Di•a•lects is a beautifully complicated learning experience like no other.
After playing on Miles Davis’ genre-defining stretch of jazz-funk albums in the late ’60s and early ’70s; after defining and destroying the first wave of jazz fusion with Wayne Shorter in Weather Report; after becoming one of the most reputable and accomplished jazz keyboardists of his era, the Austrian musician Joe Zawinul took a had left turn and dropped a singular, to-this-day baffling album of electronic music. Released in 1986, Di•a•lects plays like a musical representation of Marshall McLuhan’s global village. Zawinul programmed and performed all the music—save the vocals—on an ensemble of drum machines and synthesizers, positioning himself as the leader of a new musical language that ravenously consumes the art of non-European cultures and spits it back out through a horde of less-than-ideal electronic gear.
From the giddy chants and synthetic horn lines that open “The Harvest,” it’s clear that Zawinul relishes in this new practice. Whatever optimism he might’ve had about a musical future based around globalization and new technology was already crumbling around him at the hands of neocolonialism, military occupations and the environmental ravishments of late capitalist production. The 30 years since the album’s release have only seen these conditions worsened and further exposed, such that it’s tempting to read Di•a•lects as a gross misstep of political agnosticism and cultural appropriation.
These negative conceptual underpinnings are furthered by the album’s only guest musicians: its singers. The vocal quartet (made up of Broadway star Carl Anderson, the American vocalists Dee Dee Bellson and Alfie Silas and, most curiously, Bobby McFerrin) plays an important foil to Zawinul’s consciously ahuman approach to his machinery. Their ensemble chants and rapid-fire delivery are meant to represent the “real,” an earthy suaveness that draws on a primitivized view of western African music. Add to this Zawinul’s lyrics written in his own made-up, goofy language, and the worst ends of this come off as uncomfortably parodic representations of a too-often misjudged musical tradition.
This is, however, only one way to understand Di•a•lects. Whatever Zawinul’s intentions surrounding the album were, the realities of its music are more complicated than a simple conscious/problematic binary would suggest. For every moment where Zawinul sounds like he’s cheerily chopping down rainforests or cutting the opening ribbon for a sweat shop, there’s a musical phrase that sounds like the literal dismemberment of these institutions at their own hands. At the music’s most exaggerated, the manic keyboard lines and electronic percussion offer no question as to the ridiculousness and inevitable unsustainability of the very materials and practices that create them.
Even for Zawinul, for whom dissonance and arrhythmia were no feared concepts, the playing here is objectively adventurous. It’s precisely the moments where an eerie nonhumanity takes over where Di•a•lects succeeds most. “Zeebop” is driven by a splashy, cymbal-heavy percussion loop, the tempo knob turned right past the point of real playability. It sounds unnatural and anxiety-ridden, a feeling continued on “The Great Empire.” Rather than offer a true ode to totalitarianism, the titular reference to an all-powerful global state is delivered through stiff vocoders and nearly industrial synthesizer sweeps. Mentally alter just a few of the jolly harmonies into darker minor chords and the resulting effect is a bleak, apocalyptic vision of what a technology-driven future (or present) might hold.
This real-time collapse of a utopian vision culminates in the album’s final track, the ballad “Peace.” Roughly 75 percent of the track is a blissful send-off for Zawinul’s nonexistent tribe, but littered throughout are moments of severely unsettling music. On top of the regal harmonies, Zawinul’s chirpy keyboard solos have no problem lingering on off notes or descending through a scale that is, at best, tangentially related to the home key. While the overall tone is respite, “Peace” employs far too many ugly musical gestures to offer any real calm. Like an unknowing precursor to the self-conscious, nuanced embrace of techno-fascism by artists like James Ferraro, Holly Herndon and Daniel Lopatin, the best parts of Di•a•lects force the listener to question their own implicitness in the very structures that they might criticize the artist for supposedly promoting.
In a purely musically, art-for-the-sake-of-art lens, Di•a•lects is a near-masterpiece. If an underground artist dropped this music tomorrow on a tape label like Orange Milk or Hausu Mountain, fans and journalists would revel in the album’s ability to embrace irony and kitsch while still holding on to a technical and refined approach to jazz improvisation. The album’s oddity hasn’t faded a bit, and the conceptual closeness between Zawinul’s global approach and hordes of vaporwave or other internet-based genres shows a continuity in Western musicians’ inability to truly deal with their own imbalanced cultural exchanges. Far from a perfect album, Di•a•lects is a beautifully complicated learning experience like no other.