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When composer-performer Norman Durkee was wrangling the music for the San Francisco edition of Teatro ZinZanni, the “Cirque de Gourmet” dinner-circus tent show that has played Seattle 15 years, he suggested folk singer Joan Baez close with Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”

“No Dylan,” she said firmly, adding an expletive for emphasis.

Ignoring her, Durkee started playing the song on the piano, anyway, and Baez casually chimed in. The crew stopped what it was doing.

“Everyone just broke down in tears,” remembers Durkee.

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Baez agreed to the song.

Anyone who has seen Teatro ZinZanni, which salutes Durkee’s 15 years of service Thursday with “Big Night” — a star-studded gala featuring a meal made by Tom Douglas and a passel of celebrity chefs — can sympathize with Baez. Durkee can slip music under your skin.

“I always thought I was in charge of the unconscious,” Durkee explains of his role at ZinZanni. “To create a feeling and a kind of ambience that you definitely weren’t in Seattle but in a completely different time and place.”

Wherever that surreal “there” happens to be, Durkee has occupied it since 1998, when Seattle’s Norm Langill, who also masterminded Bumbershoot, decided to meld European cabaret and medicine-show hokum for ZinZanni. That he called Durkee was no surprise. They both share a fondness for surrealistic whimsy and irreverent play.

“He can go anywhere, anytime, in any style,” says Langill of Durkee. “His music floats the emotional boat of the evening.”

A large man with a gnomish beard and a deadpan sense of humor (“the 20th century is my favorite, so far,” he quips), Durkee is a huge fan of Fellini and his musical accomplice Nino Rota, perfect for ZinZanni’s European cabaret style.

But Durkee, who performs as well as composes the music, is also fluent in Kurt Weill, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, jazz and good-time rock ’n’ roll. (Durkee plays the rollicking piano solo on Bachman Turner Overdrive’s 1973 megahit, “Takin’ Care of Business”).

Born in 1949, he wrote and performed in his own symphony before graduating from Tacoma’s Woodrow Wilson High School (“I sat next to Ted Bundy in trig,” he said). In 1967, he won a scholarship to Berklee College to study jazz. Over the years, he has led the band for Seattle Opera’s production of The Who’s “Tommy” (with a young Bette Midler), served as musical director of the Seattle production of “Hair,” and written three ballets for Pacific Northwest Ballet, including one inspired by Thelonious Monk.

“I’ve always had the cool jobs,” he put it.

Durkee’s mercurial mind also led him to the Chait Day agency in Los Angeles, writing wiseguy ad copy and music for Apple, Honda, Yamaha and others.

Last year, Durkee’s hectic schedule caught up with him. He suffered congestive heart failure and had a double bypass that nearly killed him. Since then, he has been living at an assisted-living facility while he recovers (saxophonist Hans Teuber took over at ZinZanni).

For “Big Night,” Durkee will collaborate with former ZinZanni performers Ann Wilson, the pipes department of the group Heart; Martha Davis, of the rock group The Motels; and opera diva Rachel DeShon.

“One Christmas, I had all 25 people from the show over for dinner,” recalls Durkee. “I had this long table and I remember sitting there thinking, ‘This is my Fellini Christmas.’ I don’t know if it can get much better. It’s been a great run.”

Paul de Barros (206-464-3247 or covers music at or follow him on Twitter @pdebarros

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