A Word Sums Up Mothers Of Invention: Genius
By Frank Kofsky
The only word for Frank Zappa is "Genius."
Just as the only word for the concert (actually more of a homecoming celebration) that he and the Mothers of Invention performed Saturday, 9 December, at the Pasadena Civic, is "magnificent." Unless you happen to prefer "superb."
Zappa and the Muthas offer living testimony to the Marxian (dialectical) proposition that the universe is too complex to be chopped up into tidy little abstract definitional pigeonholes. How do you classify them? (Hint: you don't!) Are the Muthas a rock band? Waal, bassist Roy Estrada, drummer Billy Mundi and vocalist Ray Collins (who was reunited with Zappa & Co. for the concert) all come out of rock backgrounds.
But reedmen Bunk Gardner, Ian Underwood, "keyboard wizard" Don Preston (Zappa's half-facetious description), who also recently rejoined the band, and trumpeter-percussionist-vocalist Jimmy Carl Black ("he's the Indian in the band") are stone jazz musicians.
And, judging from the collectively improvised passages the Mothers played, if Frank didn't mind watching his band and himself slowly starve to death, he could easily have the most exciting small avant-garde jazz unit on the Coast.
(Using amplifiers for the horns lends a whole additional dimension of weirdness to their already freaky sound. Some of the new jazz musicians in the East may ultimately pick up on this new development – if they can ever find enough work to be able to afford the equipment!)
If this situation wasn't already sufficiently confused, Zappa himself shoots off in more directions simultaneously than the eye can follow or the brain comprehend. His playing is basically out of the blues guitar tradition; but his listening takes in everything from iconoclastic jazz pianist Cecil Taylor, saxophonist Eric Dolphy and Wes Montgomery to the Crows (lest you forget, they had the biggest hit single in L.A. in 1963, "Gee") and Edgard Varèse, whose statement. "The present day composer refuses to die," furnishes Zappa with his musical motto.
It isn't unusual, moreover, for one of Frank's compositions to shift with lightning rapidity (how's that for a novel simile?) from some dog rock and roll tune of five or ten years ago to an excerpt from Stravinsky (with Varèse, another Zappa favorite), and from there into an unbelievable frenetic interlude of collective and individual jazz blowing. Diversity, thy name is Zappa!
Like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, the late John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Sun Ra, one of Zappa's most striking abilities is that of orchestrating men as well as music. I watched the Muthas rehearse during the final two days before the concert, and marveled at the disciplined way in which Zappa put his men through their paces.
If you were as impressed as I was with the precision of the Muthas in concert, be assured that the tightness was achieved by one means and one means only – hours of hard work on the part of everyone.
Zappa's ability to extract every last ounce that his musicians have to give manifests itself in a variety of other ways as well. Take Bunk Gardner (but don't take him too far; Frank may want him back). In an interview for "Jazz & Pop" (September and October issues), Frank told me that, when he joined the band, Bunk was playing what was in essence a late-'50's bebop style tenor saxophone (echoes of which still persist). Now, however, Zappa has Bunk blowing flute, two clarinets and three saxes, all (save perhaps the tenor) in a convincing neo-Coltrane manner.
Such versatility is characteristic of what Frank demands – and somehow obtains – from the band. The newest (and youngest) Murtha is Ian Underwood, who joined originally as a replacement for organist-pianist Don Preston when Don quit to return to L.A. Now that Don is back, Ian is playing alto saxophone – he is one of the most persuasive of the young white saxophonists I've come across – and doubling on flute. But even that's nothing.
Jim Black moves effortlessly from trumpet to tympani to drums to vocals and back again; Don Preston, when he isn't at his keyboards or whacking away at one of the Muthas' fantastic collection of Oriental gongs, is operating a synthesizer or some other hunk of electronic gadgetry; everyone in the band is apparently able to play drums with some competence; and, to top it all off, equipment handler Jim Sherwood sings, plays tenor and soprano saxophone, drums and guitar (at least in rehearsals)! "It's a shame we don't have the money to be able to utilize Jim properly," Frank remarks wistfully. Man, when the EQUIPMENT HANDLER in your group can work out on two or three axes, you KNOW that's got to be a heavy band!
