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Jazz Review

Repetition Saps Some Spirit From Zawinul's Music

May 08, 2000|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joe Zawinul has been a central figure in a remarkable number of jazz settings over the past five decades.

In the '60s, he performed with Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and wrote the jazz and pop (it reached No. 11 on the Billboard pop charts in 1967) hit, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." A few years later he played with the first Miles Davis electric groups, participating in the recording of "Bitches Brew" and writing "In a Silent Way." And, in the '70s and '80s, he organized the seminal fusion band Weather Report with Wayne Shorter (producing yet another jazz hit tune, "Birdland").

More recently, Zawinul, 67, has been leading the Zawinul Syndicate, a band that manages to tap into most of the musical elements from his past while adding a distinctly world music seasoning to the creative mix. On Friday night at UCLA's Royce Hall, he showcased the ensemble before a surprisingly sparse crowd (probably not so surprising, actually, given that the concert began during the fifth game of the Lakers-Kings playoff series).

Zawinul elected to make few comments about any of the material, obviously preferring to let the music speak for itself, not always to its own best interests. There was, for one thing, a sameness to much of the music. Virtually every piece unfolded in similar fashion: layers of synthesizer sound controlled by Zawinul from a virtual cockpit surrounded by keyboards, knobs, buttons; followed by a riff-like figure, usually executed by guitarist Amit Chatterjee, that continued throughout the piece; climaxing with a series of improvisations floating over the vamp patterns.

The resulting sounds, largely because of the undercurrent of rhythmic and melodic repetitions, often drifted into a trance-like quality, even when drummer Nathaniel Townsley and bassist Victor Bailey were generating powerful dynamic energy. The only significant variations were provided by percussionist Manolo Badrena during his spotlight feature number.

Despite occasional high points, it was not one of the Zawinul Syndicate's most impressive presentations. In past performances, Zawinul has offered more contrasting material, enriching his synthesizer sounds with loops of world music and radio sounds. This time out, repetition too often took precedence over inspiration.

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