Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Too Serious: Zappa and Jazz by Geoff Wills

Frank Zappa and George Duke, backstage, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the mid 1970s. (Photo by Herb Nolan)

In 1973 Frank Zappa delivered one of his many humorous statements when he said, “Jazz isn’t dead. It just smells funny” on his album Roxy & Elsewhere. Zappa’s sarcastic quip had a certain resonance. By the early seventies jazz music was transforming into a blend between the electric sounds of rock and the confluence of funk. Fusion, as it came to be called, was inspiring a new generation of musicians (Jaco Pastorius, Al Di Meola et al) and testing the mettle of the “purists” who preferred the acoustic sounds of Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk. For author, musician and psychologist Geoff Wills, Zappa’s comment didn’t make sense because the composer regularly worked with highly skilled musicians who played jazz or came from that school. In his autobiography, Zappa declared jazz to be “the music of unemployment” – further feeding Wills' need to “clarify the often confusing nature of [Zappa's] relationship with” the genre.

Wills has written a short academic book called, Zappa and Jazz: Did It Really Smell Funny, Frank? (Matador) in which he puts forth an impressive argument in support of the notion that Frank Zappa’s outwardly negative attitude about jazz was merely a front. According to Wills, Zappa was selective but he loved the music of jazz greats Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp. When he hired musicians for his bands, Zappa often chose players who had experience in jazz ensembles. To prove this, Wills goes to great pains to name every jazz player Zappa hired for his recordings and tours beginning with The Mothers of Invention in 1968 through to his last touring band, fondly known as the ’88 Big Band, which featured a five-piece horn section. Wills suggests that the latter group “sustained a jazz feel” unlike his groups in the past.

The music of Frank Zappa is certainly worth study and the years since his death in 1993, musicians, critics and academics have been able to deconstruct his sophisticated songs and complicated instrumentals. When I was writing my book about Zappa, which is scheduled for release this fall, I had many sources from which to choose my facts. Wills’ book came out too late for me to tap into his detailed analysis for my book. I could have used a few passages from Wills in the one chapter I have about Frank’s relationship with the jazz idiom. To me, Zappa enjoyed improvisation, the key ingredient in making jazz music, which I discuss in that chapter. Unfortunately, Wills misses that important fact in his argument. He goes on for 140 pages dropping names faster than a Hollywood insider to prove his point by listing every musician who came out of the jazz world and who they played for before working for Zappa. He then analyses Zappa’s music from a “jazz perspective” supporting his comments with references to other recordings that may have been equally influential. I must say, Wills has done his homework, but it’s a little exhausting to read due to his unemotional style.

A seven-page discography is included, as well as an extensive bibliography. By carefully listening to Zappa’s recordings along with records from the same period, Wills puts forth a solid knowledge and appreciation for the genre and for that I give him full marks. But it’s only accessible to the informed music fan. A casual fan of Zappa’s work or jazz in general, might be overwhelmed by the information Wills provides because of his constant name-dropping. Not everybody knows Don Ellis or Ran Blake or Warne Marsh, much less their recordings.

Deconstructing a composer’s work makes for a good argument, but I often find Wills too clinical in his study and as a result he sucks the joy out of the music. That said, his discussion of Zappa’s years with keyboard player George Duke in Chapter 19, is a really interesting and insightful comparison of Zappa’s awareness of the post-Bitches Brew music scene and his own work. Nevertheless, Wills makes the assumption that Zappa preferred a jazz musician to any other musician, which is not quite right. Zappa loved to put different players together to create a collision of musical styles be they from jazz, classical or R&B. It’s a huge part of what makes Zappa’s music so good and enjoyable to the ear.

In Chapter 16, Wills inadvertently makes light of Zappa’s life-threatening injuries when he was pushed off a stage during a concert in London’s Rainbow Theatre. (Wills misplaces a quote from Howard Kaylan.) Zappa was hospitalized for four months from January to April 1972 and he spent the rest of the year recovering. During this time he focused on writing instrumental pieces for a larger ensemble. The result was the release of two albums, The Grand Wazoo and Waka Jawaka. To some Zappa fans these two records are the strongest “jazz-like” albums in his discography. Musically they kick, but here again Wills’ detached analysis of these albums left me cold. For instance in talking about the song “Waka Jawaka” Wills compares Zappa’s themes with those of Maurice Ravel. The reference is accurate because Zappa loved Ravel’s “Bolero,” among other works by the French composer, but Wills takes the soul out of it when he describes Zappa’s piece this way: “utilizing a medium-rock tempo, the lofty imperious theme, stated by the full orchestra, gives way to a lucid, declamatory, Mariachi-flavoured trumpet solo…” Now I know it’s important for a psychologist to be emotionally removed from their patients to prevent “transference,” but I would’ve liked more of Wills’ personal feelings about Zappa’s music instead of the many “descriptions” he offers in the book. I’m confident Wills loves Zappa’s music, but he gives too much weight to the technical ideas (from the jazz idiom) and not enough to the passionate ones, like Frank’s sense of humour which is equally present in much of his work.

When you read Zappa and Jazz, you also get the feeling that Wills seems hell-bent on proving that only musicians schooled in jazz could do the job. And while I agree that may be true, it’s not fair to Zappa to say so. In all the research I did when I was writing my book, Zappa never looked specifically for jazz musicians to play his stuff. He simply wanted the best players he could find to perform his complicated charts. For example, Wills misses the all-important audition process that Frank put every player through to make his band. A typical audition included some prepared material from an existing piece and some cold reads of music Zappa had written the night before. He was particular, but he didn’t seem to care if a musician studied at the Curtis Institute or played in a punk band. He just wanted to know if you could play his music, his way. Wills has left this important point out of his treatise altogether.

Frank Zappa pulled together a wide pallet of ideas from twelve-tone works championed by the late Pierre Boulez to the slapstick sounds of Spike Jones, to create his own unique style of music. Wills has done well to prove that jazz, a form of music Zappa supposedly abhorred, was a major influence in his work. I just wish he had more fun in the process.

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra. He's just finished Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books) to be released in September.

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