Theatre, Catania, Italy
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?
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).
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!").
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.
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.
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®.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
what Zappa would have made of this.
© Beppe Colli 2006
| March 2, 2006