For his concert appearance, the only one in Southern California for several months, Zappa wisely decided to avoid material already available on LP, though this caused some grumbling from those who were disappointed because the Muthas didn't play "your favorites, the songs you like to hear" (as Ray Collins' routine on "America Drinks and Goes Home" has it).
Instead, the program was divided between devastatingly funny renditions of rock and roll Moldy Oldies (and moldy they were: "Gee," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Houn' Dog," "Shotgun" and a version of "Baby Love" choreographed a la those somethin' else Supremes) and some very extended and complex instrumentals that gave ample blowing room to all the soloists in the band.
Zappa himself played an exceptionally fine improvisation on the last of these, a composition he announced (seriously?) as "Orange County Lumber Truck," for which he put the seldom-heard (because it is difficult to master) Vox wah-wah pedal to good use.
Others may have been disgruntled because the Muthas didn't play more selections from their LP, but I, for two, was delighted. Chances are the things heard in Pasadena won't find their way onto recordings – at least, not at the length played that night. Would that more groups would accept the implicit challenge that Zappa has thrown them and devise a concert repertoire that didn't depend entirely on songs from their albums. But then, how many bands are there – jazz or rock – that can measure up to the Zappa level?
At some point during their rehearsals it struck me that, given their versatility and proficiency, most of the Muthas could probably leave the band and earn five times as much or more working in the recording studios. That they prefer instead to remain tells you as much about the loyalty that Frank Zappa inspires and the sense of fulfillment (and sheer fun!) involved in playing his music as any sentence I could devise. Come to think of it, were I in Zappa's shoes I could think of no tribute I'd rather have.
* * *
Remember that charming poster of the Muthas that used to leer down at you from atop the Strip? You know, the one with the Muthas dressed up in drag, similar to the Rolling Stones on the cover of their "Can You See Your Mother Standing in the Shadows, Baby?" LP; and the name of the group tastefully spelled out in garbage, satirizing the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had "Beatles" spelled in flowers.
That picture, as you may have heard, was also to serve as the cover for the third Muthas LP, "We're Only In It For The Money." "Everybody we showed it to dug it," Frank Zappa explains, "except for Capitol Records."
The upshot was that Capitol was so miffed at this insult to "their product" the Beatles that attorneys for the firm sought and obtained an injunction preventing sales of the Muthas album with that cover. Consequently, a new cover had to be shot, printed and glued to the albums, all of which has caused a postponement of its release.
Nonetheless, I was able to get to hear the album once, though not under conditions that made close listening possible. Overall, I noticed much more emphasis on intricate vocal work than in the previous two, with Zappa himself singing most of the parts via overdubbing.
Thematically, "We're Only In It for the Money" also varies from its predecessors, in that it strikes out at fair-weather hippies about as savagely as the other two hit at Plastic People. More than that I can't say until I have an opportunity to listen to the album intensively a few times.
* * *
During the "Jazz & Pop" interview with Frank that I referred to earlier, Zappa mentioned that he thought that some of the Muthas' material had influenced recent works by the Beatles and Stones. At the time I tended to discount this notion – but since then, the evidence continues to roll in that Zappa is indeed exerting a quiet but nevertheless very real pull on the current rock scene. Some examples:
Have you looked inside Eric Burdon's new LP, "Winds of Change"? If you do, you'll note the identical circular screen pattern focused on one of Eric's eyeballs that Zappa has centered on one of HIS eyeballs on the interior of the "Absolutely Freeeee" jacket. (What makes this plagiarism worse is that both albums were released by MGM!)
Add to that that, as Mario Perez, boy rock critic, pointed out to me, the guitar riff that Eric uses on his "Monterey" single is precisely the riff that introduces the "Invocation and Ritual Dance to the Young Pumpkin" (whew! ) on "Absolutely Freeeee." Too bad that he feels compelled to be so imitative, because in person Eric and the Animals are a pleasure to watch.
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