Fast 'n' Bulbous
Pork Chop Blue Around The Rind


Had I been told in the early Seventies that one day somebody would release an album featuring faithful yet personal renditions of compositions by Captain Beefheart; and not only that, but that it would be an album consisting of instrumental versions... well, let's just say that I would have told the guy that his crystal ball was definitely in need of a good polish. I can't really say what notion I would have found more shocking at the time, the one about Beefheart being one day... well, somewhat popular; or that his songs - that one inevitably matched to his voice, his lyrics and his bizarre persona - could work as instrumentals.

Like most people I knew, I heard Beefheart for the first time as a featured vocalist on Frank Zappa's Hot Rats, in his Willie The Pimp cameo. Later, I found his album Trout Mask Replica absolutely impossible to grasp, all jerky rhythms and trebly guitars. Meanwhile, friends who were seriously into blues backpedalled towards his two previous - and quite simpler - albums, Safe As Milk and Strictly Personal. It took me a long time to start developing an appreciation for - definitely not an understanding of - his music. The tall tales about Beefheart composing the whole Trout Mask Replica in eight and a half hours, then spending a whole year teaching the group note for note (as stated in interviews, and later in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll), didn't exactly help. Curiously, it was only after I started listening to "experimental guitarists" like Fred Frith and Derek Bailey that Beefheart's music started making more sense.

The essay about Trout Mask Replica written by Langdon Winner which appears in Stranded - Rock And Roll For A Desert Island (edited by Greil Marcus, the book was originally published in 1979) stands as a solitary analysis of a record too long regarded as being almost completely devoid of any logic. The new wave scene at the end of the Seventies saw Beefheart's name mentioned more often. I remember the Musician cover story written by Lester Bangs (I'm quite sure I still have that issue somewhere), though in his Mainlines, Blood Tracks And Bad Taste collection (published 2003) that very same profile/interview is listed as having appeared in The Village Voice in 1980. Whatever. The so-called "punk jazz connection" did the rest.

But let's face it: in order to play Beefheart's music one needs chops galore. So, it was quite rarely - as, say, in the case of the group Crazy Backwards Alphabet, featuring Henry Kaiser and Michael Maxymenko - that I heard something approximating that kind of complexity. And so it's only logical that when Henry Kaiser wrote a list of guitarists for whom Beefheart guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo had been "of paramount importance" he mentioned Eugene Chadbourne, Davey Williams, Jim O'Rourke, Fred Frith, David Torn, Elliott Sharp and Bruce Anderson. If I had to mention - off the top of my head - a couple of examples of successful Beefheart homages I'd mention the version of When It Blows Its Stacks recorded by Doctor Nerve on Every Screaming Ear (1997); and the whole The Music Of Captain Beefheart (1996), a Swedish (plus Denny Walley) superb CD.

Unfortunately, during the Nineties the tag "Beefheartian" has increasingly been made equal to "unpolished blues". Which could not be more surprising, since in the meantime two important items had appeared to shed light on the matter. First, Lunar Notes (1998), the book written by Zoot Horn Rollo: a long and detailed account of the way the music had really been assembled; then Grow Fins, the Revenant-released 5 CD box set which presented for the first time, among other things, the tapes that had been the foundation for Trout Mask Replica.

A Beefheart sideman in 1980-82, Gary Lucas is now involved in two recent Beefheart-related projects: The Magic Band, which features original members John "Drumbo" French, Mark "Rockette Morton" Boston and Denny "Feelers Rebo" Walley; and Fast 'n' Bulbous, a septet which has in Lucas's slide guitar its more "Beefheartian-sounding" feature but which sees the music wholly arranged and conducted by saxophonist Phillip Johnston.

Pork Chop Blue Around The Rind sees the group performing thirteen pieces from all over the map. Off Trout Mask Replica come Pachuco Cadaver, Sugar 'N Spikes, When Big Joan Sets Up, Dali's Car and Veteran's Day Poppy. There are tunes of an earlier vintage, like Abba Zaba (off Safe As Milk) and Kandy Korn (off Strictly Personal/Mirror Man); the mid-period When It Blows Its Stacks (off The Spotlight Kid); and tracks of a later vintage - Suction Prints, When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy and Tropical Hot Dog Night all remind us how good an album Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) was.

Johnston has assembled an excellent line-up. From his old group, The Microscopic Septet, we have drummer Richard Dworkin and baritone sax Dave Sewelson; trumpeter Rob Henke comes from Doctor Nerve; I have to confess I'm not familiar with the past work of bass player Jesse Krakow and trombone player Joe Fiedler. Johnston himself is on alto. The arrangements are very inventive while at the same time being extremely accurate (I had the pleasure of spending a whole weekend making A/B comparisons between the new versions and the originals). Though charts were obviously used, there's nothing stiff and mechanical in these performances - it sure sounds like the group got some road work under their belt before going into the studio. The recorded sound is quite clear, which is obviously a plus for music of such a contrapunctal nature.

Quite often there's a "fanfare feel" that's highly appropriate (check Sugar 'N Spikes, When Big Joan Sets Up), Kandy Korn maybe being the most contagious moment here. The Ensemble always works like a charm (just listen to opening track Suction Prints), and though this is not exactly music for soloists there are nice solo moments aplenty: the trumpet solo in Abba Zaba; the slide and the baritone solos in When I See Mommy I Feel Like A Mummy; the trombone (with plunger), baritone, alto, trombone (again) solos in When It Blows Its Stacks. Also noteworthy are the shifts between sections - and the slide solo - in Veteran's Day Poppy; and the trombone and alto solo on the closing track, the uptempo Tropical Hot Dog Night (drummer Richard Dworkin is excellent throughout, but as a quick point of reference check his high hat under the trombone solo and his toms under the alto solo on this track). On bass, Jesse Krakow is perfect for the job - just make sure to listen carefully.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2005 | March 22, 2005