of the Week #12
Zappa: Jazz From Hell
By Beppe Colli
in a while, I think about Frank Zappa. Of course, this particularly happens on
the days when I wonder about the best way to present his music to those who are
curious to know more, but have no real idea about its peculiarities, nor the
times when it all happened. It goes without saying that most people find the
notion that "this kind of music" could fill stadiums quite hard to
believe. Nor they regard the circumstance that music magazines used to put
Frank Zappa on their covers in order to sell more (I clearly remember a few
magazines that used his image for their first published issue) as something plausible.
Zappa, the guitar player. Zappa, the polemicist. Zappa, the composer of
"serious" music. Zappa, the writer of songs that today nobody would
dare putting on the air. Many Zappas inside one frame.
have to confess that lately, when thinking about the name Zappa, I feel a
profound sense of discomfort. This is the main reason I don't get as often as
in the past near the portion of my cupboard where Zappa's LPs can be found
(just in case you're curious: it's the one in the middle of the section nearer
to the back wall).
have to admit that, by process of association, there's a sci-fi short story
that lately comes to my mind when I think of Zappa. I don't remember the title
of the story, nor the name of the writer, but it goes like this.
rich man goes hunting on a faraway planet. Having found a giant animal he wants
to shoot, he fires from afar with a... space rifle. The animal collapses. And
so the space hunter comes near, to shoot the usual picture. It's at this moment
that the parasites that lived on the thick skin of the enormous animal - which
are quite similar to very large lobsters - attack him, cutting its oxygen tube,
then his space suit, and start devouring his warm body, later taking the
carcass up a hill, to chew later.
the metaphor doesn't work, the meaning is all over the place, but lately I
associate the death of the enormous animal and the parasites' escaping with the
death of Zappa and those quite mysterious feuds among his sons, a battalion of
lawyers draining their father's money, with harsh words printed in such
magazines as Billboard and Variety.
whole starts emanating a foul smell of money. There's the magazine that never
talked about Zappa, and that "saw the light" after his new record company,
a mega-major, made it clear that Zappa's catalogue is now "a
priority". There's the deluge of "full concerts" released just
as, while Zappa always chose "the best cuts", with or without
my opinion that when paying "homage", the one who pays homage must be
many times more famous than the one on the receiving end, so as not to
originate any suspicion that their aims are not sincere, given the fact that
they don't need a dead man's corpse in order to earn a living. And I'm not even
taking the "ghost on stage" factor into consideration.
course, dead people can't make their opinion known. I'd really like that those
who are fool enough to say such things as "I know Frank would like
with this tornado of thoughts in my mind, my hand picked an album: Jazz From
seem to remember a few positive reviews - the album even got a Grammy® - but
most reviews from that time didn't sound sincere. And to me the long guitar
solo featured on the album - a fine solo, sure - appeared to be there just to
reassure potential buyers that, yes, it was a "rock" album,
nonetheless. Of course, there were also very fine articles, the best one I
remember being the "cover story" by Jim Aikin and Robert L.
Doerschuck which appeared in US monthly Keyboard (their February, 1987 issue).
things are very different. In the past, all music was recorded on tape, with no
computer in sight, the recording studio a "playground" that was
inaccessible to the individual. Nowadays, all music is "computer
music", and the memory of an individual is not by necessity limited to
what is possible in the "physical world", in both performance and
"materials". While today's most popular music - and this is true of
most music, whatever the "genre" - has by now incorporated the
deliberate sense of "artificiality" that only became popular on a
mass scale with hip-hop.
so, an album such as Jazz From Hell, which in many ways was
"rejected" at the time of its original release as "non
rock" - meaning: no guitar, not "in real time", full of
"extraneous" timbres - can be welcomed today, mostly for timbral
(and, obviously, cultural) reasons.
so I say to myself: Wouldn't it be a much better idea, having Frank Zappa's
G-Spot Tornado as the main item in an ad about sex toys - whose purchase
greatly increased during the pandemic, and which in some countries has a
privileged fiscal status - hoping that the music works as a "launching
pad" for the whole Zappa catalogue? Do we really regard having somebody
with no real skills and no real means of living saying "I'll show you how
beautiful my father's music"?
