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Now This Is a Jazz Club

The redesigned and cozier Catalina Bar & Grill has a bigger stage, a smaller bar and a better sound system.


Los Angeles jazz took a giant step toward confirming its position as one of the country's most important jazz arenas Tuesday night with the reopening of Catalina Bar & Grill.

For 10 years the room has been one of the Southland's two or three venues consistently providing world-class jazz. But the room was beginning to look a bit worn, the sound wasn't everything it should be, and the boxy, cluttered layout of stage and tables was not always conducive to easy listening.

All that's changed now. Although Catalina is still in the same location, with the same ownership and the same programming policy, the inside environment has now become a cozy listening area. The stage has been widened and the ceiling raised, an awkward, tiny bar area near the entrance has been almost completely removed, and virtually every seat in the club has an easy, unobstructed view of the stage.

The new audio system preserves the sound without coloring it, and the enhanced lighting array makes it possible to create subtle changes of mood. Painted in what was described, variously, as "salmon," "peach" or "burnt orange," Catalina now has both a brighter and a warmer feeling than in the past. And the elegant jazz qualities of the room are enhanced by an exhibition of superb jazz art, created in reverse aquatint etchings by artist Susan Dysinger.

The choice of the Zawinul Syndicate to open the new Catalina was a good one. Although the band was heard a little over a week ago at the Hollywood Bowl, its natural milieu is a club in which the music can have a direct, intimate contact with its listeners--a room precisely like Catalina.

A full-house crowd enjoyed every minute of the first set. Keyboardist Zawinul chose a collection of pieces that emphasized his band's capacity to generate an inexorably passionate flow of rhythm. By the second tune, the audience was hanging on, cheering the sudden breaks and quick recapitulations of rhythm, completely captivated by the music.

Zawinul, wearing his familiar multicolored cap, was his usual mix of phlegmatic concentration and sudden bursts of whimsy, interacting with his musicians, subtly directing the swift changes of musical direction. The pieces performed reflected the global view that has fascinated Zawinul in recent years. Filled with bits and pieces of offbeat rhythms, sampled sounds of exotic instruments, occasional snatches of prerecorded dialogue (including a particularly telling quote from Duke Ellington) and quick, spectacular rushes of sound, the music was ideal for the new Catalina.

If, as anticipated, the broad stylistic reach of Zawinul's music reflects a similarly broadened programming perspective for the club, Catalina will become an even more important venue than it has been in the past. "I think we finally have it the way we wanted it," said club owner Catalina Popescu. "There were a few days last week when I didn't think we'd finish it in time for the opening, but here we are, and I think we got it right."

The crowd ranged from young musicians--grooving with the music, awed by some of the virtuosic displays--to a mix of boomers and older jazz fans. It was a combination that reflects well for jazz, suggesting that, given an attractive room and appealing programming, jazz crowds can be as loyal and dependable as pop audiences.

"Man, this place is something else," said a thirtysomething listener, his foot tapping, a smile lighting his face as he listened to the music. "I've been to a lot of jazz clubs around the country, and I think we finally have one that can compare to the Village Vanguard [n Manhattan] and Yoshi's [in Oakland]. I'll definitely be back."


Catalina Bar & Grill, 1640 N. Cahuenga, Hollywood. (213) 466-2210. This week: the Zawinul Syndicate. Cover $15 tonight and Sunday, $18 Friday and Saturday, with two-drink minimum purchase. The McCoy Tyner Trio opens Tuesday.

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