Life - The Sunday Age Magazine January 13 2002
By Jeanette Leigh
Photography Robert Banks
1969, JAZZ GREAT Duke Ellington heard pianist and composer Allan Zavod
perform in Melbourne and told him, "I'm going to help you get to
America." And America is where
the adventure began for the self-assured teenager who was already wowing
audiences with his eccentric performances.
in his South Yarra terrace, an animated Zavod recalls the highlights
of his journey through the birthplace of his beloved jazz: a wild trip
that lasted two decades and included auditioning for Frank Zappa. In
1984, while holidaying with his concert violinist father, Eddie, Zavod
got a call from a friend in Los Angeles. "Zappa wants you to audition
right now!" No planes flew late from Arizona in those days, so
Zavod drove the 600km to LA, arriving about 3am.
put some impossible music in front of me that nobody could read; it
was worse than trying to read a Stravinsky score," laughs the 49-year-old.
"It was ridiculous, full of 9/3s and 7/16s. I struggled through;
he was messing with me. Then we played together spontaneously and he
gave me the job on the spot."
Conservatorium of Music graduate spent the next year on the road with
the wildly experimental Zappa. His fusion of rock, jazz and classical
music furthered Zavod's musical education and life experience. "When
musicians are out there playing, they like to get a lot of attention,"
he grins. "Basically we all collected women - that was one of our
has been a rock star, but he's also worked with many of the world's
greatest jazz performers. Now he composes for symphony orchestras, with
a twist. A hairpin bend away from life on the road playing acid jazz
with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and touring with Zappa, Zavod is now at
the forefront of composing a brand-new style - jazz classical fusion.
For Zavod, its attraction is in the opportunity to push boundaries and
convention - to take on a role that Ellington once described as "the
at a point now where I write major works that combine my history and
experience in both worlds," says Zavod. "Classical and jazz
styles come together in a marriage. Duke 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."
can add full-scale orchestra to his long list. Last May, trumpet virtuoso
James Morrison joined forces with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra to perform
Zavod's Concerto For Trumpet, Jazz Trio And Orchestra at the Sydney
Opera House. The piece created a harmonious fusion of
swing, jazz improvisation and Latin.
Sydney, the symphony players came up to me night after night and said
how much they were enjoying it," he says. "This really surprised
me. I said, `You're a pretty hard-nosed lot, you see a lot of things
come through this organisation, do you really mean that?' The music
held their interest. They loved the improvised solos and hearing something
entirely new in the performance each night."
SHARING the concert stage with a symphony orchestra might not please
the purists, but audiences are embracing the form. Together, the musicians
create rollicking tuttis and sensual swing melodies.
eclectic musical education has groomed him for this new adventure. He
has more than 30 film scores (Death Of A Soldier, Howling 111, Sebastian
And The Sparrow) under his belt and has performed with the cream of
the music world: bands such as the Woody Herman Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson's
Big Band and Glen Miller Orchestra. He has even accompanied singer/guitarist
George Benson and also comedian Robin Williams during his stand-up shows
at The Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard.
maintains that Zavod is one of his favorite musicians. "We love
to jam together," he says. "First we introduce the song, then
we show what we can do with it. Improvisation is the key, making the
most of the moment, but it takes discipline to be a classical musician.
what impresses me about him. Most jazz musicians don't have that kind
of discipline. Allan's chops [technique) is exceptional," he says.
YEAR 1 with Frank Zappa in the 1980s is a faint memory, but Zavod delights
in re-telling events. His lanky frame is still rock-star thin and while
a baseball cap now tames the once-wild afro, he remains young at heart.
What stood out about his time on the road was the girls, whom Zappa
referred to as "vegetation", and, of course, the sophistication
of the music.
of the bonuses of performing on stage was not just that you'd get well
paid but [you'd get) plenty of chicks," he grins without shame.
"Even though we were playing all of this brilliant music, we were
scanning the audience."
acted as a kind of benevolent father figure as well as band leader,
telling his musicians he wanted them to be happy, to go forth and have
fun, he also demanded excellence. After a year on tour with Zappa, Zavod
says that musically he feared nothing.
family man now. Marriage (to exmodel and writer Christine Graham) and
fatherhood have added another dimension to his life. Son Zak is 14 and
honours for every piano exam he ever sat, as a 10-year-old Zak performed
his own composition for an Australian Opera Foundation fundraiser.
