A Fond Farewell to Frank Zappa

By Robert J. Reina

The Absolute Sound, Winter, 1994

"Information is not knowledge, knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom is not truth, truth is not beauty, beauty is not love, love is not music. Music is the best."

– Frank Zappa, Joe's Garage, 1979


FRANCIS VINCENT ZAPPA (1940-1993) is no longer with us, but the obituaries that have been blanketing the mainstream media seem to have missed the point. There is much more to Zappa than his scatological lyrics and offbeat, unconventional persona. It is meaningless to discuss the extent to which he may or may not have influenced Howard Stern or Two Live Crew, or to debate whether Zappa's "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" deserves to be categorized with Sheb Wooley's "The Purple People Eater" and the collective works of Weird Al Yankovic. Such views are narrow minded and trivialize the man's very real musical genius.

      The primary influences of this self-taught musical wonder were diverse: the orchestral music of Varèse and Stravinsky, Fifties doo-wop music, and free improvisational jazz guitar. He was an immensely influential guitarist, often mentioned in "Top 10" lists in guitar books and magazines. His style was utterly unique and immediately recognizable, with a sense of melodic phrasing and timing which rivaled those of Sinatra and Miles Davis at their best, and mirrored the crafty melodic line writing of his orchestral works and rock songs.

      The foundation of all of Zappa's diversified work was breaking rules, obliterating boundaries, defying categorization. The chronology of Zappa's prolific output is best described within the context of the musicians he has recorded with throughout the years.

      Zappa's 1966 debut recording, Freak Out [Verve V6-5005-2] (the origin of the vernacular phrase, incidentally), featured the original Mothers of Invention, an odd blend of Frank's musical friends whose skill level ranged from classically trained percussionists to mediocre rock musicians who could barely carry a tune. Zappa worked around the limitations of the band; he even paid them a salary when no work could be found. This two-record set (the first ever in rock and roll) from an unknown band with "no commercial potential" (Zappa's phrase) included two sides of quirky-yet-catchy pop tunes with odd lyrics; he also covered an entire side with percussion improvisation.

      Zappa's first masterpiece (in my opinion; FD thinks it was 1967's Absolutely Free [1]) was 1968's Uncle Meat [Bizarre MS-2- 24], a stunning mosaic of pop tunes, dense classical orchestrations, and free-wheeling jazz (sometimes within the same piece). The key to this recording was the introduction of two classical virtuosos: multi-woodwindist/pianist Ian Underwood and mallet percussionist Ruth Underwood (they married for a short time, and even hung out with our own Neil Gader!), who's combined abilities gave Zappa more compositional freedom than he'd ever had before. Zappa's arranging skills and ability to manipulate recording studios truly emerged with Uncle Meat. (Most of the instruments in the hairy orchestral sections were performed by multi-overdubbed Underwoods. Ian couldn't play brass instruments, so Zappa electronically altered his woodwinds to simulate brass.) Sonically, it was Zappa's finest from the analogue era (he was an early advocate of digital technology).

      The Seventies brought Zappa's first fling with "comedy music," with the addition of Flo and Eddie, formerly of the Turtles. Their main shtick was gross-out and taboo subjects. (Zappa's 1972 film, 200 Motels, ostensibly a satire about touring rock musicians, boasted a soundtrack of superb modernist orchestral music, including such highlights as the choral "Penis Dimension Torchlight Parade").

      After a short detour into big-band jazz (which bore two excellent jazz albums, The Grand Wazoo [Rykodisc RCD-10026] and Waka/Jawaka [Barking Pumpkin/Capitol D414-74215]), Zappa turned, in the mid-Seventies, to a new, improved Mothers of Invention and a musical format which catapulted him from the murky underground college circuit to mass-market pop stardom. Introduced with the appropriately titled Over-Nite Sensation [DiscReet MS- 21497] album (albeit one of his least interesting recordings), Zappa had honed his slick arranging skills into a listener-friendly formula combining intricate yet accessible jazz rock tunes with absurd, grossly humorous (or grossly distasteful, depending on one's point of view) lyrics.

      This formula evolved right through Zappa's last rock tour in 1988 as the quality of his musicians continually improved. Over the last 15 years, Zappa scoured the clubs, looking for exceptional talent – which he found. These virtuosos, whom Zappa dubbed his "stunt musicians," could play anything Zappa came up with; over time, his rock shows became more and more complex. In fact, during his last rock tour, Zappa spent more time conducting than he did playing the guitar. These Zappa protégés, most notably drummer Terry Bozzio, guitarists Steve Vai and Adrian Belew, and keyboardist George Duke, launched formidable careers upon leaving the band. In this sense, Zappa had become the Art Blakey of rock.

      In the Eighties, Zappa became more enamored with the Synclavier synthesizer than the guitar. He was able to sample into this state-of-the-art computer-driven device every range of sound imaginable from classical, jazz, and rock instruments to compose and perform works that were not limited by the technical capabilities of his musicians. The best recording of this genre, Jazz From Hell [Rykodisc RCD-1 0030], won a Grammy in 1988.

      As I thought about Zappa's accomplishments and his struggle with prostate cancer during the last few years, I felt there was really only one significant gap in his career. Zappa had never been appropriately recognized for his classical compositional skills, and his recorded classical output was meager. Although Zappa did produce a recording with the London Symphony Orchestra [London Symphony Orchestra, Rykodisc RCD-10022] in 1986, and, in the mid-Eighties, Pierre Boulez commissioned some works which were released on EMI , Zappa's career was fraught with battles with the politics and union problems associated with dealing with American orchestras, documented in all its depressing detail in his autobiography, The Real Frank Zappa Book.

