul’s gigs are, in my opinion, always very good. That’s partly because there’s—still!—no one who comes close to doing what he does musically; and partly because he is a consummate professional who understands the obligation to work for his pay. But some shows—the vast majority that I’ve been to—go way beyond “very good.” I assume that all of this site’s visitors have seen him a few times over the years, so I don’t need to go into details.

This was his first of three nights at a venue that is not one of London’s finest. It’s cramped for the musicians on stage, and for the standing audience in front of them too; and the sound is not brilliant. I’ve also heard that the hospitality for bands is less than top-of-the-range. All of which might explain why I found Joe slightly subdued on this particular night—a little disengaged during other’s solos, a little less boisterous at the mic and so on. But if the overall musical effect was a couple of points down from the max, there were concomitant benefits: for instance, it freed up the spectator to study particular aspects of the show more closely

So I was reminded—as I mention in my ‘official’ review—by the mastery of Zawinul’s tonal selection and manipulation on his keyboards. He has some new sounds each tour, and he unfailingly deploys the right ones at the right time. Besides that, he bends and distorts notes at the same time as he’s playing important, obviously improvised lines. The man’s brain must have some elaborate, high-capacity wiring; and remarkably, at the age of nearly 75 and 60-odd years into his career, it’s showing no signs of degeneration or even lazy habits.

Also—and again I touch on this above—his prowess as an accompanist is amazing. Linley Marthe is a fabulous bass player who makes a huge contribution to the group, but Zawinul and Paco Sery, in tandem, are the people with their hands and feet on the band’s controls. Zawinul’s comping—now there’s a small word that encompasses a thousand skills—and bass lines are laser-like in their accuracy and power, generating a strong-flowing river of sound to transport the tunes. Zawinul likened Sery to Paul Gonsalves in the Ellington orchestra—someone who would leave from time to time but always come back to the fold. The drummer seems to have caused some administrative headaches in his time, but surely neither he nor Zawinul can doubt the enormous mutual benefit of his presence in the Syndicate.

So: the best Syndicate gig I’ve seen? No. But a fantastic evening’s music? Oh yes.