Blues Player Branches Into Rap Genre

<i> Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for Westside/Valley Calendar. </i>

Jimmy Z. may feel the blues at his core, leading his weekly jams with the Capitol Homeboys on harmonica or saxophone or flute. But his gig at a Burbank studio two weeks ago was destined for another musical direction: mixing rap with hard rock.

In a few minutes, Slash, from Guns N’ Roses, was due to arrive with his guitar. And rapper Eazy-E of NWA would soon be here recording his vocals, all for an as-yet-untitled song produced and co-written by Jimmy Z.

Jimmy Z., whose full name is Jimmy Zavala, had written the song with Guns N’ Roses drummer Matt Sorum for use on Eazy-E’s upcoming solo album. Zavala had already earned some experience combining hip-hop effects with traditional pop on his new “Muzical Madness” album, after a career playing alongside Rod Stewart, Tom Petty, the Eurythmics and others.


“Two years ago when I first got together with Eazy, a lot of people didn’t even know how big rap had gotten,” said Zavala, sitting outside the studio while Sorum prepared to record his drum parts. “I was having a ball with these guys, playing in the grooves I like, with ‘70s-style funk. It was fun and different.

“I’d say what I was doing to Rod or the Eurythmics, and they’d go: ‘Ugh, that rap!’ And I’d just feel myself floating away like Peter Pan, going: ‘I’ll see you guys. I’m going off with this.’ ”

His new album, released by Ruthless Records, is a wildly diverse song collection produced by NWA member and producer Dr. Dre, who also raps on the “Funky Flute” single. But alongside the driving hip-hop tracks are such traditional rhythm-and-blues numbers as “Summertime” and “Reperbahn.”

Scattered across the various musical styles are some sexually suggestive lyrics undoubtedly influenced by NWA’s continued proximity. “I couldn’t help it,” Zavala said, laughing. “I would write some lyrics, and Dre would go: ‘Naw, it ain’t dirty enough.’ OK.”

He added, “Sometimes I would be singing, and there would be a craps game going on behind Dre, with a lot of yelling and screaming in the booth.”

The suggestion that Zavala might somehow fit into a rap mold came innocently enough from producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd), who half-jokingly told Zavala that his deep, gravelly voice and rhyming song lyrics might work well in that genre. Eventually, a tape was passed along to Ruthless owner Eazy-E by Gary Ballen, Zavala’s manager and, conveniently, an executive at Ruthless.

The resulting album is a dramatic shift from his first album, a more traditional instrumental collection of blues, rock and funk recorded a few years ago for IRS Records’ No Speak series. But, Zavala said, other harp players have so far been supportive of these strange new rap tracks he’s been recording.

“Anything that expands the avenues for the harmonica,” he explained.

His own appreciation for the harmonica and saxophone came while growing up in Sacramento, listening to his older brother’s Rolling Stones records, and later discovering the earlier blues originators. By the early 1980s, Zavala was living in West Hollywood and playing regularly with Stewart on tour and in the studio. “It was commando training.”

Later came gigs with Ron Wood, Petty and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, who called from Paris and invited Zavala to “blow wind down bits of metal.”

But, he added: “I always tried to do my own thing. I didn’t come to L. A. to be a sideman. It worked out OK, but I was always working on songs, putting my band together when Rod was on tour.”

His Capitol Homeboys, a five-person act that also includes Sorum, performs Monday nights at FM Station in North Hollywood.

Meanwhile, the video for the album’s “Funky Flute,” with Zavala’s instrumental, Dre’s rap vocals and a smooth R&B; groove, has won some airplay on “Yo! MTV Raps.”

“It is a little weird, in a way,” Zavala said. “You never know in this business where you’re going to come up. That’s why I play with everybody, and every kind of music. Now here I am with NWA, so that’s where I should probably be.”

MOZART MASS: A celebration of Mozart’s music will be presented on the 200th anniversary of his death Thursday with a live performance by conductor Sir Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic, broadcast at 10 a.m. on KCRW (89.9 FM).

Vocal performers on the program, which will include Mozart’s complete Roman Catholic “Mass,” will be soprano Arleen Auger, contralto Cecilia Bartoli, tenor Vinson Cole, bass Rene Pape and the chorus of the Vienna Opera Concert Society.