Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Larger Than Life: The Big Note by Charles Ulrich

Frank Zappa, whose legacy is catalogued in Charles Ulrich's The Big Note. (Photo: IMDB)

This coming December 4th marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Frank Zappa. Just before he died of cancer at the age of 52, he was interviewed by NBC Today Show correspondent Jaime Gangel, who asked him how he wanted to be remembered. “It’s not important to be remembered” was his direct reply. Nevertheless, when you’re dead, you have no more say in the matter. The Big Note (New Star) by Charles Ulrich could be described as the final say in the matter of Frank Zappa’s music, a scholarly 800-page encyclopedia of all things Zappa.

Taking time to list and cross-reference Zappa’s complete discography is no small task, so it probably comes as no surprise that Ulrich took over fifteen years to complete it. His approach was to list every musician on every track on every Zappa release, and to create a rich resource for understanding Zappa’s music, from song title definitions to the technical complexity of his compositions. The book is heavy reading (and heavy lifting), as it should be, considering Ulrich’s detailed descriptions of every composition in Zappa’s file containing over 100 albums and hundreds of pieces of music. Along the way, the author includes “side bars” which are short insights into some of the significant musicians, such as Ike Willis, who worked for Zappa during his lifetime. That particular section includes a short biography and every album/tour of which Willis participated. It also includes a direct quote from him about how he met and auditioned for Zappa.

These side bars include longer expositions on Zappa’s approach to music regarding time signatures, chord structures and arrangements as well as unfinished projects, such as the science fiction musical Hunchentoot. But rather than synthesize the information from his POV, Ulrich steps back and goes straight to the source. Every fact in the book is cited in precise detail without the use of a bibliography that would probably add more pages to an already hefty book. He does index the song titles and the sidebars, and provides a chronological list of Zappa’s albums that helps.

One of the many striking things about Ulrich’s hefty tome is the approach to the Zappa catalogue up to 2015. Every album is listed alphabetically from Absolutely Free to Zoot Allures, which for me conjures up a different listening experience assuming a newcomer, or veteran, wanted to listen from A to Z, or, for that matter, Z to A. It’s an interesting path and one I had not considered before reading The Big Note. But as Ulrich explains in his introduction, “Chronological order would have been problematical [sic]. Many albums were released years after they were recorded . . . Should albums be discussed in order of recording or in order of release?” Good question! Fact is, Zappa’s music has no linear evolution. From the time of his first record Freak Out!, released in 1966, his irreverent form of “entertainment” – a fusion of different musical elements filtered by a sense of humour and political commentary – was there from the get-go. Unlike The Beatles’ music, which evolved from cute girl-group covers to the sophisticated suite of tracks on side two of Abbey Road, Zappa’s complex musical ideas were immediately evident. Consequently Ulrich’s alphabetical approach brings, for me, a renewed appreciation for Zappa’s collected works and how to listen to them.

Ulrich’s acute attention to detail on every song offers something for every fan of Frank Zappa. The details are nicely laid out, from recording dates and musician line-ups to a description by musicologists on the complicated arrangements on Zappa’s symphonic works, well represented on the two-volume London Symphony Orchestra albums from 1983, conducted by Kent Nagano. It’s one of the best entries in The Big Note. Other highlights include Lumpy Gravy, Broadway The Hard Way, and Zoot Allures, the last of which I did not know was originally going to be a two-record set. I was also surprised to learn that Zappa’s song “Pound For A Brown” started as a composition for string quartet. I was also happy to read Ulrich’s factual correction of Zappa’s patter on the Road Tapes Venue #1 release of 2012. Zappa refers to an Edgard Varese Festival in Toronto. (It was in Stratford in 1960.) By the way, Ulrich does not include any compilations or hits collections in his book, but he does add an appendix regarding the Beat The Boots series.

As a writer, Ulrich doesn’t seem interested in offering his own commentary on the recordings, choosing instead to add plenty of personal anecdotes from the musicians who knew Zappa best. Therefore, the opening introduction reads as a mannered distillation of Zappa’s bands, his holistic approach to what he produced called “Project/Object” and the themes within that approach, better known as “Conceptual Continuity.” Ulrich also describes the many facets of Zappa the man as composer, lyricist, bandleader, and editor, which is essential reading for understanding the man and his methods.

Steve Vai, who worked for Zappa, said in the liner notes to his posthumous release Imaginary Diseases that he was “exquisitely indefinable.” Yet Ulrich’s book succeeds by defining everything about the composer in precise detail, and frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way. The Big Note is a beautifully rendered, 3-dimensional guidebook for the ages. The fact that it includes excellent internet sources and translates them into print form says a lot about the publisher’s commitment to old media. Charles Ulrich should be not only congratulated but also thanked for putting in the time and effort to write it.

On Friday August 24th, after a successful first printing sold out, Ulrich’s publisher, New Star, is having a so-called second printing book launch in Vancouver, at Lana Lou’s nightclub.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He's the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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