December 17th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Much food for reflection in a single Christmas carol

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coalition limps through year of frustrations

FOREIGN AFFAIRS The left's whitewash of Fidel Castro

THE MEDIA Greed, ideology generate burst of fake news online

WA LEGISLATION Foetal homicide reform a very small step forward

SOCIETY A proposal to assist the victims of sexual abuse

AUSTRALIAN DEVELOPMENT The financial and social costs of cramming ourselves into just five coastal cities

MUSIC What Ellington heard: Allan Zavod, RIP


CINEMA Capra on the Common Man: Meet John Doe

BOOK APPRAISAL Religious incredulity: a most modern virtue

BOOK REVIEW A continuing analysis

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What Ellington heard: Allan Zavod, RIP

by David James

News Weekly, December 17, 2016

The passing of jazz pianist Allan Zavod marked a sad day for Australian jazz.

Zavod had had an exceptional international career. As a teenager, he caught the attention of Duke Ellington, who told him that he would help him get to America.

Allan Zavod

He went on to play piano with the jazz, rock and classical genius Frank Zappa, at that time one of the most daunting gigs in the world. He formed a band with jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and regularly played with George Benson. In the 1980s, he was included by Downbeat magazine in the top 10 jazz pianists in the United States.

Like Zappa, Zavod had a deep understanding of music that could readily extend into contemporary classical composition as well as jazz improvisations. And, although not as innovative, he far outshone Zappa on his instrument; he was a genuine virtuoso.

There are, of course, many ways that classical music and jazz can be combined. Zavod was more inclined to the Russian romantic tradition – Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev – than to areas like atonality. Many of his performances of jazz standards were executed with an unusual lushness that was reminiscent of romantic classical textures.

There was never any doubting Zavod’s masterly technique. But he gave very little sense in his playing of ever reaching beyond himself. Precisely because he was so accomplished his playing tended to sound easy.

It poses an interesting question about the implications of mastery. In a brief discussion I had with him over a comment I made about how jazz improvisation at its best seems to involve an absence of thinking – at least, as the musicians themselves describe it – he rejected any idea of transcendence. Improvisation, he said, was really a learned thing. Yes, it is in the moment, but there is no great mystery. It is, as he described it, a mix of much preparation and problem solving in the instant.

He was particularly taken with the idea of problem solving. In an interview about his combining of classical and jazz styles, he referred to how Duke Ellington “loved to have a problem to solve and, in the end, that’s what came together for me. It’s so exciting to see classical musicians share the same concert platform; the trumpet’s out front, the jazz trio is behind him and the full symphony orchestra is the backdrop.”

Approaches to improvisation, and the experience of what it is like to improvise, come in many forms. Zavod’s music did sound like it was learned to the point of being effortless, but many others do not sound like that.

It is interesting to compare his playing with that of another great Australian jazz pianist who is also now combining classical and jazz music: Joe Chindamo. With Chindamo there is a sense of risk taking that tended not to be present with Zavod.

The effect for a listener is different. With a player like Zavod, there is much admiration of the skill but also an implied separation: musician-as-hero. It is very much the approach taken in classical music, where the soloists are not unlike athletes demonstrating their prowess. The profundity, when it is achieved, is a function of them doing something inhuman, as if they are reaching beyond the merely mortal. It is only the greatest soloists who achieve that elevated status; it is not common.

With a player like Chindamo, there is an element of musician-as-hero but, because of his risk taking, the listener gets to sit next to the performer, sharing the feeling of danger. To that extent the playing connects in a more direct way, although there is the greater possibility of something going awry. Any problems, though, are soon solved, which becomes integral to the performance.

Zavod seemed to be in the former category and it is not surprising that he was at home in classical composition and performance.

It is also interesting to compare Zavod’s compositions with Zappa’s work (admittedly something of an unfair comparison). Zavod’s compositions were consistently satisfying and perfectly executed. His chromatic piece, Environmental Symphony, is especially musical.

But he rarely achieved the originality of Zappa, who was one of the great musical innovators of the last century. Whereas Zavod explored the consequences of his mastery of two genres to see where it went, Zappa blew everything up and then put it back together again.

Zavod has now departed the scene, joining his former bandleader in the undiscovered country. It is the departure of one of Australia’s greatest musicians.

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