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Joe Zawinul & The Zawinul Syndicate: 75

John Kelman By

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Some artists play until they drop—not always a good thing—but for Weather Report co-founder/Zawinul Syndicate leader Joe Zawinul, his life was defined by a tough stoicism. Unlike drummer Elvin Jones, whose final days were tragic in the loss of his signature strength, the groundbreaking keyboardist gigged—despite the Merkel cell carcinoma that would result in his passing on September 11, 2007—until very near the end. Based on 75—taken from gigs recorded within two months of passing—there were certainly no indicators that he was ill, let alone approaching death.

The closing tracks on the second of this two-CD set represent a musical eulogy to Zawinul, who not only fused jazz and rock, but music from cultures around the world, and created sweeping orchestral arrangements with his array of keyboards. Most of 75 was recorded on Zawinul's 75th birthday on July 7, 2007, and the group's rendition of "Happy Birthday" begins with the familiar tune from vocalist Sabine Kabongo, breaking into a joyous percussion celebration for drummer Paco Sery and percussionists Jorge Bezerra and Aziz Sahmaoui that highlights Zawinul's integrated world view with players from locales as distant as Brazil, Morocco, the Ivory Coast and Madagascar. Zawinul's classic "In a Silent Way," recorded a month later on August 2, 2007, is a surprise duet with Weather Report co-founder Wayne Shorter—a moving tribute to a musical partnership that began in the late-'60s with Miles Davis but, even after Weather Report's dissolution, remained an enduring friendship. Zawinul's closing "Hymn," is an elegiac piece that almost seems as though he knew the end was near.

75 is filled with the Syndicate's trademark infectious grooves, bountiful melodies and cultural cross-pollination. Nearly half the songs come from Weather Report's extensive discography. An early excursion into world music on Tale Spinnin' (Columbia, 1976) and even earlier piece of hypnotic funk from Sweetnighter (Columbia, 1973) come together on Zawinul's often recorded medley of "Badia/Boogie Woogie Waltz," though with Sery and bassist Linley Marthe—one of the set's clear stars, adding an African vibe and his own fervent energy to late bassist Jaco Pastorius' inventions—it's never been this fiery. "Scarlet Woman," from Mysterious Traveller (Columbia, 1974), gets a greasy rework, the familiar theme a sharp punctuation amongst the visceral groove and Zawinul's extended soloing, while "Fast City," from Night Passage (Columbia, 1980), and "Two Lines," from Procession (Columbia, 1983), are taken at a faster clip, joined by Zawinul's group introduction that gives everyone a moment in the spotlight, including equally remarkable guitarist Alegre Correa, who also adds berimbau—the gourd/string instrument made famous by Nana Vasconcelos—to "Badia."

A number of Syndicate tracks, old and new, round out this largely exciting 93-minute set. That the disc sounds, even weeks before his passing, as vibrant as ever, makes 75 a fitting finale to the career of an artist whose creativity, forward thinking and extensive discography mean that he may be gone, but he'll never be forgotten.

Track Listing: CD1: Introduction to Orient Express; Orient Express; Madagascar; Scarlet Woman; Zanza II; Cafe Andalusia. CD2: Fast City / Two Lines; Clario; Badia / Boogie Woogie Waltz; Happy Birthday; In a Silent Way; Hymn.

Personnel: Joe Zawinul: keyboards, vocoder; Sabine Kabongo: vocals, percussion; Alegre Correa: vocals, berimbau; Linley Marthe: bass; Paco Sery: drums, kalimba, vocals; Jorge Bezerra: percussion, vocals; Aziz Sahmaoui: percussion, vocals; Wayne Shorter: soprano saxophone (CD2#5).

Title: 75 | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Heads Up International

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