• • •

      On the day I first played The Yellow Shark [Barking Pumpkin R2 71600], a collection of live 1992 European performances of Zappa's orchestral works by the Ensemble Modern, I could not catch my breath. When the CD ended, I thought, "This is, in terms of composition, performance, and sound quality, the finest Zappa recording in existence. The hole in Zappa's career has been filled." By macabre coincidence, later that night, Zappa died.

      Zappa's orchestral works are strongly influenced by the complex polyphony of Stravinsky and the use of syncopated rhythms, space, and unorthodox percussion pioneered by Varèse. Dissonance, dense orchestral textures, and extracting the widest range of instrumental timbres are pushed to the limit in Zappa's orchestrations. As a result, his music is difficult to play, and most of his recorded classical works to date consist of under-rehearsed performances where the musicians barely had enough time to get through the work and fit all the notes in, to say nothing of executing the interpretation as Zappa intended.

      Not so with The Yellow Shark. In 1991 , when Zappa heard a recording of the Ensemble Modern (a 26-piece German-based orchestra which approaches Twentieth Century music not unlike the Kronos Quartet), he was taken by their intonation and performance style, both of which he felt would mate well with his music. The Ensemble flew to Zappa's home base in LA and began working with him.

      This is the orchestra Zappa should have been writing for all along. Not only is every piece flawlessly executed , but each musician adds his own lyricism, dynamics, sense of rhythm, and passion so that the orchestra breathes as a single vibrant organism driven by Zappa's brain. If there is one aspect of Zappa's writing, a signature which links all of his classical, jazz, and rock works, it's his use of melody; whether in his least accessible Weberian pieces, his jazz arrangements, or his guitar solos, the odd intervallic leaps, the sliding, syncopated melodicism is immediately identifiable, and unmistakable, as Frank Zappa. The Ensemble Modern is the first orchestra which has given his music the energy, the ease, the humor, and the dynamics of one of his best improvised guitar solos.

      Zappa's orchestrations create his polyphonic, dissonant tension by weaving multiple melodies through a dense tapestry, rather than crashing vertical chords. Zappa has always favored woodwinds in his melodic developments, reserving massed strings and brass for textural emphasis and surprise. This recording is full of bassoon, clarinet, saxophone, and oboe chasing each other through the pieces. Most impressive is the woodwinds' performance of "Outrage at Valdez," a sad piece which is centered around one lengthy melody containing odd rhythms resembling speech improvisation. With so much doubling of woodwind parts, it's difficult for the instruments to breathe as one voice without sloppiness, yet they do.

      Instrumental variety runs the gamut on The Yellow Shark. "None of the Above," a string quintet originally commissioned by the Kronos Quartet (a string bass has been added here), is static in the way a Penderecki quartet is, as it's difficult to feel a sense of rhythm or motion. "Ruth is Sleeping" is a virtuoso performance of a piano duet which is as close to serialist Boulezian polyphony as anything Zappa has ever written.

      The new pieces Zappa wrote for the ensemble are special as they were written with the instrumentation of the ensemble in mind (which includes two digeridoos, mandolin, and banjo, as well as the usual orchestral instrumentation, from chimes/mandolin interplay on "Pentagon Afternoon" to the extension of the language of the string section on "Questi Cazzi Di Piccione," ("Those Fucking Pigeons," a tribute to Venice), one can feel Zappa's love for this Ensemble. The works emerge as gifts from Zappa to the Ensemble, most especially, "Get Whitey," which, in the way it showcases every instrument in the ensemble, and interplays melody, harmony, and passion, is Zappa's most mature and emotive work. Every time I play it, I learn something new.

      Zappa insisted that his music be fun, as the opening and closing pieces on The Yellow Shark illustrate. Ali Askin's brilliant re-orchestration of "Dog Breath Variations" and "Uncle Meat," a medley of two of Zappa's best pieces from the 1968 recording, kick off the performance by grabbing the audience by the throat as if saying, "Get set for the roller coaster ride of your life." The dizzying finale, the aptly named "G-Spot Tornado," originally composed for Synclavier for the Jazz From Hell recording, is breathtaking in its flawless execution. Of this five minute piece, the last two minutes are applause.

      These two cornerstone works illustrate the spectacular sound quality of this recording, from the thundering bottom octave bass drum from "Dog/Meat," to the utterly lucid, rapid-fire percussion of "G-Spot." All instrumental timbres are reproduced cleanly without coloration or distortion, with a tremendous range of macro and microdynamic shadings. Although Zappa is a believer in close-perspective multimiking on orchestral works (he doesn't want the listener to miss a single note), there is a convincing soundstage and sense of hall and space, despite the "in your face" presentation of the instruments.

      I do not exaggerate when I say that Frank Zappa affected my life more than any other individual. Prior to hearing his first recording, I was a narrow-minded musician, listening to nothing but Bach, Beethoven, and to a greater degree, The Beatles. Without his music, I might never have been exposed to jazz, improvisation, Twentieth Century orchestral music, and new music which cherishes boundary obliteration. But I was not as saddened by his death as I had expected to be, for I was still on an incredible high from hearing The Yellow Shark when he died. With this recording, Frank Zappa has affirmed his place alongside Varèse, Penderecki, and Crumb as one of the most significant composers of the century.

1. Charles Ulrich: I'm guessing FD was managing editor Frank Doris.

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