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No other European musician has made a greater impact on the direction of jazz than Joe Zawinul. The Vienna-born pianist began playing an electric keyboard in 1966, which led to much more than his own jazz-funk compositions (including "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy"), the electric metamorphosis of Miles Davis (announced by the Zawinul composition "In a Silent Way"), and the ultimate fusion band, Weather Report. It created popular and universal options for incorporating sounds, textures, and the influences of diverse cultures.

Zawinul's lower profile in America since Weather Report disbanded, in 1985, should be history after his recent flurry of activity. Stories of the Danube (Philips), a work in seven movements for symphony orchestra and soloists, is an appropriately majestic symphony that follows the river on a multicultural journey. After the orchestra boldly develops folk and classical themes for three movements, Amit Chatterjee's guitar and voice introduce "Gypsy," a retitled jazz line from Zawinul's early electric period. Stories then proceeds to blend ethnic, jazz, and classical elements. The Danube becomes a melting pot, a Mississippi East for musical crossbreeding.

The same "small world" approach drives My People (Escapade), featuring the Zawinul Syndicate combo and such vocalists and musicians as Chatterjee; Salif Keita, from Mali; and Thania Sanchez, from Venezuela. Zawinul moves among keyboards, pepe (a wind-driven synthesizer), acoustic guitar, and his own vocals, creating a universal stew in which improvisation is just one ingredient. The danceable results are less unified than Stories, but they reinforce Zawinul's orchestral command of the electronic palette. --B.B.

Joe Zawinul
Photo: John Rae

Hear clips ("Gypsy" or "Sultan") from Joe Zawinul's Stories of the Danube in RealAudio 28.8 format. Or, you may also download "Gypsy" or "Sultan" in .AU format. (For help, see a note about the audio.)


Maybe it's just the secondhand cigarette smoke he's been breathing in blues clubs over the decades--and maybe it's accumulated wisdom. Whichever, James Cotton at the age of sixty-one has a riveting rasp of authority in his voice that is almost never on television or the radio. Unless you see him live, you'll have to buy Deep in the Blues (Gitanes/Verve) if you want to hear it, and you will want to hear it if you have any taste at all for the blues. It should make a lot of the genre's top-ten lists for the year. Known since the fifties for his virtuosity with the harmonica, Cotton feels no need to bury his phrasing under pounding drums and overdriven electric guitars. Accompanied only by the bassist Charlie Haden and the guitarist Joe Louis Walker, with an occasional appearance by Dave Maxwell on piano, Cotton leaves a lot of air in the music, letting the warm tones in the wood of the acoustic instruments resonate while his blues harp adds an element of sass to the contemplative atmosphere. This quiet intensity suits the subject matter, which ranges from satisfaction at outliving a treacherous lover ("Down at Your Buryin'") to being a treacherous lover oneself ("Two Trains Runnin'"), but the subject matter really isn't the point. The point is these guys know the blues thoroughly; they play with both emotion and perspective, and without a lot of bombast or even a single extraneous note. Cotton is touring with his band. Buy your tickets early. --C.M.Y.

Harmonica legend James Cotton
Photo: Tim Mosenfelder

Hear clips ("Down at Your Buryin'" or "Two Trains Runnin'") from James Cotton's Deep in the Blues in RealAudio 28.8 format. Or, you may also download "Down at Your Buryin'" or "Two Trains Runnin'" in .AU format. (For help, see a note about the audio.)


After ten years of living in a warehouse in Los Angeles, Bruce Licher pulled the plug on his punk/noise band Savage Republic and moved his graphic-design and printing business to Sedona, Arizona. The desert inspired him to found a new band, called Scenic--aptly named, because you can see the desert vistas when you listen to its first album, Incident at Cima (Independent Project Records). You can see them some more on Scenic's second and latest album, Acquatica (World Domination/IPR), the perfect soundtrack for having visions while staring at the stars in a clear night sky. It's also the perfect soundtrack for shooting outlaws who don't shave often enough, for hang-gliding, for searching out Yaqui Indian sorcerers, and for doing your taxes (on the theory that it will ease the pain of doing them). Licher favors guitars that chime with a little echo for the mystical understatement, but he's not afraid to mess around with dulcimers, various woodwinds, and sound effects to explore a melodic idea. Unlike most New Age musicians, he has lots of melodic ideas that move dramatically from one place to another. And unlike that strange new genre of symphonic schmaltz that appears on PBS when the network wants to raise money (Yanni, John Tesh), Licher's music is never inane. So be not afraid when you buy it: no one will accuse you of being unhip. --C.M.Y.

Inspired by the landscape: Scenic's Bruce Licher, Brock Wirtz, and James Brenner
Photo: Jay Dunn

Hear clips ("Dronia" or "All Fish Go To Heaven") from Scenic's Acquatica in RealAudio 28.8 format. Or, you may also download "Dronia" or "All Fish Go To Heaven" in .AU format. (For help, see a note about the audio.)

Bob Blumenthal is a jazz critic for The Boston Globe.
Charles M. Young reviews popular music for Playboy, Musician, and other publications.

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Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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