Not to be confused with the American hard rock band fronted by Randy Jackson, this Zzebra (complete with an extra 'z' tacked on for good measure) was at the front of the British progressive / jazz rock scene in the mid 70's. The band was considered a super group of sorts in that it brought together Dave Quincy (sax, piano) and Terry Smith (guitars) from the jazz group IF, with Loughty Amao (reeds and percussion) from the Afrobeat outfit Osibisa. The original lineup was rounded out by Gus Yeadon (piano, guitar, flute, lead vocals), Liam Genockey (drums) and John McCoy (bass), with both Genockey and McCoy later going on to comprise the rhythm section in Gillan.
This excellent double CD re-issue from Angel Air Records brings together the groups first two albums, their self titled debut released in 1975 and Panic issued the following year. In addition to being released on CD for the first time both of these discs feature previously unreleased bonus tracks culled from John McCoy's archives. It's interesting to note that while both of these albums essentially feature different lineups (more on that in a bit) the music they left behind is a superb, eclectic blending of Afrobeat, jazz and rock that still sounds both remarkably cohesive and fresh thirty five years down the road.
The debut album offers plenty of variety as they throw down some serious funk on the instrumental cut "Mah Yong", a track propelled by the lush sounds of the Fender Rhodes coupled with driving horns, some wah-wah drenched sax playing and a searing solo from Smith. The boisterous "Spanish Fly" features a great Afro percussive arrangement as the horns dance in and around the exotic sounding rhythms until Smith steps to the forefront to unleash another extended solo that starts out sounding quite jazzy, before erupting in a flurry of perfectly executed notes. Likewise check out the extended percussive workout on "Amuso Fi" which has a real Santana like vibe to it as once again the notes flow forth from the Rhodes piano like droplets of morning dew. "Rainbow Train" and "Hungry Horse" conclude the record in typically strong fashion. Both tracks feature some excellent, albeit brief, soulful vocals from Gus Yeadon, but the latter is another instrumental showcase that finds the band as a whole firing on all cylinders. This track is highlighted by some absolutely torrid sax and guitar work. The bonus tracks, single mixes of "Mr J" and "Amuso Fi" don't really add much to the overall picture, However "Zardoz (Beethoven Opus '92)" is an interesting curio in that Quincy's arrangement of the track was penned for the John Boorman directed cult flick of the same name.
Moving over to disc two for Panic finds guitarist Terry Smith being replaced by seventeen year old Steve Byrd, Yeadon out in favor of new keyboard player Tommy Eyre and vocalist Alan Marshall being added to the fold.
The title track starts kicks things off on a high note as this song almost picks up where "Hungry Horse" left off as far as intensity is concerned. The momentum drops considerably on the second cut; a rather insipid instrumental run through of the old Righteous Brothers hit "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling". Save for some nice acoustic work from Byrd this bloated six and half minute version could have been dropped in favor of one or two of the bands own songs. All is not lost however as the group picks up the pace considerably and returns to doing what they do best on the funky sounding "Karrola" and the slow to mid tempo thrust of "Liamo". The atmospheric Tommy Eyre instrumental "Death By Drowning" and "Tree" once again finds them exploring more subdued moods although "Tree" does feature a superb, funky middle section complete with a dazzling, extended synth solo from Eyre. Perhaps due to the fact that the band commenced recordings for this album without a guitarist in place (Steve Byrd's contribution to Panic is minimal) would explain the predominantly keyboard driven sound of Panic compared to their debut which was more of even balance of guitar and keys. That being said, when given the opportunity to demonstrate his chops as he does on the final track "La Si-Si-La So So" it's certainly clear that even at just seventeen the young Steve Byrd was already a formidable talent on the guitar. Speaking of guitarists the alternate mix of "Put A Light On Me" includes a cameo from none other than six string legend Jeff Beck who adds a few of his trademark licks to this alternate version. They also tacked on a pretty cool live version of "Liamo" to round out the set.
As far as being the better of the two, I'd have to say the debut record is the stronger of the two and contains the most fireworks. Whereas Panic is still a solid, although more subdued album overall, it's one which found the band in transition, so the performances don't come off being quite as consistent.
Zzebra would soldier on for two more albums before eventually calling it a day at the close of the 70's, but if you really want to get a feel for what this exciting and underrated British band were all about then this excellent two fer one reissue is the place to start.
Disc One: Zzebra
1) Cobra Woman
2) Mr. J
3) Mah Yong
5) Spanish Fly
6) Amuso Fi
7) Rainbow Train
8) Hungry Horse
9) Mr. J (single mix) – bonus track
10) Amuso Fi (single mix) – bonus track
11) Zardoz (Beethoven Opus 92) – bonus track
Disc Two: Panic
2) You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling
5) Death by Drowning
7) Put A Light On Me
8) La Si Si-La So So
9) Karrola (unreleased alternative mix)
10) Put A Light On Me (unreleased alternative mix with Jeff Beck)
11) Liamo (live)