Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Zappa in Glorious Excess from Zappa Records

Those who have been following me for some time may recall that, when I was trying to take stock for my “Memorable Recordings in 2016,” any candidates in the audio category were solidly trumped by the release of Thorsten Schütte’s documentary film, Eat That Question—Frank Zappa in His Own Words (which, I am happy to say, is still being screened regularly on cable channels managed by STARZ). In his time Zappa was a cutting-edge iconoclast in the domain of rock concerts whose impact can probably be compared only to that of Lenny Bruce in the genre of standup comedy. However, Schütte’s footage made it clear that Zappa was far more cerebral than his popular image of a mad dog gone wild. All it took was a commitment to serious listening to appreciate the substance of what he had to offer. Fortunately, during the second half of the twentieth century, two major conductors, Kent Nagano and Pierre Boulez, made that commitment, with the result that Zappa’s impact extended far beyond the offerings of his own groups.

Zappa began his relationship with the recording industry when the Mothers (later to be called the Mothers of Invention) signed with the Verve division of MGM, leading to the release of the group’s first album, Freak Out! in 1966. As might be expected, it did not take long for Zappa to chafe from the sorts of commercial constraints that MGM imposed on its properties; and in 1977 he created his own label, Zappa Records. While the label was dormant for the last quarter of the twentieth century, it was revived in 2006 by the Zappa Family Trust , whose executor is Zappa’s son Ahmet. This has become the definitive source for Zappa recordings, and since 2012 Universal Music Enterprises has been responsible for distributing the label.

The most recent such distribution took place this past Friday with the release of a seven-CD box set entitled The Roxy Performances. This amounts to about as comprehensive an account of a single concert series as one could hope to obtain. The series consisted of four public shows taking place on December 9 and 10 of 1973. However, the collection also includes material from an invitation-only sound check and film shoot session held on December 8 and post-performance recordings made at Bolic Studios on December 12.

It is worth considering the historical context of these dates. I had begun an Assistant Professorship at the University of Pennsylvania in September of 1973 and had shortly thereafter taken on my first doctoral candidate writing a thesis on technology for computer music. Through him I had learned of Phil Lesh’s ventures into working with digital equipment for Grateful Dead performances and had gotten a chance to hear some of the results when a Dead tour came to Philadelphia. However, where the “legitimacy” of such work was concerned, the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (institute for research of coordination in acoustics/music), best known by the IRCAM acronym, would not open until 1977. Zappa would visit IRCAM when his travels took him to Europe; and his music would find its way to performances by the resident performance group, Ensemble InterContemporain (conducted by Pierre Boulez), as well as the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Kent Nagano). This was also the time frame in which Zappa would begin working with a Synclavier.

However, Zappa’s appreciation of the avant-garde began in his teens with his first encounter with the EMS Recordings album of four compositions by Edgard Varèse. By the time the Mothers gave their first performance in 1965, Zappa had become well aware of the adventurous complexities coming from European composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen. While most of those Europeans turned to those complexities as part of their efforts to do away with any need for a tonal center, Zappa began to experiment with complex polyrhythms distributed across a complex of rock riffs. (Perhaps he had decided to thumb his nose at Chuck Berry by overtly refusing to use a back beat.)

By the time he came to the Roxy, he had assembled a band of musicians as skilled as he was in negotiating the thickest of polyrhythmic textures. This involved working with multiple percussionists (Ruth Underwood, Ralph Humphrey, and Chester Thompson) and George Duke playing a variety of keyboards and synthesizers. The rest of the group included Napoleon Murphy Brock on tenor saxophone, Bruce Fowler on trombone, and Tom Fowler on bass. Then, of course, there was all of Zappa’s narration, much of which seems to waver between homage and parody directed at the sorts of lectures being given by Stockhausen and his colleagues at the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt.

Boulez deserves credit as the one member of the “Darmstadt set” to realize that Zappa did not need to compete with anyone in that crowd. Zappa had defined his own path, and he was both fearless and enthusiastic in following it. Boulez clearly approved; and, as I have previously observed, Zappa was responsible for the only occasion when, at a public event, I saw Boulez crack a smile.

This brings us to the virtues of this new Roxy release. While there may be an element of mockery in Zappa’s tone of voice, it definitely pays to listen when he is describing some of the complexities in what the band is playing. Furthermore, it is advantageous to have several different public takes of the same piece. Through repeated performances, the attentive ear begins to suss out relationships between foreground themes and background textures. One might almost say that this box set offers an advantage that one cannot find in even the best albums of music by Stockhausen or Varèse.

My guess is that there will be any number of potential listeners out there likely to resist on the grounds that seven CDs is too much, but this is one of those cases in which awareness of quality will only begin to emerge through exposure to quantity!

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