The Art of Synth Soloing: Allan Zavod

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When we think about ‘70’s fusion bands, the names Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Return To Forever are always mentioned. But it could be argued that the Jean-Luc Ponty Band had as much, if not more, commercial success with a string of a dozen albums that broke the Top Five on Billboard’s Jazz chart; two of them even broke into the Top 40 albums. It was a powerful band with great writing and flawless execution, and for six years of this best-selling period Australian Allan Zavod manned the keys.

Zavod, a skilled classical and jazz pianist and composer, played with the big bands of Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson, and recorded/toured with Billy Cobham and Frank Zappa, among others. After his touring years, he moved into orchestral composing, scored more than 40 films, and was awarded a Doctorate of Music in 2009. He passed away in 2016.

In an interview during his Ponty Band days (April 1978, Contemporary Keyboard), Zavod mentioned that he soloed mostly on the ARP 2600 (and a little bit using the Arp Odyssey). So, no pitch bend wheels for him: He did it all using a knob!


My first solo choice comes from Ponty’s best-selling album, Enigmatic Ocean, from 1977. On the tune “Imaginary Ocean Part II” the band trades choruses between Ponty, Zavod, and guitarists Daryl Stuermer and Allan Holdsworth. Example 1 starts off with a difficult-to-notate, two-handed flurry of notes and then settles in to some tasteful soloing. Bar 2 is easy enough to understand, and then in bar 3 Zavod uses colorful note choices from the C Mixolydian mode and then moves into a bluesy lick in bar 4 that you would usually play on a G minor, or G7 chord before resolving it back to the C major tonality. Bars 5 and 6 feature the classic 2-note fusion lick and then take off into some fleet F major arpeggiations. When the chord changes to Eb dominant seventh in bar 7, he seems to be still playing mostly on an F tonality, except for the bend up into the Db at the end of the bar. Bar 8 continues the F tonality until he resolves down into the F# for the D7 chord at the end of his phrase.

Ex. 1. Allan Zavod’s first chorus of trading with his band mates from the tune “Imaginary Ocean Part II.”

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Example 2 is his second “trade,” and Zavod starts out with a figure that seems to be from the D harmonic minor scale, certainly an outside choice to play over a dominant seventh chord. He settles back inside over the next two bars before taking flight into chromatic shifting lines for the F chord in bar 5 and then resolves back into some fleet-fingered F major pentatonic for bar 6. Once again, he stays on the F tonality when the chord shifts to Eb7 in bar 7, again using the bend up into the Db to hint at the dominant seventh color. Bar 8 continues the F tonality and then he outlines more of a G minor over the F major before resolving again to the F# for the final D7 chord.

Ex. 2. Zavod’s second chorus, where he makes more choices that are outside the chords.

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Example 3 is a masterful solo on the tune “Once Upon a Dream,” from the 1976 Ponty release Imaginary Journey, which really shows off Zavod’s ability to play over chord changes. In the opening of his solo, he is using the C blues scale to open up, with a few interesting half-step chromatic note choices at the end of the bar. He uses mostly color tunes for the Db major seventh chord in bar 2, and includes the sharp eleventh (the G note). You could also think of it as him continuing to use the C minor pentatonic sound from the previous bar. Bar 3 has some very colorful playing on the D7 chord, using a scale called the Altered, or Altered Dominant. Beyond the root, third, and seventh, every other note in this scale is altered—the flat and sharp ninth, the sharp eleventh (or flatted fifth), and the augmented fifth (or flat thirteenth). It produces wonderful tension on the dominant seventh chord, and the line descends nicely into the major third of the next bar/chord, and continues downward.

Bar 5 has a motif centered on the half-step between the sharp ninth and the third of the E chord, and transitions nicely into a pentatonic run on the F major chord in bar 6. In bar 7, Zavod plays around with the half-step between the sharp ninth and the third, and the flat ninth and the root, and then plays a pentatonic run for the following chord, with a short, soulful bend. It comes across as bluesy and is a nice way to resolve some of the tension. The full solo is available online below.

Ex. 3. His solo on the tune “Once Upon a Dream” shows how well Zavod could navigate chord changes. View Full Example HERE

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Example 4, from the same album, is from the tune “Imaginary Voyage Part II.” Allan’s solo is over two chords, and his notes choices are relatively inside compared to the last selection, but he really sings some beautiful melodic lines. For the B dominant ninth chords he sticks to the B Mixolydian scale, but centers his lines around the color tones of the chord. For the C minor seventh chord, he uses the minor pentatonic and the Dorian modes, with a little bit of bluesy bending in bars 2 and 6. I love the bravura double-time run he starts at the end of bar 7 and continues through bar 8. Practice hard to get that one up to tempo! (The full solo is availableHERE)

Ex. 4. On “Imaginary Voyage Part II,” Zavod solos over two chords, bringing a warm, lyrical style to his nicely paced solo.

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Insane Lick of the Month

And finally, I’ll leave you with Example 5, an outrageous line Zavod played on “Imaginary Voyage Part II.” Enjoy!

Ex. 5. One of my favorite phrases by Zavod from “Imaginary Voyage Part II.”

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