Monday, September 23

Zawinul Syndicate to synthesize Royce Hall acoustics


Band's unique brand of storytelling blends world, synthetic instrumental styles

By Chris Young

Daily Bruin Contributor

Everybody has heard synthesized music: in the dentist’s
chair, the elevator, half the radio stations today. Most of it
sounds like padding or filler for the rest of the music. But not
many people have noticed the synthesizer’s enormous
possibilities.

At Royce Hall tonight, Joe Zawinul’s jazz-world-music
group “Zawinul Syndicate” elevates the synthesizer to
new levels of musical expression in innovative performances.

The Syndicate plays a mixture of jazz and world beats. The
group’s repertoire is all original, most songs being by
Zawinul and some by other Syndicate musicians. Zawinul’s
keyboards provide many layers of texture to the music, often with
chords and melody lines played simultaneously, with a rock-solid
rhythmic and harmonic foundation laid down by the guitar, bass,
drums and percussion. Occasional spirited vocals give add another
dimension to the music.

Tonight, the Zawinul Syndicate features Zawinul on keyboards,
Amit Chatterjee on guitar, Victor Bailey on bass, Nathaniel
Townsley on drums and Manolo Badrena on percussion. Most of the
musicians are from various countries around the world.

“Playing music is the greatest thing in my life. It is
great fun for me,” Zawinul said in a recent phone interview.
“People love this music all over the world. (The Zawinul
Syndicate’s) music is something that’s different, and
people love different things.

“It seems that mediocre music is going farther than
anything else,” he continued. “But there are people who
play good original music, and there will always be an audience for
that type of artist.”

Most musicians gain inspiration and musical ideas from listening
to other groups. Surprisingly, Zawinul draws his ideas from
completely different sources. In fact, he hardly listens to music
anymore.

“My input is life, observation, travelling and things
other than listening to music, that give me a certain distance
which allows me to be creative. My inspiration comes from somewhere
else.”

Since he is constantly playing music, perhaps 12 hours a day, he
has no shortage of musical ideas.

Regarding the musicians in his band, Zawinul said, “It
takes a natural musician to play this type of music, to be quick
enough thinking and reacting, and to be part of a story. It’s
not playing music in that sense, it’s more of a storytelling
thing,”

Heated debate exists about the validity of playing synthesizers
and other electronic instruments as opposed to acoustic instruments
such as the piano or trumpet. Some musicians and listeners
don’t like synthesizers in the music. The usual argument is
that electronic instruments don’t require as much talent and
musicianship as acoustic instruments need. Zawinul, who plays a
large assortment of electronic instruments, dismisses this position
as ignorant.

“Whoever thinks that an instrument itself is important
doesn’t know anything about music, because the instrument
doesn’t play itself,” he said. “The person behind
the instrument is the issue; the instrument itself is nothing. We
make it something. When Miles Davis plays four notes on the
trumpet, he makes it something. Some other people could play a
thousand notes and say nothing.”

Also, it is not enough to simply transfer to synthesizers from
piano.

“The synthesizer deals with many textures, and it takes a
lot of talent to make those textures speak. Somebody who plays the
piano and wants to play with synthesizers, and doesn’t
totally change their concept of thinking musically, will always
remain a piano player and a bad synthesizer player,” he
said.

Zawinul was born in Austria. His first instrument was the
accordion, followed by the piano. He studied at the Vienna
Conservatory, then came to America and played with vocalist Dinah
Washington and later Cannonball Adderley. The nine years with
Cannonball produced songs such as “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”
that combined traditional jazz sounds with newer electronic sounds,
such as the Fender Rhodes electric piano.

This also set the stage for a band Zawinul formed with
saxophonist Wayne Shorter in the 1970s, “Weather
Report,” that helped pioneer the fusion of jazz and pop. In
1985, Weather Report broke up, and the Zawinul Syndicate was born
in 1987. They continue to tour and play around the world today.
Their 1997 album, “World Tour,” is a sample of their
live concert dates from France, Germany, Austria, Italy, Japan and
more.

It is unfortunate that not many current musical groups have an
original sound and character. The Zawinul Syndicate’s fusion
of jazz and world music stands out as one of the few originators in
the industry. They will continue to tour and expose people to the
wondrous sounds and warm energy of their music.

JAZZ: The Zawinul Syndicate will play at Royce Hall at 8 p.m.
tonight. Tickets are $35, $25, $20, and $11 with student I.D. For
tickets and information, call the Central Ticket Office at (310)
825-2101.

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