Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Zappa 101 - A Primer

Marking the 20th anniversary of Frank Zappa’s death, I continue to be inspired and entertained by his work and the rich musical legacy he left the world so I've selected ten essential albums (and Kevin Courrier provides an eleventh).  John Corcelli

On one of his many appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, Frank Zappa talked about his “personal relationship with his fans.” He was responding to Letterman’s question regarding the explanatory liner notes to the London Symphony Orchestra release of 1983. In one short answer, Zappa perfectly expressed the unique character of his work and the personal way it had evolved over the years. For me, the strength of Zappa’s music is completely about how I relate to it; the jokes I get and the particular subjects of his songs. Frank Zappa is certainly not for everyone, but if you’re looking for one of the most creative, challenging and rewarding composers of the 20th Century, then the following albums will do the trick:

1) I first heard the song “Dirty Love” when I was about 16 years-of-age. It was my musical gateway into the world of Frank Zappa, mainly for its witty lyrics and its tightly arranged musical hooks. Consequently, I would highly recommend that you start with Over-Nite Sensation (1974).

2) In 1979 Zappa released one of his most commercially successful albums Sheik Yerbouti, which was his sarcastic reply to the rising tide of disco music on the airwaves. This two-record set offered some of Zappa’s most politically incorrect social commentary on gays, Jewish princesses, lazy bosses who give all the orders and do none of the work [“Flakes"] and a direct hit to Peter Frampton, whose mundane single “I’m in You” gets Zappa’s poignant reply, “I Have Been In You” which opens the record. All of the tracks are strong and I never tire hearing Adrian Belew sing “City of Tiny Lites,” a personal favourite.

3) As a musician and jazz fan, I really began to dig the sounds of Zappa’s 1974 band featuring, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Tom Fowler, Chester Thompson, Ruth Underwood and the late George Duke. The confluence of improvised music along with Zappa’s formidable compositions make for some really satisfying results. Consequently I must recommend One Size Fits All (1975), with the classic opening track “Inca Roads” and You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Vol. 2 aka The Helsinki Concert (1988), featuring the same group that Zappa said [played] “with a lot of skill and miserable touring equipment” but who knew the material so well “they could probably perform it blindfolded.”

4) It’s interesting to note that most of the members of that band, recorded in Helsinki Finland in 1974, appear on the only collaboration with Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa, the outstanding Bongo Fury (1975) recorded live in Amarillo, Texas. A raw mix awaits the listener on this album that spawned one of the most requested Zappa tunes, “Muffin Man,” with Zappa’s spoken introduction and killer guitar solo.

5) Zappa was always interested in getting the best musicians his money could buy, consequently he wasn’t afraid to expand his touring bands to include a 5-piece horn section. Zappa’s more ambitious and successful album is The Grand Wazoo (1972) featuring two of his most poignant and beautiful works, “Eat That Question” and “Blessed Relief." That giant big band became more refined 15 years later, when Zappa formed what became known as the 1988 Band. For me it was the strongest and tightest group of his musical career as the band performs some of Zappa’s most difficult works and new arrangements of his older compositions.

6) Broadway The Hard Way (1989), recorded during the ’88 tour, was and is Zappa’s tour-de-force. He not only changed the sound of guitar, but also made for some striking arrangements of his instrumental works. But the album is also a standout for its unabashed political commentary running the gamut of American politics, the Religious Right, the foibles of Michael Jackson and Richard Nixon. Zappa doesn’t spare anybody on this record and even invites Sting to sing the Police B-side “Murder By Numbers” against the musical backdrop of “Stolen Moments” by written by jazz great, Oliver Nelson.

7) Fortunately, the ’88 Band was well documented by Zappa’s production team, commonly known as the UMRK or Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. But as Zappa writes “the 1988 road band self-destructed before U.S. audiences in the South, Midwest and West could hear it perform.” The result was one of two, 2-disc sets featuring music recorded during the East Coast and European tours that ran from January to June of 1988. The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life (1991) is one of the best records in the Zappa discography. The segues (Zappa was famous for not putting space between tracks) are exquisitely made as the album weaves its way from “Heavy Duty Judy” to a cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as a reggae tune, to many of the songs on One Size Fits All. The album closes with one of Zappa’s most clever arrangements of “Stairway To Heaven,” featuring the horn section playing the Jimmy Page guitar solo  note for note  that was heard in the original.

8) Special word goes out for the many fans of Hot Rats (1970) featuring the classic instrumental, “Peaches En Regalia” and the opening music to the recent Zappa Plays Zappa concert in Toronto, “The Gumbo Variations.” It’s a record that still sounds as fresh as the day it was released.

9) In 1993, the year Zappa died, an album was released on his Barking Pumpkin label called The Yellow Shark. It’s a CD of Zappa’s orchestral music as performed by the Ensemble Modern from Berlin, Germany. It was recorded in 1992 under the supervision of Frank Zappa who produced the album. For me, this record symbolizes everything about the importance of Zappa’s work and its appeal to the new generation of musicians, in this case based in Europe. Like most of Zappa’s works, some of which were written on a synclavier, the music is almost impossible for humans to play. It’s all technically challenging, yet musically satisfying, because enough rehearsal time was granted for the players. This record succeeds for that reason and the enthusiasm of the conductor, Peter Rundel to bring Zappa’s music to life, in a more formal, orchestral way: real musicians on real instruments with no overdubs.

10) Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970) is a masterpiece of collage art that brings together every element of Zappa's diverse abilities from full blown absurdism ("Didja Get Any Onya"), r&b ("Directly From My Heart to You"), abstract jazz ("Toads of the Short Forrest," "Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue"), musique-concrete ("Dwarf Nebula Processional March and Dwarf Nebula") to rock and roll ("My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama"). Featuring the most unsettling album cover in the Zappa catalogue, Weasels Ripped My Flesh is pure dada music. (*selected by Kevin Courrier.)

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

1 comment:

  1. the cover art for "weasels..." was by neon park, who did the art work on many little feat albums.
    Not all of rock’s legends are musicians. Neon Park was working as a poster artist with Family Dog, a San Francisco design group, when he was asked by Frank Zappa to come to Los Angeles to paint the jacket for the next Mothers of Invention album. Park earned only $250 for his effort, and the cover was almost scrapped by Warner Brothers as too controversial, but it launched a career that would make him one of the most renowned and influential artists in the field of album cover art. Park’s work combined flashy pop-art with cutting surrealist humor and visual puns, creating a complex and entertaining art that is equal parts brain food and mind candy. Features 70 color illustrations, including all of Park’s album covers.