After Grand Wazoo – where to?
By Alan Watson
At Festival Hall on Thursday June 28, the Melbourne audience gave Frank Zappa a restrained reception. Considering it was an almost full house, it would seem that the crowd's expectations were not met by the group. Maybe Zappa freaks are cooler than the audience that gave both Muddy Waters and the Stones a rapturous response, but at no time did Frank or the group generate a great enthusiasm. The crowd remained stolid.
Maybe much of this can be explained by the conservative nature of many Melbournites. Living in isolation from the mainstream of creative American music, whether it be rock, jazz, or blues, Melbournites tends to know what he likes, and likes what he knows. Music for them is a vicarious interest, based on the half dozen or so albums they may have of any particular group. They base their ideas and perceptions about a musician on perhaps six recorded hours of his creative output. This results in conservatism, a reverence for what has been done in the past, and very often an inability to cope with any stylistic changes the artist may wish to innovate. Although none of the ideological circumstances surrounding the initial reception of Dylan's move from folk to rock in the mid sixties are applicable here, there could be some analogies drawn.
Melbournites do not go to unfortunately infrequent concerts witness an act of creation, but experience an affirmation. They not go so much to hear Zappa Festival Hall, but in the hope experiencing, in a more intimate context, what they already know – say Zappa at Fillmore.
If this affirmation is not gained, Melbournites are bemused, buggered bewildered. They feel cheated, down, even deceived, like the audiences to hear Dylan with a rock group.
So when Zappa presented a programme of mainly new work, and significantly one that showed that he is concerned in extending the musical forms he is working with far past the parody rock with which he established his reputation in the late sixties, the Melbournites gave him a lukewarm reception. They wanted the good old oldies. So he gave it to them the following night. When offered an extended medley of numbers from his well-known albums, they gave a much more favorable reaction. He even did the mudshark routine from the Fillmore album, an innocuous piece of jive at the best, but the crowd loved it. What they wanted was a recap on albums like Chunga's Revenge, Hot Rats, or Fillmore. But on Thursday they were not ready for a post Grand Wazoo performance.
Which is what they got. Now in these days, when we are laden with the blessing/curse of high amplification, it can be difficult to discern a powerful group from one which is merely overamplified. But Thursday night's performance displayed that Zappa himself has attained new heights in overall conception, and his group are incredibly powerful in their execution.
Zappa has now extended much further the eclecticism that marked his finest rock works. By using musicians from a jazz background he has attempted to widen the expressive range of his basically rock-oriented music. George Duke (keyboards) served a crucial part of his musical apprenticeship with Cannonball Adderley. Jean-Luc Ponty gravitates between avant-garde jazz and post-rock music with astounding ingenuity. Sal Marquez (trumpet) seems to combine some of the melodic grace of Freddy Hubbard with the drive and intensity of the late Clifford Brown. Bruce Fowler (trombone), despite a cold that must have affected his playing, displayed one of the most phenomenal techniques on this instrument I've ever heard. At its basis maybe there is the influence of the rapid fire, attacking style of J.J.Johnson, but his high register work (devastating) seems to be entirely his own thing.
The venue, acoustically dreadful, seriously affected the sound balance. George Duke was often inaudible during ensemble work, and either the sound system or the hail robbed Sal Marquez's trumpet work of some of its virile strength. But despite this, which must have pissed the group off more than somewhat, (not to mention the cold) the group turned in a magnificent performance.
The outstanding musician of the night was undoubtedly Ponty. His slashingly passionate electric violin work has two characteristics that have always defined the great from the merely talented soloists – he can maintain emotional intensity without losing structural cohesiveness. Zappa, as a soloist, did not achieve this stature, and seemingly must always gain either one of these qualities at the expense of the other. It would be unfair to judge George Duke, due to the limitations of the venue. But his solo work showed a rare fluency. Potentially he would seem to be in the class of Les McCann on electric keyboards. A man to watch in the future.
Ian Underwood favored electric flute rather than saxophone, which was a disappointment. A big-toned sax sound would have fitted into the overall group sound more effectively. The rhythm section was excellent – one of those unobtrusive machines that keep on generating and responding to what's going on in the front line, with Ruth Underwood's timpani giving it an added lift, with a sparse, evocative technique.
Overall Zappa has considerably extended the breadth of his musical statement. At the moment he seems to be aiming at integrating elements of jazz and rock. Can he retain the form of rock and integrate the individualistic tendencies of jazz? Seen against the very free electronic approach of the jazz-derived music of Miles Davis, Weather Report and Herbie Hancock, Zappa's obsession with highly structured forms is becoming an anachronism. Can Zappa like Ellington keep on providing a textural and structural form that will serve his soloists? Or will they transcend him? At this moment his eclectic brilliance in arranging is the overall sustaining power of the group. But it is hard to imagine how the imaginative musicians he now directs will always be satisfied with the restrictions imposed by one man's ideas.
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