THE DOZENS: THE JAZZY SIDE OF FRANK ZAPPA by Ted Gioia

“Jazz is the music of unemployment,” Frank Zappa once quipped. But don’t let these cynical words mis-lead you. Zappa had a soft spot in his heart for jazz music, and every once in a while he demonstrated his affinity for the music on a memorable recording.



                     Frank Zappa, artwork by Suzanne Cerny


In fact, for several years – from 1968 to 1972 – Zappa played the jazz-fusion game almost as well as anybody. Few in the jazz world were noticing, because they already had this iconoclastic musician pegged as a long-haired hippie freak. But the records tell no lies, and with the passage of time we can look back with admiration at the jazz work of this wide-ranging and immensely talented musician . . . and perhaps even fantasize about what might have happened if Miles had given FZ the call for the Bitches Brew sessions.

But you don’t need to dream about ‘what ifs’—there is plenty of jazzy Frank Zappa ready for the taking, provided you know how to find the gems hidden amidst the massive legacy (75 releases) the guitarist left behind. Below I’ve collected my favorites culled from countless hours of listening to this endlessly surprising artist.


Frank Zappa: Peaches en Regalia

Track

Peaches en Regalia

Artist

Frank Zappa (guitar)

CD

Hot Rats (Rykodisc 10508)

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Musicians:

Frank Zappa (guitar), Ian Underwood (keyboards, flute, sax, clarinet), Shuggie Otis (bass), Ron Selico (drums).

Composed by Frank Zappa

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Recorded: Los Angeles, July 18-August 30, 1969

Albumcoverzapparats

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Oh yea naysayers, who doubteth the jazz credentials of Mr. Zappa . . . please note this composition made its way into The Real Book. Not the legal version of The Real Book, but the underground, photocopy-of- a-photocopy-of-a-photocopy edition that passed from the innards of the Berklee College of Music and out to the world via ten thousand underemployed jazz musicians. Getting into this fake book was the ultimate insider credential for a jazz composer. But why they picked this song is a bit of a mystery. Not because it isn't great—vraiment, c'est magnifique—but because "Peaches en Regalia" is one of those crazy, complicated Zappa tunes that is not your typical jam session fare. This music has a unhinged, majestic quality; it could serve as the soundtrack for the coronation of a mad king. Ian Underwood is a one-man band, the great Shuggie Otis joins on bass and Zappa adds a brief but very accomplished solo. Give that man a crown!

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Frank Zappa: The Gumbo Variations

Track

The Gumbo Variations

Artist

Frank Zappa (guitar)

CD

Hot Rats (Rykodisc 10508)

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Musicians:

Frank Zappa (guitar), Ian Underwood (keyboards, clarinet, sax), Don 'Sugarcane' Harris (violin), Paul Humphrey (drums), Max Bennett (bass).

Composed by Frank Zappa

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Recorded: Los Angeles, July 18-August 30, 1969

Albumcoverzapparats

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

While the Beatles were working on Abbey Road, Frank Zappa was playing around with Hot Rats. This was the way fusion should have sounded . . . raising rock to a higher level of musicianship and creativity, rather than packaging watered-down jazz for the masses. "The Gumbo Variations" is a hard-grooving 17-minute jam with one of the tightest rhythm sections you have ever heard on a jazz-rock album. And the solos are topnotch -- Ian Underwood's tenor sax outing deserves your immediate attention, and Zappa scorches everything in sight with his guitar work.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Jean-Luc Ponty & Frank Zappa: King Kong

Track

King Kong

Group

Jean-Luc Ponty & Frank Zappa

CD

King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa (Blue Note 89539)

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Musicians:

Jean-Luc Ponty (electric violin), George Duke (electric piano), Ian Underwood (tenor sax), Buell Neidlinger (bass), Art Tripp (drums),

Gene Estes (vibes, percussion)

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Composed and arranged by Frank Zappa

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Recorded: Los Angeles, March 14-15, 1969

