"When I see a fighter, like when I hear someone play music, I know right away if the motherfucker has got it or not," he says gruffly, his Austrian accent still strong after four decades in the States.
Aware that the guest at his downtown Manhattan loft is from Phoenix, the keyboard maestro cites ex-champ Michael Carbajal as an example of what he's talking about.
"Like when he came off the deck to hit Humberto 'Chiquita' Gonzalez with the left hook," he says of the memorable 1993 clash between the two mighty mini-flyweights. "Like it was choreographed. All his years of work in that one moment.
"But no matter how long you've been playing, no matter how good you've gotten, you still have to play your rudiments, your exercises. Same in boxing. Boxing is exactly like music--if you don't do it one day, you'll feel it.
"Repetition, jab, jab, jab. Get the right footing, right position, right distance. When I box, this is for me time to think. When you box, you have to think. Same with music."
It's early March in New York City, and Zawinul has just returned from Los Angeles and a trip to the Grammy Awards. His nominated two-CD release, the Zawinul Syndicate's stellar World Tour (Zebra Records), lost in the contemporary-jazz category to Pat Metheny's Imaginary Day.
The 67-year-old Zawinul is taking a short break at home before he and one of his sons, Ivan, fly to Africa for 10 days of seminars and performances. "I'm an official goodwill ambassador for Austria to 16 African countries," he says. "But I really don't come from a culture--the world is my place. I don't listen to black music. I don't listen to music at all, not even my own, after I'm done making it."
During his break from touring, Zawinul has been working out at a Manhattan boxing gym at least twice a week, swimming, tending to business, and, most important to him at the moment, working at his home recording studio on his latest creation.
In music and words, it tells the horrific story of the Austrian concentration camp called Mauthausen. It was a vile place where 122,000 people lost their lives to the Nazi regime between 1938 and 1945.
Zawinul performed the piece live on August 8 before 8,000 people at the site of the death camp, located in a pastoral rural setting a few miles from the Danube. That day marked the 60th anniversary of the camp's opening.
"Mauthausen" is a haunting, disturbing work with deceptively benign folk melodies that Zawinul first improvised, then carefully crafted on his bank of electronic keyboards. The sampled sounds that weave in and out include the screaming of the condemned, barking dogs, crying babies, marching soldiers and other jarring aural images.
For Zawinul, the work marks the most significant achievement of his long career. That in itself speaks volumes.
To say he is one of jazz's all-time greats is a given. His musical vision has been huge, his stew of ideas profound, yet accessible.
Where to start?
Zawinul wrote two of jazz's most beloved, enduring and covered compositions--"Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" for Julian "Cannonball" Adderly in the mid-1960s, and "Birdland," first performed by his band Weather Report, in the mid-1970s.
If he'd wanted to, Joe Zawinul could have crafted a tidy career propelled by the success of "Mercy." And no one would have blamed him if he'd milked Weather Report's reservoir of popularity with "greatest hits" shows after the group disbanded in 1986.
But that's not Zawinul's way.
Like his kindred spirit, trumpet player Miles Davis, Zawinul is one of those musicians who will not, cannot rest on his laurels. He craves new sounds, new experiences, new musical partners. As a result, his band these days--the Zawinul Syndicate--is as alive and vibrant as anything out there.
He has performed with many of the idiom's greats--Adderly, Davis, Dinah Washington, Joe Williams, Wayne Shorter and fellow pianist Herbie Hancock. His keyboard playing is equal amounts of spirit and dexterity. In other words, he's got soul, he's got chops.
One thing that defines Zawinul's greatness is his ability to make his sophisticated music inviting to anyone with an open mind and ear. Take 1977's "Birdland," a tune so catchy that it's still standard fare for the nation's high-school marching bands.
The song starts the Heavy Weather album with a hypnotic seven-note keyboard bass line that grabs the listener by the throat. After several seconds, the rest of the band (sans co-leader Wayne Shorter) kicks in, led by the mercurial Jaco Pastorious, who plays a brilliant bass line on his instrument's high end.
Finally, the masterful Shorter comes in on his tenor saxophone--overdubbed on several tracks playing the same line. Zawinul tosses in some syncopated chords on an acoustic piano. The tension builds. Pastorious resolves the original theme with an impossibly funky line. Surprisingly, the famous "Birdland" theme doesn't kick in until two minutes have passed.