Absolutely Zawinul

Of all the electric keyboardists to come out of the fusion era, Zawinul was the most organic,  most human. His synthesizer spanned an array of natural sounds–including Wayne Shorter’s tenor–and his use of voice through the Vocoder made his music take on folklorique, even choral qualities.

This natural quality of Zawinul’s synthesizer sound makes for an appropriate fit with the Absolute Ensemble. The Ensemble, conductor Kristjan Jarvi’s 28-piece acoustic orchestra with vocalists, claims Tango and Mediterranean-influenced projects as well as a “reinvention” of Bach. Jarvi conceived this project in 2004, designed to showcase some of the composer’s unreleased numbers, when Zawinul was 72.  It was still in production when Zawinul died in 2007 at age 75.

Not all the tunes are unfamiliar. Those that have been heard before, including “Ice Pick Willy” from Weather Report’s Sportin’ Life lp, take on a new earthiness with their acoustic instrumentation. But it’s the new material that sets the recording apart. The themes, construction and rhythms are are easily recognizable as trademark Zawinul but yet are something new.  Augmenting the ensemble with the core of his Zawinul Syndicate , gives the recording rhythm to go with its lushness.

Arranged by guitarist Gene Prisker, the music keeps it electric sheen even as  violins, oboes and contrabassoon combine for added warmth. On “Bimoya,” stings riff at the long conclusion of the tune much as Zawinul’s keyboard.    Orchestration is sterling throughout.  Zawinul and Pritsker counterpoint the winds and violins on “Sultan,” to impart a graceful middle-eastern feel. At one point on “Good Day,” a banjo surprisingly emerges from under bassoon. The framing gives the acoustic instruments an electric feel. Dig the oboe on “Great Empire” as it plugs into a Far Eastern melody.

Voices give the sound added depth and meaning, whether in exuberance as on “Bimoya”  and “Ice Pick Willy,” or when suggesting quiet, inner-dialogue as on “Great Empire.” Zawinul’s own voice, processed through Vocorder, goes along way in adding mysterious, cross-cultural feel.  His Vocorder intro to “Sultan” is a marvel of sound and manipulation.

The ensemble without Zawinul has a clean, natural sound, the acoustic instruments blending into something of Zawinul’s  synthesized voicings. Occasionally a rift goes on  a measure or two past its welcome or a figure doesn’t resolve as cleanly as it could . But this was a work in progress even as its inspiration moved on.--Cabbage Rabbit

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