Albumcoverjeanlpontykk

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Hmmm, a Blue Note release with liner notes by Leonard Feather? How did Zappa get through the security at Rudy Van Gelder's studio? Not to worry: no long-haired hippie freak went anywhere near Rudy's equipment. The session took place out West where things are looser. And Zappa didn't even play on the date (although he is credited as composer and arranger, and lent some of his bandmates for the proceedings). Even more to the point, some of the music on the King Kong LP is quite jazzy. Skip the long-winded "Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra," and head straight for the title track. "King Kong" belongs in the Fusion Hall of Fame (when they open it). A churning, bubbling cauldron of 6/8 is about ready to boil over. The hopping and skipping melody is followed by an explosive George Duke solo (I actually think I hear artillery fire in the background), and then Ponty soars. This one will make you want to climb to the top of the Empire State Building and take on a half-dozen biplanes.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Frank Zappa: five-five-FIVE

Track

five-five-FIVE

Artist

Frank Zappa (lead guitar)

CD

Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar (Rykodisc 10533)

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Musicians:

Frank Zappa (lead guitar), Warren Cuccurullo (rhythm guitar), Denny Walley (rhythm guitar), Ike Willis (rhythm guitar), Tommy Mars (keyboards), Peter Wolf (keyboards), Ed Mann (percussion), Arthur Barrow (bass), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums).

Composed by Frank Zappa

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Recorded: Hammersmith Odeon, London, February 19, 1979

Albumcoverfzappashutupnplayyerguitar

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

When zonked-out rock-o-holics argue about the relative merits of Hendrix, Clapton, Page and the other total gods of the guitar, this is a track that the Zappa contingency will cite as evidence for their candidate. Zappa flies over an intricate pattern which juxtaposes 5/8 and 5/4 -- not something you will find in your Basic Rock Licks method book. Zappa definitely has a hot hand on "five-five-FIVE"; but I am just as impressed by the rhythm section and especially Vinnie Colaiuta's drumming. (When is Vinnie gonna come out with his Shut Up 'n Play Yer Drums recording?) But no matter which instrument you focus on, this track just might blow out the subwoofers in your auditory system.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Frank Zappa: The Dog Breath Variations

Track

The Dog Breath Variations

Group

Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention

CD

Uncle Meat (Rykodisc 10506/07)

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Musicians:

Don Preston (keyboards),

Artie Tripp (marimba, probably vibes and percussion), Ruth Underwood (probably marimba and vibes), possibly other musicians

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Composed by Frank Zappa

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Recorded: October 1967 - February 1968

Albumcoverzappaunclemeat

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

The whole Uncle Meat LP was stuffed full of jazz surprises, but this short track (less than two minutes in duration) is a great place to sample Zappa's sonic wizardry. Today many recordings credit "programmers" on their personnel listings, but Zappa relies mostly on acoustic instruments in generating the otherworldly soundscapes on this musical gem. Almost a decade later, Steve Reich would reveal -- in his spectacular Music for 18 Musicians -- the modernistic side of mallet instruments. But Zappa had discovered the hypnotic power of the marimba and vibraphone back in his Uncle Meat days. And don't be put off by the canine odor: "Dog Breath" is one of Zappa's most beautiful melodies. This often hard-edged artist rarely gave much thought to developing his warm-and-fuzzy, lyrical side, but he had a fondness for this theme, and relied on it in several other settings.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Frank Zappa: Ian Underwood Whips It Out

Track

Ian Underwood Whips It Out

Group

Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention

CD

Uncle Meat (Rykodisc 10506/07)

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Musicians:

Ian Underwood (alto sax) and a band possibly including Frank Zappa (guitar), Billy Mundi, Jimmy Carl Black or Artie Tripp on drums, Roy Estrada on bass, and Don Preston on keyboards

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Composed by Frank Zappa

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Recorded: Copenhagen, circa late 1967 - early 1968

Albumcoverzappaunclemeat

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

The song is called "Ian Underwood Whips It Out." Or, to use the full name, "Ian Underwood Whips It Out (Live on Stage in Copenhagen)." Unfortunately the title supplies almost all the specifics we know about this hot jazz performance. Most accounts will tell you that there are 11 musicians on this track, but I find that hard to believe. Of course, the drums and sax are so dominant and the recording quality so poor, that you might have the Royal Danish Orchestra lost in the mix for all I know. But all the action is coming from Ian Underwood's horn, which is smokin' on this heady dose of energy jazz. This is one of the best 'free jazz' tracks of the era -- and it is hidden away on a rock album? Go figure!

