A jazz master in the ring
It is foggy late morning in Malibu, and Joe Zawinul is having one of his friendly slugfests. He’s pummeling a well-padded Phil Garcia, his trainer for the last two years, and jabbing at the speed bags in vigorous three-minute rounds on the patio of Malibu Health and Rehabilitation, with an ocean view across PCH.
This is not where some might expect to find the prizewinning jazz keyboardist and former co-leader of Weather Report. But Zawinul has long been a boxing fan and participant who insists, in his Austrian-inflected accent, “This is the greatest sport in the world. It’s all about timing, like in music.”
Sure enough, he punches up a steadily rhythmic storm, like a pugilistic percussionist. “This is the strongest 70-year-old you’ll ever find,” enthuses Garcia. “He’s got that snap. He’s a natural.”
If his boxing avocation is less known, Zawinul is a keyboardist of international renown. He left a strong imprint on jazz history through contributions to the bands of Cannonball Adderley and then in Miles Davis’ first electric groups. His long-standing Weather Report, co-led by saxophonist Wayne Shorter (and sometimes by bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius) from 1970 to 1985, is widely considered the most influential product of the ‘70s fusion era and one of the greatest jazz groups of all time.
And Zawinul, a confident character, ever in fighting form and unhindered by false modesty, would tell you so. “We are the greatest
Energies are suddenly converging for Zawinul. He recently released a long-awaited new solo album, “Faces & Places,” for the German Esc label that received a Grammy nomination this week for contemporary jazz album. And a two-CD Weather Report album has been reissued: “Live and Unreleased” attests to the group’s lingering influence on Zawinul’s own, underrated 1986 project “Dialects,” featuring a young Bobby McFerrin.
Zawinul has been primarily an Angeleno for most of his career, but because he tends not to interact with the local music scene -- instead drawing musicians from around the world -- and because he uses his Southern California home base as a launching pad for global travels, his local connections are easily overlooked.
It doesn’t help that he has rarely played here of late. He will perform for three nights starting next Friday at Catalina Bar & Grill, but he’s mostly plying his live trade elsewhere.
Born in Vienna, he came to the U.S. to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1958 and lived in New York throughout the ‘60s, but moved west in 1970, following bandmate Shorter. Zawinul and his wife, Maxine, wanted to raise their three sons in a better environment than their 104th Street apartment in Manhattan afforded, so they wound up in Pasadena for 15 years. Next came a move to Malibu, a few years back east in a spacious New York loft and then a return to the beach in 2000.
His cliff-hugging property in Malibu includes a new home studio. In the main room are Zawinul’s signature wraparound banks of keyboards.
Although the use of synthesizers in jazz has dropped off sharply in the last decade, Zawinul maintains a creative intensity with electric and digital keys, a tendency that may go back to his earliest days.
“I was an accordion player, so I had a lot of sense for folk music but also a sense for different sounds,” he says. “With synthesizers, it’s like a chessboard. You have thousands of combination possibilities. Here, more than on any other instrument, it is totally essential that you put your feeling into it.”
In an office, a grand piano is loaded down with music paper and awards are piling up: He has countless poll kudos from Down Beat, Swing Journal and other magazines, and, last year, the International Assn. of Jazz Educators convention in Long Beach gave him its first International Jazz Award. It’s true that Zawinul is, by now, the most important European jazz musician alive, but he’s happy to beat a path home to Malibu. “When I tell people I live in Malibu, they think of celebrities, but it’s really rustic,” he says, walking through a part of the yard where he plans to build a boxing gym. “That’s what I love about it.”
These days, Zawinul has found the most nurturing environment abroad. He spent the summer touring Europe and was home only briefly last month before returning for another European tour.
His unique, dynamic music has had trouble finding its place in the U.S. jazz market. Although groove-oriented and electric in texture, it is too raw and venturesome for the smooth jazz world, and too non-mainstream for traditional jazz formats.
“Faces & Places” has a long guest musician list, including pop singer Richard Page, noted tabla player Zakir Hussain and former Zap Mama singer Sabine Kabongo (now a member of the Zawinul band).
Like much of Zawinul’s music from Weather Report forward, this album relies heavily on the muse of improvisation. He goes so far as to report that “the whole record is an improvisation. I’m a form improviser. I’m not improvising above a song.”
Impressions from his travels inform the music, though not in terms of musical style. “Rooftops of Vienna,” for instance, recounts his experience of staying in the Vienna Hilton and looking out to find the neighborhood of his youth. But what comes out has a vaguely African flavor, and Zawinul features two African musicians in his band in addition to Kabongo: drummer Paco Serry and bassist Etienne Mbappe, both of whom he met when producing Malian Salif Keita’s 1991 album “Amen.”
Zawinul asserts that “a lot of what is so-called world music, from Africa, is Weather Report-influenced music. I found this out from these musicians. I heard them play this stuff so well, and then Paco and Etienne told me, ‘Yeah, man, we grew up with Weather Report, listening to it in the village. We didn’t even know it was a non-African band at the time.’ ”
A die-hard and restless improviser who is always trying to push forward, Zawinul gets a bit testy in talking about the move toward retro jazz values in the post-Wynton Marsalis era. “Jazz was always a moving target, man. It was like in boxing. You think you’ve got this together, and here’s something else. The great musicians -- Ellington, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie -- created a music that was the greatest art form of the 20th century. In the last 20 years, it has simmered down to something that is, at best, acceptable imitation. It’s a lot of recycling. It’s sad.”
Although still very much in the jazz ring, Zawinul’s aesthetics have long steered toward a big, unabashedly electric sensibility. His favorite jazz musicians have blended art with entertainment values, which can be said about Weather Report and Zawinul’s current band. “Duke Ellington had this wonderful, phenomenal band,” he says, “but they were always entertaining. It was the same with Cannonball’s band, the Horace Silver band and the Art Blakey band, and Miles Davis? Forget about it.
“With Weather Report, we even took that further, because we had a rock ‘n’ roll presentation. Thank God for rock ‘n’ roll. I’m not talking about the music so much. I’m a big Rolling Stones fan, but other than that, not so much. But what rock ‘n’ roll brought to the culture and the business as a whole is phenomenal. We can’t forget that.
“What Weather Report did was to bring some fine improvisational music. I don’t care what anybody calls us. We were so individual, you can just call it Weather Report music. In my case, what I’m doing now is just Zawinul music. That’s fine with me. I’m not talking about better or worse, but that’s just what it is.”
Spoken like a blunt, poetic fighter.
Where: Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood.
When: Friday through Jan. 19.
Contact: (323) 466-2210