"Really I had always been married to my music. With the birth of
my son, I became a more whole human being."
own training began at seven, when he displayed a precocious talent for
classical music. He tinkered, making up tunes on his Russian grandmother's
piano. Jazz grabbed hold of him at 14. It was fun and lured him from
talent got him on television at 16. He accumulated accolades and prizes
from TV talent shows. By 18, he'd formed the Allan Zavod Trio. In Melbourne
Tonight host Graham Kennedy gave them a big push forward.
when he graduated from the Melbourne Conservatorium in 1969 that Duke
Ellington heard him play. "I still needed a lot of rounding and
influence as a jazz musician," he admits. "Duke Ellington
was impressed because I had talent and because I was an Australian who
wanted to study in America."
recommended Boston's Berklee School of Music. Studying revealed to Zavod
a different side of musicians. What struck him was the humility of the
was overwhelmed and ecstatic about the people I was meeting, the minds
I was working with - Charlie Mariano, Herbie Hancock, Oscar Peterson.
They knew they were the best, but that meant they wanted to keep getting
better. They were almost childlike in their insatiable appetite for
Zavod will lead James Morrison and the Munich Symphony Orchestra through
another performance of Concerto For Trumpet, Jazz Trio And Orchestra.
Morrison is excited about it, describing Zavod as one of the zaniest
and most dedicated musicians he has worked with. To collaborate with
him, you have to meet on "Planet Zavod".
is his childlike exuberance and lack of inhibition that takes him that
step further," says Morrison. "His depth of knowledge about
music allows him td throw all caution to the wind and make amazing things
small parlor of his Victorian terrace, Zavod's grand piano lies idle,
waiting for the maestro's deft touch. Celebrity photos line his home
studio, evidence he has performed with and composed for "everyone",
even royalty. Last November, he was commissioned by the Red Cross to
compose the Concerto For Violin, Jazz Trio, Choir And Orchestra. The
work was released in Geneva for the centenary of the Nobel Peace Prize,
attended by UN dignitaries and US President George W Bush.
Zavod was invited to Palm Beach, Florida, to perform a Gershwin program
as part of piano manufacturer Steinway's centenary celebrations. Zavod
sat at the $300,000 blue Steinway, a specially built piano inlaid with
400 mother-of-pearl stars set on a blue background. Liberace would have
acclaim is also felt close to home. The University of Melbourne is currently
developing the Zavod Jazz Fusion Scholarship, open nationally to tertiary
students. It's the first of its kind.
George Benson, "Not only does he do Australia proud, he does jazz
music proud. He's a favourite son of everyone who knows him."
Allan with Tolkien's Hobbit from the stage production "The
Interview with Anna King Murdoch, The Age Newspaper Ė 30th April, 2001
the Melbourne-based pianist and composer, is about to enter a Herculean
week of performances. Not only will he give four performances of his "Concerto
for Trumpet, Jazz Trio and Orchestra" with trumpeter James Morrison
at the Sydney Opera House, but he will also play Gershwinís "Rhapsody
in Blue" with the Australian Pops Orchestra on Friday and Saturday
in the Melbourne Concert Hall, and then on May 11 and 12 at the Sydney
music at Melbourne University before being discovered by Duke Ellington,
who arranged for him to train at the prestigious Berklee School of Music
in Boston. Zavod later became a professor of music there, teaching jazz
harmony. Well-known as a jazz pianist in the United States where he lived
for 20 years (he was voted one of the top 10 jazz pianists in the US in
the 1980ís by the American Music bible, "Downbeat Magazine"
he played with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, the Glenn Miller Orchestra,
guitarist George Benson, toured and recorded with Frank Zappa and spent
eight years on world tours with Jean-Luc Ponty.
When he returned
to Australia in the mid-80ís, he began to find his composing voice Ė a
fusion of jazz and classical. His "Piano Concerto with Jazz Trio"
for the Bicentenial with the Australian Youth Orchestra in 1988, performed
at the Sydney Opera House, was his first work in this jazz-classical style.
After he wrote his "Concerto for Trumpet, Jazz Trio and Orchestra"
James Morrison wrote to him: "I am amongst the many who consider
you to be one of the great innovators in this compositional style and
unique in the way you can bring the orchestra and jazz musicians togetherÖ."
a difficult fusion" says Zavod. "In a lot of work Iíve heard,
one minute it is classical, another jazz, rather than being a true melding
of styles. Itís a wonderful problem to solve. Itís crossing boundaries
which I like to do." Zavod is now setting up a scholarship for young
musicians to promote classical-jazz fusion.
Council has given him a grant to write the trombone concerto for James
Morrison in this style. Zavod and Morrison are now planning a European
tour of the trumpet concerto, this up-coming trombone concerto and his
also written scores for 30 films and television productions here and in
the US, including Scott Hickís childrenís film "Sebastian and the
Sparrow"as well as for the highly successful Australian theatre production
"The Hobbit" which is soon going to the US.