Allan Zavod: FROM ZAPPA TO A-LIST. Allan Zavod has jammed with jazz stars and rocked with Frank Zappa. Now he's firing up the classical music world, writing concertos where jazz trumpets lead orchestras.

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keyboard wizard Allan ZavodFrom Zappa To A-list

Article by: Jeanette Leigh;   (Photography: Robert Banks)
Featured in The Sunday Life Magazine - Sunday Age (Melbourne)
Sunday January 13, 2002

Allan Zavod has jammed with jazz stars and rocked with Frank Zappa. Now he's firing up the classical music world, writing concertos where jazz trumpets lead orchestras.

BACK IN 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.

Sitting 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. Allan Zavod on tour with Frank Zappa "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.

"He 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."

The Melbourne 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 main ambitions."

So Zavod 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 problem solver".

"I'm 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."

JAZZ MUSOS 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.

Zavod's eclectic musical education has groomed him for this new adventure. He has more than 30 film scores (Death Of A Soldier, Howling III, 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.

Now he can add full-scale orchestra to his long list. Last May, trumpet virtuoso James Morrison Allan Zavod with James Morrison: Concerto For Trumpet, Jazz Trio And Orchestra 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.

"In 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."

Benson maintains that Zavod is one of his favourite musicians. "We love to jam together," he says.
Allan Zavod jamming with friend Guitarist George Benson
"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.

"That's what impresses me about him. Most jazz musicians don't have that kind of discipline. Allan's chops [technique] is exceptional," he says.

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Allan Zavod is now at the forefront of composing a brand-new style - jazz classical fusion

THE LIBIDINOUS YEAR 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.

"One 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."

While Zappa 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.

He's a family man now. Marriage (to ex-model and writer Christine Graham) and fatherhood have added another dimension to his life. Son Zak is 14 and also gifted. Awarded honours for every piano exam he ever sat, as a 10-year-old Zak performed his own composition for an Australian Opera Foundation fundraiser.

Zavod says, "Really I had always been married to my music. With the birth of my son, I became a more whole human being."

Zavod's 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 classical music

Zavod's 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.

Allan Zavod with Bert Newton on Melbourne Tonight - hosted by Graham Kennedy

In Melbourne Tonight host Graham Kennedy gave them a big push forward.

It was 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."

Ellington recommended Boston's Berklee School of Music. Studying revealed to Zavod a different side of musicians. What struck him was the humility of the great players.

"I 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 knowledge."

In April, 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".

"It is his childlike exuberance and lack of inhibition that takes him that step further," says Morrison. "His depth of knowledge about music allows him to throw all caution to the wind and make amazing things happen."

In the small parlour 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.

In December, 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 loved it.

But his 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.

Says George Benson, "Not only does he do Australia proud, he does jazz music proud. He's a favourite son of everyone who knows him."