Vienna Nights / Live – Joe Zawinul and the Zawinul Syndicate
Joe Zawinul has not looked back. Most of the other musicians who steered jazz towards rock/R & B-influenced terrain in the late '60s now spend some (in more than one case, all) of their time working in older-fashioned acoustic formats. Zawinul, though, has never left home without his synthesizers and his groove-centric accompanists since Weather Report's 1973 commitment to funk. Plot the musical trajectories of Chick Corea or Herbie Hancock and you'll get a zigzaggy path; Zawinul's work is a straight line.
Vienna Nights, a two-CD live set from the two most recent lineups of the Zawinul Syndicate, finds Zawinul working in the same directions which the late Weather Report albums suggested. It seems that Zawinul considers this music "jazz," but his brand of jazz is not the typical one, at least judging from the output of the average Down Beat writer. Upbeat Afropop, multilingual vocals and electronic textures are the most prominent items on Zawinul’s agenda, while improvisation and complex musical moods are doled out rather sparingly. If you can accept the notion of a Duke Ellington homage without a piano or acoustic bass in sight, this CD is for you.
The turning point in Zawinul's recent music, of course, came with his 1986 split with Wayne Shorter. Given the difficulty of replacing Shorter, and considering that 15 years of shared leadership tends to give most artists a taste for going it alone, it's not surprising that Zawinul has chosen to reassign Shorter's foreground responsibilities to a revolving-door cast of singers and guitarists. All of them are capable, though the rare guitar solos are a bit overly redolent of Joe Satriani and the more dramatic vocal moments are eerily fit for American Idol. The hitch, though, is that while few composers can outdo Zawinul at evoking a something’s-about-to-happen feeling, it was generally when Shorter took center stage that things did happen in Weather Report. Without him, many of Vienna Nights’s pieces never get the nudge over the finish line that they need.
Perhaps it's best, though, to accept Zawinul's assertions about "jazz" and judge Vienna Nights by what’s there rather than what’s not there. In bassist Linley Marthe and drummers Nathaniel Townsley and Karim Ziad, Zawinul has found a firm rhythm section in the vein of Victor Bailey and Omar Hakim, the foundation of the underrated post-Jaco version of Weather Report. New pieces such as "Rooftops of Vienna" and "Borges Buenos Aires" find Zawinul pulling propulsive grooves and catchy melodies out of the same soil from which "Black Market" and "Madagascar" once arose. And there aren’t many 72-year olds who are at ease with music as rhythmic, active and loud as what Zawinul demands from his group.
Zawinul's music was once as contemporary as jazz got; now, at least from an American perspective, it sits somewhere to the side of jazz's mainstream. He's a persistent guy, though, and Vienna Nights shows that he may have the fuel to keep his music going long after the majority of the Marsalis-era young lions have faded.