consider that I'm addressing the whole matter with an extremely light touch.)
we all know, Frank Zappa developed a strong love for the orchestra at a very
young age; and it's also while young that he got to know the recording studio
first-hand; both are featured on his first album, Freak Out (1966), although at
a somewhat embryonal stage. A short time later, on his albums Lumpy Gravy and
We're Only In It For The Money, the picture is already fully formed.
because I don't really like orchestras very much - with two main exceptions:
200 Motels is a much-varied fresco; while Orchestral Favourites is in many ways
a "hybrid" - I didn't really care about the long and tormented
history that had Frank Zappa and various orchestras as protagonists (or, better
said, antagonists). And while I never believed that Zappa suffered from an
"inferiority complex" - an assertion that had some currency at the
time - I was quite surprised by Zappa's strong determination to deal with a
working environment that's quite self-referential and in many ways miserable,
where Zappa's "rock" ethos meant nothing.
obviously bought London Symphony Orchestra Vol. I (1983), and of course I also
bought Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger (1984), and also the minor
work Francesco Zappa (1984).
me, the real surprise featured on The Perfect Stranger album were those
compositions that were performed "digitally" on the Synclavier,
sounding fresh and highly captivating in spite of a timbral spectrum that was
greatly limited by its FM synthesis nature (Synclavier's sampling capabilities
being yet to come). While the lyricism in Outside Now Again was already a part
of Zappa's palette, the sinister mood of Jonestown was in many ways innovative.
Biggest surprise was The Girl In The Magnesium Dress, whose author was
impossible to guess (it was only while reading a "technical"
interview that I learned that the almost "aleatoric" nature of the
piece was due to a "formal organization" being superimposed over a
"nebula" of code symbols residing inside the Synclavier's Page G).
One of Frank Zappa Meets The Mothers Of Prevention (1985) featured four
"rock" pieces at their best. While Side Two featured the
"assembled" masterpiece Porn Wars, and a couple of pieces performed
on the Synclavier that to me sounded like "good, but not there yet". (I'm
talking about the USA edition of the album, which was the only one I knew for a
at last, came Jazz From Hell (1986), an album that I immediately put in the short
list of "Zappa's masterpieces". A few years later, I added
Civilization Phaze III (1994), an album released after Zappa's death and
applauded by many who did not even bother to listen to it (I was definitely not
surprised: after Zappa's death, newspapers and magazines ran long, insincere,
superficial, articles that plainly revealed the many secrets of the word
this piece, for reasons of practicality, I first decided to listen to this part
of Zappa's repertory on CD, starting with The Perfect Stranger. The one I own
is the original CD on Angel/EMI, one that Zappa later said he regarded as being
of poor quality, compared to the one he released later; but since he said the
same thing about many other releases, making me spend mucho money I later found
to be badly allocated, I decided to abstain.
placed the CD titled Meets The Mothers Of Prevention in my CD player, and after
a few minutes it appeared that the digital sound of the CD was giving me a
close shave. I looked at the CD case, and here it was, written on the cover:
U.M.R.K. DIGITAL REMIX. The same writing appearing on the cover of the only CD
edition of Jazz From Hell I own. (I know there are later versions that are
supposed to be better-sounding. Alas, though I've tried again and again, to
this day I haven't been able to find any money by digging in the ground.)
are invited to remember that in the transferring from vinyl to CD of Zappa's
catalogue, Zappa's decisions weren't always for the best. Also, in the haste
following the signing of the contract with Rykodisc, Zappa's engineer
collaborators made a few judgment mistakes.)
I decided to listen to my original USA vinyl pressing that I bought at the time
of the album's original release.
I immediately noticed was the enormous dynamics, never tiring, which had me
turning the volume knob to the right (in moderation). What's immediately
apparent is the "vertical" dimension in the stereo field, something
which was not uncommon for the best albums of the day (here by "best"
I mean "more skillfully realized", this is not a judgement about the
music, per se). A dimension that disappeared quite earlier than
"depth", nowadays CD (also in their vinyl guise) sounding like a
sheet of paper, with great width, and reduced height.
