Frank Zappa: Jazz From Hell

By Kenny Mathieson

Cut, January 1987

Jazz From Hell (EMI)

FRANK Zappa is in love. Specificaliy, he's in love with the Synclavier DMS, a digital sampling and playback syntheziser. Zappa is on record as saying that the possibilities of computer-generated composition it opens up has left him unable to get excited about any other music; if Jazz From Hell is anything to go by, then we are in for some interesting times. What strikes me most immediately is that the Synclavier seems to subtly reshape the textures of the music, diminishing the usual layering effect of rhythm and solo tracks in favour of a genuine interweaving of constituent parts that may ultimately have a profound effect on their roles within the music.

The album switches styles in a pleasingly electric fashion, encompassing the jazz-laced funk overdrive of G-Spot Tornado and Massaggio Galore, the quirky repetitive scales of The Beltway Bandits, the more spacious, floating structures of Damp Ankles (ah, those Zappa titles...), or the convoluted pastiche of the title track. Call me luddite, but I have a particular liking for his one straight guitar piece, St. Etienne, a beautiful, exploratory improvisation over a gloriously splashy drum part that underlines Zappa’s gifts as a guitar stylist, leaving most contemporary players (other than the mighty Sonny Sharrock) sounding positively anemic. But, I hear you ask, is it jazz? Hell, no – but does it really matter?