Jazz has so many implicit connections with the many ethnic musics of the world that it’s surprising that--aside from the Brazilian and the Afro-Cuban connections--there haven’t been more efforts at linkage.
One of the few who have been trying is keyboardist Joe Zawinul. And the group he brought to Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesday night at the start of a six-day run brilliantly revealed the possibilities of coupling jazz, African music and--remarkably--contemporary music technology.
Zawinul, 64, is a co-founder (with Wayne Shorter) of Weather Report and the composer of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Birdland,” two of the most successful jazz tunes of the last few decades. He also has been, for most of his career, an inveterate explorer, constantly pushing his musical explorations into new territory.
The region he has arrived at with his current group is an utterly fascinating land of musical delights. And the full-house audience was captivated by every note, listening in rapt concentration as the music was playing, erupting in applause and cheers at the close of the numbers.
The compositions--none of which were identified, but which traced, for the most part, to Zawinul’s current album, “My People” on Escapade Records--were stylistically indefinable. Which is probably precisely the way he would like for it to be viewed.
At times the music rolled forward with the compelling momentum of straight-ahead jazz. At other times, it shifted into lilting African rhythms, which underscored soaring falsetto vocals from bassist Richard Bona, and strange, electronically modified and harmonized singing by Zawinul. On several numbers, the emphasis shifted to the Caribbean, with brisk guitar work from Gary Poulson and bright, declamatory singing and percussion from Manolo Badrenas. On another piece, drummer Paco Sery moved to the microphone to perform an astonishingly rapid display of mbira (thumb piano) playing.
It all added up to an irresistibly refreshing evening of music, with a menu vastly different from the usual jazz fare.
* Joe Zawinul Syndicate at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $15 cover tonight and Sunday, $25 cover for Friday’s late show; $18 cover Saturday, with two-drink minimum. On Friday, there is a Valentine’s Day package price for dinner and the show of $60. Zawinul performs two shows nightly, at 8:30 and 10:30.