Sound Memory of that distinctively South African Thing

20 Years ago today 3rd November 1998 the Manhattan Brothers performed 2 gigs with the Zawinul Syndicate in Vienna. Photo: Thomas Steinbacher
Here’s the story…
In the summer of 1998 Joe Mogotsi, leader the Manhattan Brothers (for whom I was pianist/musical director) rung me to say that the Austrian Government had contacted South African High Commission in London to invite a South African group to Vienna to do a show with someone called “Joe Zoem.. Zoem – I don’t know what his name is..” .

“Joe Zawinul????!!!!” I said naming the only Joe I knew who came from Vienna.

“Yes that’s the guy” said Joe Mogotsi.

A tape of the Manhattan Brothers – 3 demo tunes which we had recorded in 1992 – was sent to Joe Zawinul which he liked. He was coming to do a week at Ronnie Scott’s in October 98. The plan was to rehearse there with the Manhattan Brothers for two gigs the following week with the Syndicate in Vienna. What gear are you going to be bringing? he asked. Well I have an Oberheim Xpander and .. I enthused. He cut me off… I got all that stuff man – just bring the basics. ( So I took along the Korg SG1 and the DX7 Mark II you see in the photo).

Joe was not familiar with the sound of the Manhattan Brothers nor – it seemed – had he been exposed at the time to much South African township jazz. Most of his african influence was from central to north africa. With our music he was immediately curious, humble and straight forward. It was like we were doing a township jazz workshop for the Zawinul Syndicate.

As the Manhattan Brother’s pianist, I knew all their material and had to lead the rehearsal at Ronnie Scotts, introducing the different tunes and their tempos/grooves etc. I had assumed Joe would not need another keyboard player in Vienna but after the rehearsal, he said: “Man, are you coming to Vienna with us?” I was amazed. “We gonna need you man, to lead in the tunes and the tempos etc cause there wont be time to rehearse. Besides you have a south african thing which I havent heard before”.

So we rehearsed with me on the piano laying down the basic three chord grooves of the tunes, and him jamming along on his full keyboard rig. On the south african ballad ‘Ntyilo Ntyilo’, I wrote out the chord changes and played a chromatic harmonica intro with Joe playing the chords with that sublime keyboard pad sound of his you hear on the outstanding ‘World Tour’ album released the year previously.

Joe Mogotsi, Walter ‘Sansa’ Loate, Josh Makhene, Sonti Mndebele and I were flown to Vienna Business Class on the 2nd November and were put up with Joe and the Syndicate ( Manolo Badrena, Gary Paulson, Victor Bailey and Kirk Covington) in the Sheraton Hotel.

On the morning of the gig Joe got some waiters to push a cocktail piano into a quiet room and with the Manhattan Brothers, Manolo Badrena and myself, jammed unselfconsciously on the tunes and tried to get a feel for the music. He was enthusiastic, curious and supportive at all times. “What should I play on this?” he asked matter of factly. The question coming from one of the greatest living keyboard players in the world struck me as comically absurd but also perfectly normal. He asked me to write out a few examples of the chord patterns and voicings.

We went into a first floor office to use the photo copier and as the music was being printed he pointed out across the city to a building and said: “That was where I wrote a In A Silent Way”.

Joe had been appointed a goodwill ambassador by the Austrian Government after his initiating a huge anti-pollution clean up in Senegal. He was being honoured and recognised by the government for this as well as for his achievements as an internationally successful Austrian.

The first gig was .. a function! In a very old building in Vienna, senior ministers of the Austrian government as well as international delegates for a world conference on economic development sat down to a half hour pre- dinner entertainment by the Zawinul Syndicate and the Manhattan Brothers. So we got to do this half hour function gig with him. The bandstand contained his entire keyboard set up just to play the set with the Manhattan Brothers. He was not intending to do any Syndicate material.

As we waited amongst the smartly laid dinner tables to be called to the stand, I smiled wryly that it felt like waiting to start any other function I had ever done. Keeping out of the way while the important guests filed past the dining tables into the next huge room where the concert was to be held.

