…It’s a joyful piece, with a chugging rhythm and lots of chanting…

BGO Records BGOCD1417

Black Water: Joe Zawinul (keyboards, Korg Pepe, accordion); Gerald Veasley (bass, narration); Scott Henderson (guitar); Cornell Rochester (drums); Munyungo Jackson (percussion); Anthony Zawinul (keyboards on ‘And So It Goes’); Lynne-Fiddimont-Linsey, Carl Anderson, Kevin Dorsey, Fred White and Dorian Holly (vocals).

Recorded Studio Ultimo, Los Angeles; Music Room, Malibu; live in Copenhagen. No recording dates

Lost Tribes: Joe Zawinul (acoustic piano, keyboards, Korg Pepe, vocoder, keyboard bass, percussion, accordion, kalimba, vocals); Gerald Veasley (bass, vocals); Bill Summers (keyboard, keyboard bass); Randy Bernsen (guitar); Mike Baker (drums); Bobby Thomas Jr (hand drums); Carol Perry, Darlene Perry, Lori Perry, Sharon Perry (vocals); Thamba (chants)

Recorded Music Room, Malibu. No recording dates

Anyone with even the slightest interest in jazz-rock fusion will have heard of Joe Zawinul. The Austrian-born keyboardist first made his name with Cannonball Adderley (composing the hit ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’) before working with Miles Davis – Zawinul played on the albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, writing the title track of the former. Zawinul also crops up on various Miles compilation albums including Big Fun, Directions and Circle in the Round.

In 1970, the keyboardist joined forces with saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitouš to form the jazz-rock fusion band Weather Report, a ground-breaking group that at one point also included bassist Jaco Pastorius. Weather Report went through various incarnations before disbanding in 1986. Zawinul and Shorter would appear onstage together with Miles Davis in Paris in July 1991.

After the breakup of Weather Report, Zawinul formed the band Weather Update, which included various Weather Report alumni and replaced Shorter’s sax with a guitar, but the project was not successful. In 1988, he formed The Zawinul Syndicate, a band which fused jazz with world music and used players who had no connection with Weather Report (the exception being percussionist Bobby Thomas Jr). The band went through various line-ups and only ended when Zawinul died from skin cancer in 2007, aged 75.

Zawinul was not only a fine keyboardist and composer, but he was a musician forever pushing the envelope when it came to synthesiser technology. So much so, that synth manufacturer Korg developed a custom made electronic wind instrument for him, the Korg Pepe (Zawinul’s pet name as a child). Depending on which source you use, one or at most, two Korg Pepe’s were ever manufactured. It was a MIDI controller, with a mouthpiece for breath control, and a set of accordion-like buttons. It was played by holding the instrument with the left hand, pressing the keys with the right, and blowing into the breath controller. Zawinul used the Korg Pepe on both albums in this package, to create sax-like sounds and phrases. He also played the instrument on the title track of Quincy Jones’ 1989 album, Back on the Block.

The Zawinul Syndicate released five albums (the last, 75, was a live album posthumously released in 2008) and this package features the second and third albums, with Black Water released in 1989, and Lost Tribes, 1992. The bulk of both albums were recorded at Zawinul’s home studio in Malibu, and it was very much a family affair, with the son Erich doing the illustration for the cover of Black Water, and Anthony duetting with his father on a track composed by the son. Lost Tribes was engineered by Ivan Zawinul.

The opening track on Black Water, ‘Carnavalito’ first appeared on Zawinul’s 1986 album Dialects, but this version was recorded live in Copenhagen. It’s a joyful piece, with a chugging rhythm and lots of chanting – there’s a party atmosphere to the sound. ‘Black Water’ foretells the ending of apartheid and begins with a synthesised cry that reminded me of the opening to Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sledgehammer.’ Driven along by a syncopated beat and Veasley’s bouncing bass line, it also includes a crisp solo from guitarist Scott Henderson. ‘Familial’ is a powerful number, inspired by the anti-conflict poem by French writer Jacques Prévert. Zawinul recites the poem’s words through a vocoder.

‘Medicine Man’ is a quirky number – it’s like Frank Zappa meets jazz, featuring a clip-clop rhythm, Zawinul’s meandering accordion lines and seemingly random comments from Veasley, such as: ‘smelling good,’ ‘make you slap somebody’ and ‘tender as a hair on a bald-headed man.’ ‘In The Same Boat’ combines jazz with the sound of Africa, with skittering synth lines and a heavy percussive beat. ‘Monk’s Mood’ is the first of two numbers by Thelonious Monk and here, the 1947 number is accompanied by a new narration by Gerald Veasley, who verbally admonishes critics of Monk’s playing. The best thing about the track is that it’s only a couple of minutes in length. ‘Little Rootie Tootie’ is a more satisfying cover and includes a searing guitar solo from Henderson.

‘They Had A Dream’ is a reflective piece dedicated to Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, all of whom were assassinated. It’s a complex number which mixes synthesised clarinet sounds and vocoder with a steady beat played on drums and percussion. The closing track, ‘And So It Goes,’ is one of those annoyingly short tracks (it lasts 1:37) that really should have been much longer. Gorgeous rippling percussive sounds (which remind me of a kalimba) mingle with harp-like sounds, and just as you start getting into it, it fades out.

Lost Tribes starts in a similar fashion to the previous album – with a cheering audience, although in this case, it’s a pseudo-live track with dubbed audience effects. Nevertheless, it’s an upbeat opening with a driving, urgent rhythm and Zawinul playing an array of stabs and lines. ‘South Africa’ is a joyous anti-apartheid number. African chanting from the vocal group Themba is combined with vocals from the Perry sisters and sax-like sounds courtesy of the Korg Pepe. ‘Lost tribes’ has an African-influenced syncopated groove and frenetic wordless vocals by Zawinul, processed by a vocoder.

‘Rua Paula Freitas’ is a lovely ballad named after a street in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro, and the lead instrument is the Korg Pepe, which Zawinul uses to create various sax lines and melodies. I’m not the only person to associate the track with Zawinul’s ‘A Remark You Made,’ from the 1977 album Heavy Weather, with both tunes having the same flow and feel. ‘Victims Of The Groove’ is a funk track based on a one-chord vamp. There’s a mechanical feel to the sound, which is interspersed with radio vocal samples, and Zawinul plays some sax-like lines at the outro. The atmospheric ballad ‘Night Clock’ includes fine, melodic bass playing by Veasley, while ‘Afternoon’ is another African-tinged number, this time driven by a powerful four-to-the-floor beat.

‘San Sebastian’ evokes the sound of Andalusia as Zawinul artfully re-creates the sound of a classical guitar on his synthesiser, accompanied by rapid hand-clap effects – you can imagine a crowd dancing to this, with their hands clapping above heads as the dancers form a circle. ‘In A While, In A While’ is a long, slow groove with a sax-like solo played on the Korg Pepe. At one point, Veasley says, ‘take your time’ and this number certainly does this, never really getting off the ground. The closing number, ‘Changes’ is a rousing, uptempo tune that reminds me of the late George Duke’s Latin-funk explorations, as Zawinul lays down some hard, funky lines on acoustic piano.

The Zawinul Syndicate never reached the dizzy heights of Weather Report (indeed, Zawinul was dropped by his label Columbia Records after the disappointing sales of Lost Tribes) but these albums show that, post Weather Report, the keyboardist still had plenty of fire, passion, imagination and sound musical ideas.

Reviewed by George Cole