Zappa In New York

By Chip Stern

Down Beat, 13 July 1978

ZAPPA IN NEW YORK – DiscReet 2D-2290; Titties And Beer; I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth; Big Leg Emma; Sofa; Manx Needs Women; The Black Page Drum Solo/Black Page #1; Black Page #2; Honey, Don't You Want A Man Like Me?; The Illinois Enema Bandit; The Purple Lagoon.

Personnel: Zappa, composer, conductor, lead guitar, vocals; Ray White, rhythm guitar, vocals; Eddie Jobson, keyboards, vocals; Patrick O'Hearn, bass, vocals; Terry Bozzio, drums, vocals; Ruth Underwood, percussion, synthesizer, various humanly impossible overdubs; John Bergamo, Ed Mann, percussion overdubs; Louanne Neil, asmotic harp overdub; David Samuels, timpani, vibes; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Mike Brecker, tenor sax, flute; Lou Marini, alto sax, flute; Ronnie Cuber, baritone sax, clarinet; Tom Malone, trombone, trumpet, piccolo; Don Pardo, sophisticated narration.

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If James Brown is the godfather of funk, then that must make Frank Zappa the godfather of punk, right? Well, yes and no. Zappa’s first album, Freak Out, is still the quintessence of creative vitriol, and over the years he has been instrumental in cutting through fascistmentality censorship, so’s now you can say all ’dem naughty words on record and be an antisocial freak and all – I mean, I knew kids who were thrown out of their homes for having copies of Absolutely Free.

Unlike the punks, Zappa’s music is largely rooted in classic Chicago r&b forms and overlayed by the contemporary classical sensibility of such way gone cats as Igor Stravinsky, Edgar Varèse and Harry Partch. Unfortunately, Zappa’s righteous indignation and musical sophistication is often diluted into crowdpleasing grossouts (read: lots of commercial potential), like the new album’s Titties And Beer and The Illinois Enema Bandit, wherein Frank raises the doody joke to Wagnerian proportions: it is banal and has always been a source of personal irritation. There are still plenty of good targets for rage, as Patti Smith and Richard Hell demonstrate (although I must confess that Honey, Don 't You Want A Man Like Me? is a reasoned, witty appraisal of the bar scene).

Still, if you ignore the dross, what remains of Zappa In New York is brilliant. The Purple Lagoon employs a funky repeated figure as a jumping off point for solos by Mike Brecker (bursting with emotion), Zappa (psychedelic splendor), Ronnie Cuber (growling baritone), Patrick O’Hearn (bumblebee bass) and Randy Brecker (bionically modified trumpet, sounding like a five piece brass section). Zappa’s main strength seems to be his ability to put rock on a big band level: Sofa is a Saturday Night Live gospel theme, with more excellent Mike Brecker preachings; the properly unsentimental title I Promise Not To Come In Your Mouth belies a delicate ballad; Manx Needs Women is a furious freak out.

The best piece on Zappa In New York is The Black Page Drum Solo. Terry Bozzio’s melodic, economical drumming is combined with wood and metal sounds, giving it a Partch-like ambience. Zappa’s ensemble unwinds long melodic lines over the top, before breaking into what he calls “a cheap little disco vamp” for the “easy, teenage, New York” version (for those people unable to deal with the piece’s statistical density). Zappa is a genius, and his musical concepts have grown over the years. There is a lot of good music on Zappa In New York. If Frank can ever overcome the need to say shit for the sake of shock, he might just create a musical masterpiece one of these days.