Absolute Ensemble: ABSOLUTE/ZAPPA®
Sangiorgi Theatre, Catania, Italy
Feb. 25, 2006

It's been a while now since the day when, every time something by Frank Zappa is distributed in the shops (and most of the time it's only some strange new collection of already-released tracks, or old VHS programs that get to be re-released on DVD-V), I started asking myself silent questions about how appreciated - and before that, how really well-known - is nowadays the late musician (i.e., guitar player, composer, singer, percussionist, polemist, and a whole lot more) from Baltimore. For while he was once regarded as being one of the brightest guiding lights in the whole field of rock music, nowadays Zappa doesn't get to be mentioned that often, if at all; hence, the disturbing reality: it's quite unlikely that most of the "young people under forty" have ever heard of him. But this fact - which at first could be regarded as being a problem only to those who are already his biggest fans - gets a more sinister shade of meaning when one considers the fact that the notion of "rock" that's common today considers as "non-existent" all that appears to be a pinch more complicated than what's merely elementary. Therefore, it only sounds as logical that Zappa's work appears to be increasingly appreciated in those fields of Academia - those more advanced, more open-minded than most - which inhabit those impossible-to-define, and always-changing, border territories. But is it really like this?

The sad reality is that, while rock music is currently in a very sad state, the world of classical music is in an even worse condition - just ask yourself this question: Who would be willing today to use the expression "high culture", unless when talking about some distant past? Now, what could possibly function as a "strong legitimating factor", so strong as to make the old river of funding run undisturbed? A river that's absolutely indispensable to the life of a form that is by its own nature perennially in the red and which, given the nature of present times, is forced to present only "events". One concept that appears to fit the goal is "innovation". But is Academy today something that can really be said to be capable to produce innovation - and that can present the results as being a paradigm that can be regarded as being acceptable by society? I believe the answer to both questions is No. The picture gets even more complicated as soon as one considers the fact that nowadays it's also rock music that doesn't appear as being capable of producing "innovation". Also, while in the distant past a musician from the "difficult rock" field (say, Eno) was in a position to introduce many young people to a "different type of classical musician" (say, Steve Reich), today's "reduced-scale" equivalent (say, one Thurston Moore) can't really do that much to benefit an "unknown innovator" (say, Morton Feldman). Hence, some people hope to find a solution to their dilemma in the field of "vintage experimental rock" (for instance, Metal Machine Music transcribed for classical ensemble); others in a "summary with rhythm" (say, à la Steve Martland Band: from the gym to the masses); others in "a good idea that somebody had, out there" (for instance, a post-modern reading of Mahler featuring a DJ).

Nowadays, it's also jazz that is looking for a way out (well, more than one, really: "never bet on just one horse, especially when the Summer Festival season is near"). With the obvious exception of the usual names (Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Chris Botti, Michael Bublé), what's left is mainly the notion of "Jazz as Modern American Classical Music" (i.e., funded by public money) or the adoption of some elements taken from "Modern Hip-Hop Culture", which many musicians (most of them from the USA) (rightly) consider as being the only way available to avoid death from undernourishment ("Get Rhythm? Be-Hop!").

The Ensemble Modern - a real "living laboratory" for Frank Zappa during his last days on earth - has been rightly held in high esteem for the work done both in concert and on record (check the albums titled The Yellow Shark and Greggery Peccary & Other Persuasions), their miraculous precision enriched by the human warmth of their performing. So I was quite a bit surprised, about two years ago, when I learned that another orchestral line-up, called Absolute Ensemble, planned an Homage to Zappa. I immediately noticed the presence of two "Special Guests", two musicians which had been a part of Zappa's universe: Napoleon Murphy Brock (the saxophone player, flute player, singer and "stage presence" of a line-up loved by many - the line-up well-represented on albums such as Roxy & Elsewhere, The Helsinki Concert, One Size Fits All and in the video titled The Dub Room Special), and Mike Keneally (guitar player, singer, keyboard player in the last - 1988 - tour, and on those albums recorded during those concerts). It was immediately apparent to me that the stylistic coordinates chosen by the Absolute Ensemble would make for quite different results than those typical of the Ensemble Modern: songs, guitar solos, a "rock" dimension, all appeared as the logical outcome.

With the main exception of those which appeared to want to be "useful" to the promoter, the reviews that I read of the 2004 and 2005 concerts by the Absolute Ensemble agreed on quite a few points: performances of a very high caliber, arrangements that were mostly good but sometimes sounded more than a bit questionable, a couple of rap (!) moments on the tacky side, and which had sounded as being totally out of place. Al this had made me extremely curious to catch the group. But I doubted I had the chance.