From Hell is a stereo album. Not a great revelation, right? What I mean is that
the two channels are engaged in a kind of deep "dialogue" that's
a very complex issue, I'll say that Zappa's decision to use the Synclavier had
two main goals. First, to reduce the amount of human error implied by the
process of turning a written score into a performance, with its corollary of
making it possible to perform music that human beings could never play. The
other goal being the creation of "hybrid" sonic entities that don't
exist in the "real world".
were two main minuses: the first one being cost (every improvement in both
hardware and software was costly for the user, a thin user base confronted with
huge expenditures being factor number one for the firm's later going
bankruptcy; but don't forget that the era of having "a computer in every
home" was yet to come, so the firm's mistake was not as stupid as it looks
at first glance today); the second minus being the somewhat "static"
quality of all sampled sounds (I have to confess I've often wondered whether
the "highly agitated" pace of many pieces featured on this album is
due to one's trying to disguise, so to speak, the fact that the instruments
sound "almost" real, but not quite, so having them as a "moving
target"; Zappa argued that his written compositions were the real starting
point, before the "sampling" and "orchestrating" stage; but
also, that any improvements in both hardware and software made him reconsider
we listen to the record?
School is in many ways this album's Peaches En Regalia: a simple, captivating,
melody, pleasantly-sounding, wisely placed at the start of the album. Percussion
a go-go, grand piano, synthetic timbres not a million miles from what models by
Prophet and Oberheim offered at the time. A fine melodic movement in the bass
register introduces a "piano" solo featuring mysterious-sounding
pitch bends that are fatally bound to remind one of Indian music (Zappa loved
Indian music; he also produced an album by L. Shankar). Let's notice how the
"piano" at the start of the track plays at a lower volume than the percussion,
with the solo "piano" appearing later making its entrance at a higher
volume, with a nice dynamic effect.
Beltway Bandits presents a thematic air "for clarinets" that wouldn't
sound out of place on Side One of Burnt Weeny Sandwich. The melodic development
is not too hard to follow, and there's that moment where two pairs of notes are
played in succession many times, making one believe that the needle is stuck
into the groove.
You Were Art II is the longest, more complex, piece on the album. The first
part sounds quite melodic and restrained, then there's an episode I'd label
"adagio", with a sparser orchestration, then a gradually-growing
sonic density. The end arrives, totally "unpredictable", but at the
same time, quite "obvious", ex post.
From Hell couples a tenor sax and a double bass with "incongruous"
elements and developments. It sounds like an assemblage of "real"
jazz items, only "decontextualized".
Tornado is a never-changing melodic earworm, though it's quite varied timbrally.
Out of the blue, a fast-moving, metallic-sounding, slappin' & poppin', bass
appears - to me it sounds like Arthur Barrow - and then, what a surprise, a new
section that, starting with the chosen sounds, really sounds like it was penned
by Joseph Zawinul. Then, it's the theme again.
Ankles offers great melodic variety, and a "loop" - the call of a
bird from the Amazon? the sound of a guiro? - acting as a kind of "glue".
This is my favourite piece on the album from day one.
Etienne is the guitar solo I was talking about earlier. A lot of
"empty" space, Chad Wackerman playing a more "martial"
version of Vinnie Colaiuta's contrapuntal drum work. At the time of its
original release, I regarded the presence of this track on the album (in place
of another Synclavier piece) as an "easy way out". While today, my power
of concentration being stronger, I welcome this change of pace as something
that makes it possible for me to "clean my ears".
Galore has many interesting moments, starting with those vocals appearing "unexpectedly".
But for me the key to the composition is the opposition of the thematic motif
appearing at a low volume in the left channel, and the aggressive
"funky-techno" assault appearing in the center-right.
album's duration is a bit more than half-an-hour. Shall we listen to it again? Take
a deep breath.
| Feb. 28, 2021