Photo by David Gahr

When Joe Zawinul, ensconced inside a nest of keyboards, leads his Zawinul Syndicate into a tune, several images come to mind: Baseball coach flashing signs to base runners. Mafia don trading winks with his wise guys. Captain Nemo at the prow of the Nautilus diving into uncharted waters.

The music develops mysteriously. Jabbering voices crackle as if dialed in from shortwave radio. The audience feels the visual tension as Zawinul’s eyes dart between his keyboard racks and the stares of his sidemen. He stirs them one by one with eye contact, or with musical phrases chanted into a headset hooked to a Vocoder. A pulse is established, a groove swirls through bass and synthesizers, and soon Zawinul hints at one of his signature keyboard themes, something folkloric in its simplicity but often harmonically involved, a melody that seems not to draw from any single culture, but instead suggests a collective of global influences.

This method of meandering into a tune is part of Zawinul’s madness and the reason why no two performances are ever alike. “I approach music in a funny way,” he says in a morning phone call from his downtown Manhattan apartment. “The band doesn’t know what I’m going to do next. It definitely keeps them thinking — not analytical thinking, but paying attention to the feeling of what is going down. I give them a few clues, a little melody. Even then, I try to camouflage it, trip them up, but in a good way.”

There’s no doubt, watching the band live, that Zawinul is firmly in control. But he says his bandmates — the current ensemble includes Weather Report veteran Victor Bailey on bass and percussionist-vocalist Manolo Badrena — have special qualities.

“I have to have musicians who can hear, who can listen and react. It’s the only way I can have a band. The best in the world at this is Wayne [Shorter]. Wayne and I could do duets, we never had to talk about what we were going to do. It’s the same way with Manolo and all these guys.”

“But,” he counters, “it’s important to have a leader. One guy has to be the quarterback. That doesn’t minimize anyone else’s role. [The Syndicate] is a very democratic organization; the guys are all more challenged to express themselves in this setup.”

Zawinul was at the forefront of electric jazz and the fusion between jazz and world music long before either was recognized. Born in Austria, he came to the U.S. in 1959 and was soon making waves in the Cannonball Adderley group, introducing electric piano to the band and writing such R&B-influenced tunes as “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Country Preacher.” He was a designing force on Miles Davis’ landmark 1969 Bitches Brew sessions, supplying a number of titles to Davis’ repertoire of the time (“In a Silent Way,” “Pharaoh’s Dance,” “Double Image”).

In 1970, Zawinul joined with saxophonist Wayne Shorter to create Weather Report, the quintessential fusion band that processed a variety of directions and lineups over two decades. After dissolving the group in 1985, Zawinul, in the guise of the Syndicate, continued to push his sound with exotic, layered rhythms and dense harmonies from growing numbers of high-tech synths and other electronic devices.

Known to travel with literally tons of electronic equipment, Zawinul is one of the few electric keyboardists with a voice of his own. “I have more equipment than I need,” he says. “The instruments can do so many wonderful things now, but the sound really depends on the player. If you let the instrument rule your sound, you’re in bad shape.”

The Syndicate isn’t Zawinul’s only musical outlet. In 1996, Philips released his grand Stories of the Danube, a seven-movement opus that includes a number of familiar Zawinul themes scored for full orchestra. In August 1998, Zawinul performed a long solo work at the site of the Austrian concentration camp Mauthausen, outdoors before an audience of 10,000.

“I’ve never done any project like it,” he says of the event, which was recorded for a European label. “Somehow, it’s a documentation of the times, of life in the camps. I read extensively on the subject and went to all the different plots: the Gypsies, the Jews, the Hungarians. These are little representations of the original stories from the survivors.”

About his ability to capture a variety of cultural and ethnic influences in his music, Zawinul says he does not seek to employ specific influences. “I’m a traveler and a listener. I’m into the folklore of music, but I’ve never taken a single bar from another culture. The music is just the feeling I have for it. It’s what I have in my stomach.”


The Zawinul Syndicate performs at UCLA, Royce Hall, Friday, May 5, at 8 p.m. For more information, call (310) 825-2101.

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