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Zawinul Syndicate Charms With Worldly-Wise Beat

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The global village of rhythm and technology known as the Zawinul Syndicate set up camp inside Catalina Bar & Grill on Tuesday and proceeded to light a musical fire. Making his first Los Angeles appearance in three years before a sizable audience of twentysomethings and middle-agers, keyboardist Joe Zawinul, while displaying some refinements in his ensemble style, showed that his general approach hasn’t changed much since the Weather Report broke up in 1987.

The framework of tight, demanding grooves decorated with a variety of synthesizer and vocal effects is still central to the Zawinul sound. But the rhythms now avoid straight backbeat, relying more directly on ethnic rhythmic traditions for their inspiration. Even when reaching back to the Weather Report days, this music, unlike some of the Syndicate’s recorded work, came with assured purpose and an insistent, worldly drive.

Powered by the accent-filled percussion team of Paco Sery and Weather Report veteran Alex Acuna (a late replacement for Arto Tuncboyaci, who had a death in his family), the Zawinul band created heady, sometimes exotic backdrops colored with Asian, African and Middle Eastern touches.

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Vocal chants cycled through the synthesizer teamed with layers of harmonic keyboard effects to give the music almost mystical properties. Sudden breaks and turns made surprising interruptions in the rhythmic trance.

Sery, whom Zawinul discovered in the band of globe-trotting Malian vocalist Salif Keita, brought a spirited authenticity to Zawinul’s worldly-wise rhythms. Bass guitarist Matteo Garrison (son of onetime John Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison) created the basic underpinnings without the heavy thumb-pounding so popular among fusion bassists. At times, Garrison recalled the late Jaco Pastorius, adding tonally conscious accents as guitarist Gary Paulson provided rhythmic support.

Zawinul, encased on three sides by keyboard racks, was the center of the action, signaling his ensemble with gestures, glances and chordal cues. The keyboardist showed a fine ear for orchestration, adding just the right synthesizer sounds and recorded chatter to tunes from Keita and Duke Ellington (“Rockin’ in Rhythm”) as well as Weather Report’s spell-casting “Scarlet Woman.”

But while Zawinul is a master of embellishment and the short, crisp accent, he seldom stretched out on the keyboard and never put together an actual improvisational statement. More from Joe would make the Zawinul Syndicate even more entrancing than it is.

* The Zawinul Syndicate plays tonight through Sunday at Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood: 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Cover $14 tonight and Saturday, $16 Friday-Saturday. (213) 466-2210.

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