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BLAIR’S DVD WATCH: Zawinul, Metheny: More Than Jazz

Keyboardist and bandleader extraordinaire Joe Zawinul was one of my all-time favorite musicians, and his death in September 2007 from cancer came as a real shock—

Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait (Arthaus Musik)

Keyboardist and bandleader extraordinaire Joe Zawinul was one of my all-time favorite musicians, and his death in September 2007 from cancer came as a real shock—I had interviewed him earlier in the year (for the fourth or fifth time since the late ’70s) and I assumed there would be more chances for us to talk down the road. He was one of those artists who was constantly searching musically, always open to new influences and, in my view, never made a bad record; indeed, most were great, from his pre-Miles solo work, through Weather Report, to his 20 years or so of various incarnations of the Zawinul Syndicate. Though he was 71 when he passed away, there’s no doubt he had plenty more music in him.

This artful 60-minute DVD (plus 15 minutes of bonus performance material), made in association with the BBC, is neither a full biography nor a strict concert video, but rather a wonderful snapshot of Zawinul the musician, onstage and off. The documentary portions were shot at his beautiful house/recording studio compound overlooking the Pacific in Malibu, and driving through his native Vienna. He takes us to the places where he grew up, reflects on the horrors of suffering through bombings in World War II, and talks about his early musical influences. I was intrigued to learn that he believed that he didn’t truly find his own musical voice as an improviser—after many years already playing jazz with Cannonball Adderly and others—until he took LSD in 1966. “Rational thinking stops at the moment inspiration starts,” he says a little later, explaining that when he improvises, time seems to stand still, or become irrelevant. “Analysis of it comes later, perhaps.” He said he had some 7,000 cassettes filled with keyboard improvisations, some of which became jumping-off points for compositions, but now he had computer programs to store and even notate his improvisations. Zawinul always embraced new technology and used it in ways that few of his peers did—that’s one reason he was such an original.

There is scant mention of Miles, Weather Report or even the Syndicate, but through a series of beautifully shot and great-sounding 2004 performances by the Syndicate, we get to see Zawinul in action as he leads his amazing group through its paces on tunes that show his fascination with different strains of world music and his unparalleled gift for melodic flights and sympathetic improvisation. No doubt other performance-only DVDs will come down the pike in the future, and I’m also looking forward to an audio compilation of live Zawinul Syndicate tunes that his son Ivan (Joe’s primary live engineer for many years, and also an accomplished studio pro) mentioned to me when we spoke last year. And there will certainly be much, much more to come from this supremely gifted musician—he had an archive rivaled perhaps only by Frank Zappa and the Grateful Dead. “With words, you always can lie,” Zawinul says at one point in the DVD. “With music, you cannot lie. People feel music. And the truth is more feeling than anything else.”

Filmed, produced and directed by Mark Kidel. Performance mix by Ivan Zawinul.

Pat Metheny Group: Imaginary Day Live (Eagle Eye)

Guitarist Pat Metheny is so prolific, I’ve found it impossible to follow every iteration of his career. There are streams and avenues he’s traveled that I’ve missed completely, but I have made a point of following the progression of the Group that bears his name through the years—they continue to grow, evolve, stimulate and fascinate. This DVD also frustrates. Shot in July 1998 at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, Calif., (south of San Francisco), the video captures Metheny’s versatile septet on their world tour supporting the fine Imaginary Day album, a typically eclectic mélange of tunes with influences from everywhere, tied together by the unmistakable tandem of Pat’s synth-driven, multi-voiced electric and acoustic guitars and longtime musical partner (and co-composer) Lyle Mays’ keyboard textures. The rest of the group provides solid, creative and ever-changing rhythmic and melodic support (I particularly dug Mark Ledford’s work on what appears to be a pocket trumpet). I’d never seen Metheny play his 42-string “pikasso guitar” (as I saw it referred to someplace) before—it looks and sounds like a combination of a lute, guitar, oud and zither; remarkable!

The tune that instrument is featured on, “Into the Dream,” opens the DVD, and, unfortunately, immediately points up the great flaw in this video: the sub-par direction and editing by Steve Rodby, who also happens to be the very talented bass player in the group. Judging from the multiplicity of different cameras employed for the shoot, there was tons of great raw footage from these shows, but Rodby often makes baffling choices of what to show and how to show it. For instance, much of the first part of “Into the Dream” is shot from behind and down at Metheny, so you can’t even see the wondrous instrument he’s playing or his hands dancing across the different layers of strings—indeed, it’s not until the final seconds of the song that we really see the instrument in all its complex glory and can thus appreciate the symphony of sounds that Metheny elicits from it. The early songs, filmed while it was still light in the outdoor venue (a beautiful place that wasn’t exploited well, either) are also marred by poorly composed shots cluttered by equipment cases and racks of gear. The use of various visual effects—from clumsy dissolves, to bursts of slow motion, to black and white or blue tints, or, worst of all, grainy night shots—is not well-achieved technically, and mostly just distracting. That’s disappointing, because the music is splendid, beautifully recorded and mixed, and as I said, it’s obvious Rodby had almost every angle imaginable to choose from for each instrument. Still the chemistry and camaraderie come through the muddle, and hardcore Metheny fans will no doubt enjoy what is, at times, a spectacular performance.

Even the lone bonus feature—a 10-minute interview with Metheny—is frustrating. We never see him; instead, there are shots of city streets and a diner at night (why?) and, at least, some interesting footage of the group’s stage setup and a complete time-lapse tear-down.

This could’ve and should’ve been better.

Directed and edited by Steve Rodby. Recorded by David Oakes, mixed by Rob Eaton.

If you want to jam with me by e-mail you know where to find me: [email protected].