Pick of the Week #12
Frank Zappa: Jazz From Hell
By Beppe Colli
Feb. 28, 2021

Once 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.

There's 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.

I 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).

I 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.

A 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.

Okay, 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.

The 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 overdubs.

It's 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.

Of 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 this", abstain.

And with this tornado of thoughts in my mind, my hand picked an album: Jazz From Hell.

I 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).

Today, 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.

And 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.

And 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"?

(Please, consider that I'm addressing the whole matter with an extremely light touch.)

As 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.

Maybe 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.

I 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).

To 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).

Side 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 long time.)

Then, 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 "assholes").

Writing 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.

I 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.)

(Readers 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.)

So I decided to listen to my original USA vinyl pressing that I bought at the time of the album's original release.

What 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.

Jazz 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 quite uncommon.

Simplifying 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".

There 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 the scores).

Shall we listen to the record?

Night 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.

The 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.

While 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.

Jazz 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".

G-Spot 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.

Damp 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.

St. 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".

Massaggio 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.

The album's duration is a bit more than half-an-hour. Shall we listen to it again? Take a deep breath.

Beppe Colli 2021

CloudsandClocks.net | Feb. 28, 2021