You can imagine my surprise when, while having a look at the huge EtnaFest program ("The great appointments by the County of Catania"), I happened to see the name Absolute Ensemble. The program: ABSOLUTE/ZAPPA®.

Clean, and made to appear even better than the days when it was new, the old Sangiorgi theatre seats about 220. Looking at the giant number of instruments onstage (if I'm not mistaken, during the concert there were 20 people onstage, some of them multi-instrumentalists), the wireless mics, the P.A. (extremely clean-sounding), the techs, the big mixer, after adding the plane fare, food and shelter for all, compensations... my personal estimate is in the neighborhood of 50.000/70.000 euros. Since the cost of a ticket was just 6 euros, and the seats about 220... Gulp! Well, maybe I'm a bit too much on the Puritan side, or maybe it's because I usually deal with avant-garde rock and jazz, but I found the notion of having to pay so little to hear so much quite a bit disturbing. I decided to let my moral doubts rest for a while, while I enjoyed the concert.

Grand piano, keyboards, drums, percussion, vibes, a string quartet, electric guitar and bass, flute, saxophone, bassoon, double bassoon, trumpet, trombone, Keneally's guitar, sax and flute by Brock, keyboards and laptop by another Special Guest, Django Bates... you get the idea. In front, the orchestra director, Kristjan Järvi. Quite obviously a highly gifted man in the technical/musical depts, Järvi immediately revealed himself to be an astute clown - one of those people who are extremely aware of the fact that TV really exists, and are quite prepared to deal with the consequences. While having a look at the program, I notice that a large part of the arrangements had been penned by the orchestra's guitar player, Gene Pritsker; and some more by Charles Colson, who was not one of the musicians onstage and whose name I'd never heard before.

Precision, strength, some inventive moments... we have those. The only thing I found to be highly questionable was a certain (deliberate) rhythmic rigidity, almost like a pedal on which the polyrhythmic textures were placed (Steve Martland, whom I had seen a few months earlier, seemed to use this approach). With the exception of some "middle-eastern-sounding" airs, which I found not really appropriate, the whole thing worked quite well. Very nice instrumental tracks: Don't You Ever Wash That Thing, with an agile trombone; the Dog Breath/Uncle Meat medley; While You Were Art; G-Spot Tornado; Revised Music For Low Budget Orchestra, where the perfect unison of Keneally's guitar and (Vesselin Gellev's? Shalini Vijaian's? Dunno, really) violin was quite beautiful, and at least for this writer one of the best moments of the night; an instrumental version of Teenage Prostitute, with a nice rock dynamic; a theme from Lumpy Gravy; RDNZL; while Peaches En Ragalia was far from brilliant. Nice songs, with Napoleon Murphy Brock as a very good singer and vivacious stage presence (I already knew, but considering his age...): Inca Roads, Planet Of The Baritone Women, Muffin Man, Dirty Love, Cosmik Debris, Montana. Maybe the peak, a version of Uncle Remus where Keneally's guitar and Brock's vocals made for a very touching mood. Here it has to be said that cheap nostalgia was absent, and that even in those instances when Brock performed parts that had originally been sung by Zappa, he did it with the right amount of good taste.

Very nice "computerized keyboards" by Bates, a good string quartet and the already mentioned violin player in his solo mode (sometimes the strings performed transcriptions of Zappa's guitar solos, a fact which gave Keneally the possibility to avoid having to sound like a caricature), a good piano player, a nice rhythm section, a good work by the Ensemble's own guitar player, nice solos from trumpet and trombone, Brock always good and animate, while Keneally's contributions were always intelligent, versatile and appropriate.

So everybody went home feeling happy, right? Well, no. There were also a couple of horrible things whose bad taste didn't appear to belong to that same concert, and which made this writer (only this writer?) extremely uneasy. First: during Dirty Love, the Ensemble's guitarist gets up and starts rapping; it's a really bad thing, it has a cheap taste, it doesn't sound as brilliant and appropriate as Zappa's Promiscuous, it looks and sounds vulgar. At the end of the concert we have another episode like that, but it's even worse, 'cause besides the guy rapping we also have the astute clown getting the tempo faster while encouraging people to "get down" in front of the stage, so as to be free to sweat and jump, so showing their "human side". True, once in a while Zappa's "audience participation time" showed people who were intellectually far from brilliant and who could be really easy targets of fun. But I feel I can honestly say that Zappa never used those mediocre people with this amount of cynicism. It's at this moment, having sniffed the smell of sweat, among people who at last (and for the first time?) look really happy and convinced of having watched a nice concert, that I exit the place.

Wonder what Zappa would have made of this.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2006

CloudsandClocks.net | March 2, 2006