Friday, March 19, 2010

The Wonders of Ruth

One of the most vibrant and skilled percussionists in Frank Zappa's early '70s version of the Mothers of Invention was Ruth Underwood. Ruth had auditioned for Zappa in the late '60s after seeing the Mothers play their Absolutely Free revue at the Garrick Theatre in New York. "Sometimes there were more people on stage than there were in the audience," she told the BBC. "And because of that Frank even got to know some of us by name…there were so few hard core Mothers freaks back then that we were all very noticeable to him...I remember droning music going on for ages. It shocked me… how such beautiful music could come out of such strange looking people.”

With her varied skills as a percussionist, it eventually afforded Ruth an opportunity to join the Mothers of Invention. It was, to say the least, an unpredictable and adventurous ride. "We all had our eyes on Frank all the time and you had to," she remarked. "You never knew what was going to happen. It was incredibly tight but it was free as well. The bottom line with Frank was that he wanted to, that he needed to, get the best from everyone. That was of paramount importance to him. And I think that’s why he got such extraordinary results. He saw what each of us could do and he wouldn’t settle for anything less."

When he saw just how versatile she was, he brought her in to play a drum set on the score for his 1971 film 200 Motels. She would officially join the group in 1972 around the time of Over-nite Sensation. Of the many great performances with the group, her tackling of the opening marimba melody of "St. Alfonso's Pancake Breakfast" from the oratorio "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" is pure unadulterated magic. In a recent documentary on Zappa, she once again performs the number while breaking down what Zappa called its intricate, statistical density. But first, watch her tackle the even more statistically dense "Approximate."

Take it away, Ruth:

To see Ruth at her most dexterous, however, check out this performance of "RDNZL" (proper spelling) from a concert in Stockholm in 1973 when French jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty was in the group. I first saw the Mothers that year at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens (with the astonishing Mahavishnu Orchestra opening) with my girlfriend Cathy Heard. Having just been astonished by John McLaughlin's band, we wondered whether the Mothers would even come close to taking our breath away.

We needn't have worried.

Hopefully this performance (despite the muddy sound) with give you a small clue as to why:

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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