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The Zawinul Syndicate
September 18.

By Dave Fox

Keyboardist Joe Zawinul has always been on the cutting edge of the jazz scene. Along with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Zawinul was co-founder and leader of Weather Report, one of the most prominent jazz-fusion bands of the seventies and eighties. Now, after the demise of Weather Report, Zawinul has put together a saxophone-less quintet, The Zawinul Syndicate. This culturally diverse band brought their unique brand of groove-oriented jazz to the Regattabar in Cambridge last Friday and Saturday nights.

The Friday show brought few surprises to anyone familiar with Weather Report. Zawinul displayed his usual mastery of his six synthesizers, producing sounds that were truly unlike any produced acoustically, yet did not sound "electronic" or artificial. Although this band's music draws heavily from folk themes of Africa and elsewhere, Zawinul's unique use of his synthesizer complemented the bass, guitar, drums, and hand drums of his sidemen, resulting in a rich sound occupying its own musical niche.

Zawinul and company played two virtually identical 90-minute sets, with no time wasted between tunes and very little banter. Each set started with a pair of strong tunes with a solid groove. These served to showcase Zawinul's inventive synthesizer lines and the tightness of his rhythm section. The band then slowed things down, and Zawinul shifted to a wind-driven keyboard synthesizer, played like a saxophone. This tune was a rather forlorn ballad, with Zawinul fashioning a lyrical, mournful melody.

Zawinul then turned the stage over to his sidemen, who played a fast-driving piece demonstrating their virtuosity and showcasing the bass player in particular. This was followed up by another fast-grooving tune, with Zawinul returning to add the thick chords and synthesizer accents which are so familiar to Weather Report listeners.

Perhaps the highlight of the show was a duet featuring Zawinul and his hand drummer. The piece opened with a whispered narrative describing a nomad and his inner thoughts, alternating with drumming on an earthen jar (filled with water!). At the conclusion of the narrative, the hand drummer drank deeply from the jar, and Zawinul played synthesizer lines reminiscent of African folk music. The hand drummer added vocal sounds, including sounds of breathing and deep bass tones. Zawinul added his voice (through a vocoder), and the piece ended climactically with a bamboo flute solo by the hand drummer. All in all, it was a very unusual and thought-provoking work, with a dynamic range from almost inaudible to very loud.

The set continued at a fast pace, with the band re-establishing a steady, infectious groove. Playful vocalization by the bassist invited the fans to "come to the island of harmony, where I come from," identified (at Zawinul's urging) as Philadelphia. When the bassist announced "Let's go," the band went into a high-energy jam. The set concluded with an uplifting call for peace, "One Eye, One Mind, One People." During this piece, the hand drummer paid tribute to the late Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorius, crediting him with the peace-loving philosophy that "an open mind is an open heart." The climax of the piece was a call for change in the world's trouble spots.

The Regattabar was perhaps two-thirds full, reflecting the newness of The Zawinul Syndicate. Overall, each set was very well received by the crowd, which for the most part seemed knowledgeable about the band and Zawinul in particular. There were a few isolated sound problems (feedback, etc.), but these were quickly fixed.

The music of the Zawinul Syndicate is very accessible to the average listener, and deserving of a wider audience. It has elements of the old Weather Report sound, but takes them in new directions. The Zawinul Syndicate is worth hearing, especially for Weather Report fans. Check them out!