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Joe Zawinul & The Zawinul Syndicate: Vienna Nights: Live at Joe Zawinul's Birdland

John Kelman By

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As good as keyboardist/composer Joe Zawinul's last album (the '02 studio effort Faces and Places) was, his latest proves that some music is really meant to be experienced live. It's not about stretching out, although Zawinul's latest edition of the Zawinul Syndicate does take the opportunity to expand on the five tunes from Faces and Places that take up nearly half of this hundred-minute, two-CD set. It's about the kind of energy that only happens in front of an audience, where music becomes a two-way affair, band and audience feeding equally off each other.

This isn't Zawinul's first live record with the Syndicate—that was '98's World Tour—but Vienna Nights is an altogether more satisfying effort for its greater sense of economy. Some of World Tour's captivating performances seemed to go on too long, whereas nothing on Vienna Nights overstays its welcome. And while each successive incarnation of Zawinul's Syndicate has evolved his personal vision, it's no simple hyperbole to suggest that this is his best version yet.

Zawinul has been honing his distinctive combination of cross-cultural rhythms and melodies, broad orchestration, and unassailable, percussion-heavy grooves for over thirty years. As far back as '73's Sweetnighter, the third studio release by Weather Report, his fifteen-year collaboration with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, he was moving towards compositions that were as much about rhythm as harmony. Two Weather Report tracks—"Badia," from '75's Tale Spinnin' and "Boogie Woogie Waltz," from Sweetnighter—finish off the second disc of Vienna Nights. And rather than coming across as simple attempts to assuage Weather Report fans, they sound completely in context here and could just as easily have been written yesterday.

It's become de rigueur to blend musical elements from a diversity of cultures—and Zawinul's musical conception is a long way from the "purer" jazz that he played early in his fifty-year career. But take one listen to the swinging middle section of "Two Lines," where guest guitarist and ex-Syndicate alumnus Scott Henderson plays call-and-response against Zawinul's probing accompaniment, and it becomes immediately clear that this music could only come from someone fully conversant with the broader vernacular of jazz harmony and history.

The guitar has often been a dominant alternative to Zawinul's complex keyboard orchestrations in the Syndicate, but in recent years he's become increasingly interested in the potential of the human voice. Whether it's Sabine Kabongo's joyous rendition of Malian singer Salif Keita's "Y'Elena," the more introspective beauty of Arto Tuncboyaciyan's "Do You Want Some Tea, Grandpa," or Karim Zaid's more kinetic call-and-response "Chabiba," Zawinul's obsession with the purity and diversity of the human voice is evident.

Vienna Nights also makes a strong case for Zawinul's belief that, beyond a given element of quality, music should be entertaining. This album was recorded in two different weeks at his club in Vienna, and it's unclear whether or not Zawinul's Birdland has a dance floor. But when the Zawinul Syndicate comes to town, it had better find a place with one.

Track Listing: CD1: Y'Elena; Two Lines; Do You Want Some Tea, Grandpa?; Chabiba; Blue Sound / Note 3; Rootops of Vienna; Louange; East 12th Street Band. CD2: Caf

Personnel: Joe Zawinul: keyboards, vocoder; Amit Chatterjee: guitar, vocals; Scott Henderson, Alegre Correa: guitar; Linley Marthe: bass; Nathaniel Townsley: drums; Karim Ziad: percussion, drums; Sabine Kabongo, Aziz Sahmaoui, Arto Tuncboyaciyan: percussion, vocals; Manolo Badrena: percussion.

Title: Vienna Nights: Live at Joe Zawinul's Birdland | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: BirdJAM / BHM


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