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Zao - 2009 - "Ethnic 3 Live"

(50.28, Musea Records)

TRACK LIST:                   

1.  Traditions 0:37
2.  Irgalom  6:36 
3.  Morea 9:28 
4.  Felix 6:30 
5.  Trebla 6:20 
6.  Elec-Trop 9:05 
7.  Padirac 3:47 
8.  Ethnic 6:57
9.  Traditions-2 0:37


Faton Cahen – piano, synthesizer, synthy-bass
Yoch’ko Seffer – saxophones, flute, tarogato
Francois Causse – drums, percussion

Prolusion. Based in France, ZAO is to all intents and purposes an offshoot of Magma, since Hungarian-born flutist and saxophonist Yoch’ko ‘Jeff’ Seffer and keyboardist Fran?ois ‘Faton’ Cahen were members of the first incarnation of the seminal French outfit (which they left in 1972). Zao’s first album was released in 1973, with the band splitting up in 1976, then briefly reforming in 1994 for the album “Akhenaton”. Then in 2006 the band made yet another comeback with the studio album “Ethnic Duo”, and two live albums, “in Tokyo” (2007) and this “Ethnic 3”, recorded in 2008 at the Triton aux Lilas, near Paris.

Analysis. Even if Zao can be considered as belonging to the extended Magma ‘family’, Zeuhl fans should not expect anything sounding too close to Christian Vander’s legendary outfit. As a matter of fact, “Ethnic 3” belongs more to jazz than rock territory, and I am not talking about ‘conventional’ jazz-rock/fusion either. It is very much an experimental album, based on the three members’ individual skills more than on cohesive structures, and therefore needs very careful, dedicated listening in order to be fully appreciated, and not dismissed as mere random noise. The album’s name is also quite revelatory in itself. The band’s free-jazz sound is indeed tinged with wide-ranging ethnic influences – Causse’s African-style percussion, and Yochk’o Seffer’s use of the tarogato, a traditional Hungarian woodwind instrument with a long history (as pointed out by the liner notes). Unlike 2007’s “In Tokyo”, the band’s previous live album, there is no bassist involved here, and virtuoso Gerard Prevost is replaced by samples when strictly necessary. However, the three musicians are more than enough to produce an amount of music that, while not exactly easy or smooth, rarely descends into that near-inaccessibility that is often associated with free-jazz. While actual melody is somewhat thin on the ground, there are some moments of great beauty to be found, and the dissonance quotient is kept to a minimum. The album has a circular structure, as it opens and closes with the same very short item, Traditions, which in half a minute manages to give all the three band members some space. From a compositional point of view, the tracks are all rather unstructured, which of course will not come as a surprise for those familiar with free-jazz, but might instead come as a disappointment to those expecting something more in the Magma mould. The crashing, cascading sound of cymbals seems to be a constant on “Ethnic 3 Live”, as it appears in quite a few of the tracks, creating an intriguing sound effect that complements Faton Cahen’s expressive piano work and Seffer’s intense sax excursions. Irgalom, which occupies the second slot, is where the two main ethnic strains of the album come together, with the rich, wooden African vibe of Causse’s percussion and the Eastern European suggestions of Seffer’s woodwinds, further enhanced by the ethereal sound of the glockenspiel and some deep, solemn drum rolls – and Cahen’s piano flurries competing with percussion. Two of the nine tracks on the album, Morea and Elec-Trop, approach 10 minutes in length. Morea could indeed be singled out as the album’s centre piece, and not only because of its running time. The middle section of the track is taken up by an unusually listenable drum solo (the scourge of many a live show), where Fran?ois Causse’s outstanding technique is pushed to the fore without the excesses generally associated with solo spots. Indeed, Causse’s solo here is easy to appreciate even for non-drummers, thanks to the clarity of the sound and the understated nature of his playing, the track ends with an unusually melodic, with wistful-sounding sax and piano, and a beautiful cascade of cymbals fading until silence. On the other hand, Elect-Trop (far from being electronic, as the title may suggest) is sparse and rather dissonant, with the instruments emoting separately over occasional ambient noises, veering from slow to more dynamic – and probably a bit too long as well. The oddly fluid, flute-based Felix is underpinned by Cahen’s quietly assertive piano; while the keyboardist steps into the limelight with Trebla, punctuated by the evocative tinkling of the glockenspiel, and featuring sampled sounds that add a further ethnic touch to the brilliant percussion work – as well as a slow, melancholy sax solo. After the dynamic Padirac, in which Cahen’s piano doubles up as a rhythmic instrument, Ethnic (almost) closes the album on a dissonant, sometimes even cacophonic note. While not always easy on the ear, “Ethnic 3 Live” is definitely worth checking out for anyone who likes challenging music executed with flawless technique, but without leaving emotion by the wayside. It may require several listening sessions to be fully taken in, but in the end persistence will definitely be rewarded.

Conclusion. A very accomplished album, “Ethnic 3 Live” will especially appeal to fans of the more experimental forms of jazz, as well as lovers of exotic percussion. It is, however, a much more understated effort than anything associated with the Zeuhl subgenre, and as such might disappoint those who are looking for music characterised by the bombastic, over-the-top approach of Magma and their followers.

RB=Raffaella Berry: December 30, 2009
The Rating Room

Related Links:

Musea Records


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