Zawinul is one of a handful of synthesizer players who actually learned how to play the instrument, to exploit its unique expressive colors and to swing uninhibitedly with it. The most vivid impression in a small club setting is the feeling of control and Zawinul’s mastery of electronic possibilities.
He could smoothly segue in and out of samples of sound effects; float sustained, cathedral-like waves of electronic sound; add spare yet madly swinging solo lines in precisely the right locations. His band could explore every angle of a single, catchy guitar riff on one chord, with subtle details and extreme dynamic changes that get lost in large halls. And lest one get the idea that Joe has abandoned chord structures completely, he’ll throw in a gorgeously complex ballad, raising a soaring, soprano saxlike lead line from his synth.
The current Syndicate, with ringer Alex Acuna sitting in on percussion on a day’s notice, is, if anything, even more adept at the art of rhythmic interplay than previous editions. At their peak, they were able to deliver a depth charge of stomping energy on the second chorus of Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” that got the whole room vibrating.