Joe’s son Ivan Zawinul was doing the sound and was under quite a bit of time pressure. In passing I expressed surprise that the whole Joe’s whole rig was set up just for this function. Especially since we were doing a second gig that night at a different venue, the Semper Depot which was a wonderful strangely shaped old theatre building, built in the last century specifically to house theatre scenery. I asked Ivan why Joe didnt just use a couple of keyboards for the first gig. Ivan shook his head as if I had suggested something crazy.

The first gig went well considering we had had only one rehearsal at Ronnie Scott’s the week before, and only a bit of jamming at the sound check. The band was very much dependent on me to lead the tunes in. Once the feel, key and chord sequence was established, then they could groove away. The intensity and accuracy of their band feel was something else. It was liking riding in Ferrari after you had been driving a family saloon.

As soon as the gig was over we had to move all the stuff to the next venue and set everything up again. The timing was a bit tight and there was not much time to soundcheck before the doors opened and several hundred people soon filled the floor of the small theatre.

The Manhattan Brothers set was first and went better as the Syndicate was more familiar with the material. Again we played about a half hour set, and left the stage to good applause. Joe introduced us very warmly.

Then the Syndicate played a full concert of material from their World Tour 97 album.
Only at the very end of the concert close to midnight did the Syndicate come down to the cellar of the Semper Depot which had been allotted to the band as their change room/band room. The Manhattans who had finished early had come down and we had helped themselves to some of the food that was laid out. We were already quite hungry and had had nothing really to eat the whole evening. Then we went up to watch the rest of the Syndicate concert.

However the Syndicate was in the same position and they played a very long set. Joe was in front of his home audience. When they finished the gig they came down to the cavernous cellar and were absolutely famished quite understandably. Plus Victor Bailey was exhausted from travelling and had a touch of flu. I expressed astonishment that they had played such a long set especially as it was the second gig of the night and they had had no food. Victor Bailey paused and then said slowly: “Joe likes to play long….”

Joe was in a great mood eating away and talking to all the well wishers and friends who had come to visit him after the gig. Amongst these well wishers was a tall academic looking guy with a beard who handed him a large thick document. I gathered from their exchange and later looking at the book that he was from the University and Vienna and had written his Ph D on Zawinul’s keyboard style. There were masses of fascinating accurate transcriptions of some his most amazing solos ( like the one on Fast City). Frustratingly for me the text was in German! Joe was very gracious, took a brief look at the Ph D but his main need was to eat. Said ” I will check this out later – perhaps I can learn something about myself”.

* * * *

The next morning the Syndicate were off at the crack of dawn to the next gig, and we returned to London.

It was an extremely enjoyable experience for myself and the Manhattan Brothers. My main impression was that Joe himself had enjoyed it but that it was not something that he wanted to explore or take further with us. What was fascinating about the Zawinul Syndicate playing a bit of township music was that on the whole the musical result was not that special or significant. It would need a lot of time to develop into something worthy of them. The two gigs were not much more than a kind of fun jam. What they as a band sounded like playing with us, and what they sounded like playing their own stuff was very different.

In the several meetings I have had with Joe since, he has always asked warmly after the Manhattan Brothers but I dont think at the time we were the right people for him to engage with, were he to try and develop a south african alchemic strand to his repertoire. It took him a very long time to develop the distinctive utterly original transformation of central and Northern african sounds into his music. And spent a huge amount of time playing with musicians that were his equal technically and inspirationally.

It would be wonderful if he could have met the South African equivalents of Richard Bona, Paco Sery, Gary Poulson etc – I think that we would then see another sort of Miles Davis like re inventing of Zawinul genius and a new generation of Zawinul sound.

His visit to Cape Town in March 2001 with a Syndicate that had not gigged regularly for several months, did not seem to be karmically the right time for him to hook up with or explore South African musicians capable of meeting him on the bandstand.

Joe Zawinul seems to have had an iron constitution – when they played at the Barbican in November 1999 I remarked that he seem to be in good shape. “Listen man, I am the only guy in the band who is OK – the rest of them have all got colds and flu from travelling” or something to that effect. When I met him at his home in December 2001 in Malibu, he looked in the peak of health and proudly announced that he had taken up boxing again/ was down at the gym every day.

Zaniwul Manhattan

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