Jazz: The great original proclaim
Friday 19 November 1999
JOE ZAWINUL, now 67, was one of the more cerebral progenitors of the jazz-rock theme, a furiously self-replicating style you can still hear in the most unlikely places. He was a talented Viennese refugee pianist/accordionist who made his home in American jazz and then rebuilt the house, prompting a fundamental change in the music. Zawinul supplied a certain flavour, a European introspective melancholy, to Miles Davis at a crucial point in the trumpeter's career. The Austrian's landmark composition In a Silent Way (1969) became the title track of Davis's seminal album. Soon after, ex-Davis saxophonist, Wayne Shorter and Zawinul, formed Weather Report, which turned some of Davis's restless studio explorations into a defined ensemble sound and approach summarised by a remark the bandleaders made: "We never solo, we always solo." A jazz musician's dream and a mixing engineer's nightmare.
Nearly three decades on, the London Jazz Festival can happily programme this great originator alongside a devoted interpreter. Trumpeter Mark Isham's Silent Way Project debt to Zawinul's original creative spark is much more than nominal: he has cleverly copied the stylistic tropes and sounds of 1969-74 Miles, playing intense versions of tracks from albums such as On the Corner and In a Silent Way. Isham's version of the Zawinul tune reprised the rubato melody over a slow jazz-funk groove that drifted nonchalantly into a stripped-down, barely recognisable Milestones, an earlier Davis composition.
Zawinul made a similar historical reference near the end of his set: a tantalising fragment of the theme and chords of Duke Ellington's Rockin in Rhythm surfaced briefly from a racing, full-tilt boogaloo. Zawinul has plenty of great chords under his fingers, but there's little space to let them through. The Zawinul Syndicate is relentless, a sonic hit squad armed to the gills with percussion, kit drums, guitar (Gary Poulson switching speedily from supple lead to chattering rhythm) and bass guitar playing fast and high. The band's physical stamina is astonishing, and at 67 Zawinul, a stocky mustachioed figure in a skull cap, has twice the energy of a 40-year-old who has twice the energy of a teenager. He told us this was the last date in a five-week tour with only two days off: "It's hard to be a musician."
The Silent Way Project's keyboard-free line-up features six-string bass and drums plus two guitars widely separated and the leader on trumpet and a box of electronic tricks. The band replicates the spirit of Miles, but it doesn't quite meet the definition of "early music" or "revivalist jazz" as being authentic music played on the original instruments. The repeat echoes and effects are clean, digital, fully functioning. The Zawinul Syndicate's sound was marred by what sounded like a genuine Seventies bad PA mix, complete with unwanted distortion on the leader's trademark Korg synth and a bass-end muddiness that made it hard to enjoy the complex interlocking rhythmic patterns. I was disappointed. Sometimes more is less.
Yet there was a great spirit on the stage. During a rare lull, Zawinul stepped up to the front mic to pay tribute to Isham: "I haven't heard that music in 30 years and he makes it sound fresh." He was right.
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