The Art of Synth Soloing: Joe Zawinul, the Syndicate Years

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This month I look at Joe Zawinul’s later years, when he formed his pan-global band, Zawinul Syndicate. Toward the end of Weather Report, it was felt that Joe was dominating the group sound and writing, as he began infusing the band with more electronic sounds, vocoded vocals, and world rhythms. Roughly a year after the group disbanded in 1986, Joe formed the Zawinul Syndicate, which lasted in various incarnations until his passing in 2007. Fully embracing his love for music from all cultures, the band was a high-energy unit that featured some of the most amazing drummers and bass players I’ve ever heard.

Joe’s rig settled into a regular line-up of gear, with instruments such as the Korg Wavestation and M1 providing chordal textures (along with the Prophet T8 which Joe never stopped using), prominent use of the vocoder, and the Korg Prophecy modeling synth becoming his signature lead instrument. But because of his custom switching box, it wasn’t always clear what instrument was producing the sound when he played his leads.


So much of the Syndicate’s music relied on a powerful drum/percussion/bass groove that Joe could ride on top of. Example 1 is taken from a tune called “Bimoya,” from the 1998 World Tour release. Joe uses a distorted lead sound, and he adds some wah-wah (or simulated wah filter moves) during it.

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The solo section is a D minor vamp and Joe uses the D dorian mode throughout. But notice how he centers his lines on the G and A, and uses the B natural a lot (the 6th), not playing typical D minor pentatonic licks. This superimposition of an almost G7 tonality gives the solo great character. He develops his lines with care and patience, playing around a lot with a B-A-G motif. Since the band is burning beneath him, he also leaves a lot of space. In bars 14-17, we see another typical aspect of Joe’s soloing. He would often interject chordal hits in his solos, like a big band adding accents, and then return to the soloing. This sound may be tuned in fifths, but I notated the notes that I heard. The rest of the solo can be found online, and it is a great study.


Example 2 shows another way we can appreciate Zawinul’s brilliance. Taken from a 2004 release called Vienna Nights, the tune is a Weather Report classic called “Two Lines” (originally from the Procession release of 1983).

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I’ve posted his entire solo online, but in this excerpt we see another of his chordal “shout” sections, and with each iteration of the descending line he changes up his voicings and chordal qualities.

All played over a joyously swinging F7 vamp, in bars 26 and 27 the voicings are minor seventh chords (or major sixths?). In the next two bars they become suspended fourth seventh chords, followed by triads. In bar 30 he uses only fourths and then he changes the last of the following triads from an F minor to an E major. Subtle, but so tasty. In bar 34 the first two descending chords become dominant seventh chords with a raised ninth for increased dissonance, followed by a few more colorful chords. The superimposition of all this over the single chord vamp creates excitement and tension, which gets released when Joe returns to soloing.


I don’t want to give the impression that all of Joe’s music became single-chord world-groove tunes. He was a highly melodic player who could navigate chord changes with ease, and could play achingly beautiful ballads. For my final example I chose a ballad from the World Tour release, “Three Postcards.” Example 3 shows the opening of his wonderful solo, which he plays using an accordion sound.

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He lets the first couple of chords go by, coming in at the end of the second bar with colorful note choices that are not outlining the named chord. You can think of them as coming from the A whole-step-half-step diminished scale, or that he is thinking of a D7 with both sharp and flat ninths. Or he is just singing a beautiful line that comes from the Eb major scale. Over the next two bars he plays with some octave jumps in his melody, and seems to be emphasizing the lower Bb and C vs. the Bb and B natural in the following bar. One note can make such a difference. Bars 5 and 6 stay very tonal to the chords, and then for the A diminished he uses the same flavor as before. The line in the second half of bar 7 is very inside, and then again, a one-note shift makes the Ab minor in the next bar. He outlines a Gb triad for the Bb7 altered chord, a technique of using poly-chords that we have discussed before. I like how he keeps the Db in the beginning of the next bar, to keep the tonality going for just a moment, even though it doesn’t “fit” the Eb major chord. The following G7 altered chord gets the same poly-chord treatment and then he returns to the low B jumping up to the higher Bb interval leap that is a signature of this solo.

Bar 10 is based on the C minor pentatonic with some wide intervals, and then he again treats that A diminished chord with a wonderful upward run that could be thought of as a D7#9. He finished out the last two bars with more angular leaps amidst beautiful melodies. The analysis sounds complicated, but it is simply Joe singing his heart out, like the great jazz master he was. For more information about the Zawinul Syndicate, visit