[JPL] By Any Name, Music That Still Finds a Groove

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Fri Oct 27 16:54:38 EDT 2006

October 26, 2006
By Any Name, Music That Still Finds a Groove 
Joe Zawinul’s music has been called many different
things. Joe Zawinul himself prefers to call it one
thing: jazz.

Still, more than a few eyebrows were raised when it
was announced that he and his heavily amplified,
heavily rhythmic band, the Zawinul Syndicate, would be
performing under the auspices of Jazz at Lincoln
Center. (The Syndicate is at the Rose Theater tomorrow
and Saturday.) 

After all, Mr. Zawinul is best known as one of the
pioneers of the much-maligned genre known as fusion.
He was an active participant in the albums that marked
Miles Davis’s turn to jazz-rock in the late 1960’s,
one of which, “In a Silent Way,” took its title from a
Zawinul composition. And from 1970 to 1985 — a period
documented in a recently released three-CD
retrospective from Sony Legacy — he and the
saxophonist Wayne Shorter led Weather Report, a band
known for its influential blend of jazz ideas and
harmonies with electric instruments and rock and funk

And Jazz at Lincoln Center is known for espousing a
vision of the jazz tradition that stops well short of
the kind of groove-oriented electric music with which
Mr. Zawinul has been identified for most of his
career. Wynton Marsalis, the organization’s artistic
director, has not been shy about dismissing Mr.
Davis’s electric music, and fusion in general, as
motivated more by commercial than artistic

Jazz at Lincoln Center has broadened its artistic
scope in recent seasons. Although a spokesman played
down the suggestion that the inclusion of acts like
the Zawinul Syndicate (and, next year, avant-gardists
like the pianist Cecil Taylor) represented a change of
policy, there was a time not that long ago when the
idea of the organization’s welcoming an ensemble whose
leader sits at a bank of synthesizers and uses
samples, loops and a vocoder would have seemed

Asked to comment on Mr. Zawinul’s music and its place
in the Jazz at Lincoln Center universe, Mr. Marsalis
was diplomatic. “This season,” he said through a
spokesman, “our theme is the many movements considered
to be innovations in jazz from New Orleans to the
swing era, bebop and fusion. Joe Zawinul is a soulful
representative of the fusion innovation. He played
with Ben Webster, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis,
and he can play.” 

Mr. Zawinul says he is “very happy and very proud” to
be playing at the Rose Theater. And although his
concerts are billed as “Fusion Revolution,” he says he
would rather not call what he plays fusion. “Weather
Report was an entity of its own,” he said. “You can’t
call it rock or fusion or all these comical words.”

The Zawinul Syndicate, in terms of personnel as well
as grooves, has always been aggressively multinational
— the current edition includes a guitarist and a
percussionist from Brazil, a second percussionist from
Morocco, a bassist from the island of Mauritius and a
drummer of Ugandan descent who was born in Marseille —
but he would also prefer that you not call it world

“That is incorrect,” Mr. Zawinul said. “If anything,
this is music for the world. But I don’t know what
‘world music’ means.”

So how would he characterize his music? Speaking on
the phone from his home in Southern California, he was
quick to answer.

“I love that word ‘jazz,’ man,” Mr. Zawinul, 74, said
emphatically, in a voice still redolent of his native
Vienna but flavored with inflections and argot
acquired over a half-century in the United States. “
‘Jazz’ is a beautiful word.”

He concedes that not everyone is comfortable applying
that word to the Syndicate. “I know what it is that
we’re doing,” he said. “We’re improvising, it’s
incredibly rhythmic — actually more rhythmic than
music used to be — and it is entertaining.”

“I connect jazz,” he said, “not with what’s happening
today in America so much as when I was young and
listened to Jimmie Lunceford, Ellington, Miles Davis,
Bird, Dizzy Gillespie: how beautiful music was then
and how exciting music was then. That’s what I connect
myself with.”

The connection is a lifelong one. A
conservatory-trained pianist who says his life changed
when he was 12 and heard a fellow student play
“Honeysuckle Rose,” Mr. Zawinul was in the thick of
the American jazz scene almost as soon as he arrived
in New York in 1959. After working with, among others,
the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson and the singer Dinah
Washington (he played on her hit “What a Diff’rence a
Day Makes”), he spent a decade with the saxophonist
Cannonball Adderley’s group, enriching its repertory
and expanding its audience with earthy compositions
like “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” that belied his Austrian

He has gone on to make music that some critics and
musicians view with ambivalence and others tend to
ignore. But he has an enthusiastic worldwide
following, and there is no shortage of young players
who see him as an inspiration.

“Usually an artist finds their ‘signature’ and then
they continue refining their signature over time,” the
pianist Jason Moran said in an e-mail message. “It’s
rare that an artist has multiple signatures. Joe has
gone on many signatures, and that is what inspires me.
He’s beyond being pegged.” Mr. Zawinul’s “ridiculously
beautiful” solos, Mr. Moran added, go “way beyond what
a ‘normal’ keyboardist would do in a ‘fusion’ band.”

And Mr. Zawinul’s influence, like his music, crosses

Asked how he accounted for the steady influx of
talented young African and Latin American sidemen into
his band over the years, he answered: “They find me,
man. All these kids in my band, they knew me from
since they were young. Like I grew up with Ellington
and Count Basie, they grew up with Weather Report.”

So, Mr. Zawinul, what do you think of your host,
Wynton Marsalis?

“More power to him,” he said. “We need somebody like
him, a jazz guy, to be on top in the music business. I
have great respect for him. On the other hand, what he
is playing and what he is saying are two different

“The man is full of knowledge, but he is stuck. If you
can’t move, you don’t want others to move.”

Then, with a feistiness perhaps surprising in an elder
statesman but entirely characteristic of Mr. Zawinul,
he offered a further thought.

“I listen to the radio when I drive, and all I hear on
the jazz station is the bebop formula,” he said.
“There is very little individuality, actually, in most
of the music they play today.

“I know what we are doing is very, very good. We are
an audience band, but we don’t talk down to the
audience. What we play is incredibly melodic and
interesting music. And we get standing ovations
everywhere we play.

“We are a threat, man.” 


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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