Friday, November 30, 2007
Friday Jazz: Frank Zappa
"Frank Zappa was one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. He was a brilliant composer, an incredibly unique guitarist (with one of the best tones ever) and one of the funniest people the world has ever seen. His music combined elements of jazz, rock, classical and vaudeville.
His various bands read like a who’s who of music. They include (home site, followed by BR's favorite disc):
and many others.
Zappa’s bands were basically a training ground for some great musicians. In this regard, Zappa played a role in the rock world that was similar to Art Blakey in the jazz world. In short, he was one-of-a-kind.
I think there are two reasons why Zappa is a bit difficult to get into. The first is his music is dense and very multi-dimensional. While he would adhere to standard musical formulas (like a basic I - IV - V blues progression) he would add odd-metered rhythmic runs right in the middle of a piece.
Basically, Zappa’s music throws the listener tons of curve balls; you literally do not know what will happen next. In addition, Zappa was one of the first progenitors of serious and effective cross-pollination of musical forms. This is a really fancy way of saying he used ideas from a ton of musical forms in a very unique way. As an example, the album Hot Rats (more on this below) is one of the first really successful jazz-rock albums, meaning the musical ideas were a combination of rock concepts (usually meaning a more aggressive musical attitude and distorted guitar tone) and jazz ideas (usually meaning a more advanced harmonic or chord background). In short, Zappa’s musical ideas come from a variety of places making his overall style very hard to pigeon hole.
The second reason why Zappa is not the household word he should be is, well, humor. While some find his lyrics offensive, others (such as myself) find them to be incredibly funny. Hell – his song titles are funny. Who else could write “The Illinois Enema Bandit” (which is based on a true story) and then have Don Pardo add a voice over on a live album? Or how about “Titties and Beer”, “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?”, "Bamboozled by Love”, "Don’t Eat That Yellow Snow” or perhaps his most famous song, “Valley Girl”?
The bottom line is Zappa’s music is really funny. If you like to laugh at the absurdities of life (or are a die-hard Monty Python fan), then this is music right up your alley.
Zappa’s recorded history is daunting, especially for someone who is looking for a good introduction into Zappa’s music. For those of you who are looking for a general overview, I would highly recommend six albums, titled:
• You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Volumes 1 through 6. Each album is a two CD collection of various Zappa performances from his almost 30 year career. This gives you 12 CDs of great Zappa music. You’ll hear most of his more popular songs. You’ll also hear several version of the same song arranged in drastically different ways (Zappa was constantly rewriting his tunes for each of his bands. In fact, he would often rewrite songs while he was on tour).
There are two other live Zappa albums that deserve serious mention. The first is Zappa in New York. This is one of the best live albums ever recorded. His band is in fine form and Zappa even enlists Don Pardo to perform some of the funniest voice-overs in the history of music. Pardo is especially brilliant on “I Am the Slime”. There is also a great version of “The Torture Never Stops” where Zappa does some of his best guitar playing ever (his use of feedback rivals Hendrix on machine Gun. No, really – it does).
Finally there is "At the Roxy and Elsewhere”. This has some great versions of Cheapness (which is about really old and poorly made horror movies) and “Penguin in Bondage” (which is about, well, just listen to the opening monologue). These is also a fine version of “Trouble Everyday” which again has some of the best guitar playing on record.
I should add that I am personally a much bigger fan of Zappa’s live work. Zappa would take big chances on stage. Some would work, some wouldn’t. But the fact that he would take chances in the hopes of creating something truly remarkable makes his live work stand-out that much more. In addition, his bands were always top-notch.
There are three studio albums that I will mention, all personal favorites. Remember, Zappa put out tons of studio albums, so picking and choosing can be very difficult.
I mentioned Hot Rats above. This album has some incredibly written tunes like Peaches in Regalia and Son of Mr. Green Genes. Peaches is a jazz-rock tour de force.
Joe’s Garage is a biting satirical look at the rock and roll business that also pokes fun at the religious right. I listened to this album in its entirely on a road trip a long time ago and I have never been the same since.
Finally comes Zoot Allures, which has a studio version of “The Torture Never Stops” and some great guitar work on “Black Napkins”.
Finally, Zappa was one of the best guitarists around. He had an amazing tone and his phrasing was simply incredible. There are two albums of note in this area: Shut Up and Play Your Guitar, and Guitar. Both have nothing but Frank Zappa guitar solos. Together these collections have five albums worth of material for the Zappa Guitar fan. I highly recommend both.
I am really only touching the surface of Zappa’s recorded legacy. There are tons of great albums out there. As I mentioned above, I personally prefer his live recordings because his bands were just incredible. But his studio work is also awesome.
So – quit reading my swill and go buy some Zappa albums!"
Great stuff, thanks Hale!
This is now Barry writing, and I would add a few discs to consider. Over-Nite Sensation -- a tale of sexual depravity and bovine perspiration -- was originally panned by Zappaphiles as too commercial. It is a tight satirical masterpiece. And, after Joe’s Garage, it is amongst the most accessible of his albums. This is the album to begin your Zappa experience with.
Apostrophe (') is another brilliant set of highly polished jazz-rock. It too, achieves a degree of greatness -- and actual radio airplay -- with songs such as "Don't Eat that Yellow Snow," "Cosmik Debris" and "Stink-Foot."
Lastly, for those of you who only want or need a passing glimpse of greatness, there is Strictly Commercial -- its Zappa's "Best of."
Where ever you start with FZ's work, prepare to experience music unlike anything else you have ever heard before . . .
Frank Zappa on Crossfire
Titties & Beer
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