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Frank Zappa: Waka / Jawaka

Track

Waka / Jawaka

Artist

Frank Zappa (guitar)

CD

Waka / Jawaka (Rykodisc 10516)

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Musicians:

Frank Zappa (guitar), Don Preston (piano, synthesizer), Sal Marquez (trumpet, flugelhorn, chimes), Billy Byers (trombone, baritone horn), Ken Shroyer (trombone, baritone horn), Mike Altschul (piccolo, bass flute, bass clarinet, tenor sax, baritone sax), Aynsley Dunbar (drums),

Alex Dmochowski [aka ‘Erroneous’] (bass)

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Composed by Frank Zappa

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Recorded: Los Angeles, April-May, 1972

Albumcoverzappawaka

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

The happy marriage of rock and horns lasted about a decade. You can date its first stirrings from the formation of the two mega-groups Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago in 1967. And its symbolic close came with the release of Steely Dan's Aja LP in 1977 -- arriving in the bins at almost the same time that Chicago (which had once been an exciting ensemble) shifted gears to dishing out icky-sweet puff-pop like "If You Leave Me Now." Some of the lesser known masterpieces of this genre include the exciting band Chase, which lasted three years before ending in tragedy with the death of Bill Chase and three of his bandmates in a plane crash; and (of course) the great Zappa-plus-horns work on Waka / Jawaka. Listening to this stellar 11-minute track, it's hard to understand why the rock-and-horns combo ever went out of fashion. Zappa certainly thrived in this setting, both as composer and soloist. There is no schtick or schlock or other crazy sch-sch-stuff here, just a soaring instrumental workout with a big dose of Zappa's guitar. If they ever release a compilation called The Serious Side of Frank Zappa, this could serve as opening track.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Frank Zappa: Be-Bop Tango

Track

Bebop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen's Church)

Group

Frank Zappa & the Mothers

CD

Roxy & Elsewhere (Rykodisc 10520)

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Musicians:

Frank Zappa (guitar, spoken monologue), George Duke (keyboards, vocals), Bruce Fowler (trombone, dancing(?)), Tom Fowler (bass), Ruth Underwood (percussion), Napoleon Murphy Brock (tenor sax), Ralph Humphrey (drums), Chester Thompson (drums).

Composed by Frank Zappa

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Recorded: The Roxy, Hollywood, December 10-12, 1973

Albumcoverfrankzapparoxy

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

"Not too fast, because I want to get the right notes on the tape," Zappa advises his band before closing their set at the Roxy with a 17-minute version of "Be-Bop Tango." "This has to be the one. This has to be the one with all the right notes in it. [Pause] This is a hard one to play."

But this is more than a tough chart -- it is performance art of the highest order. During the course of this extended work, Zappa offers us intense energy jazz (with a flaming trombone solo by Bruce Fowler), pointillistic ambiance-jazz reminiscent of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, crazy scat-singing courtesy of George Duke, even a dose of Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser." But wait, there's more! as they say in the infomercials. We also get audience participation, impromptu choreography, a bubble machine, and a classic Zappa monologue. (Typical line: "Jazz is not dead. It just smells funny.") Finally the band wraps up with a jaunty 12-bar blues.

The record label could easily have called this "experimental jazz," and it would have sold twelve copies. But disguised as rock music, Roxy & Elsewhere becomes an instant classic. But, it is also great experimental jazz. . . . Just don't tell the Zappa-philes; they might stop listening to it.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Frank Zappa: Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression

Track

Variations on the Carlos Santana Secret Chord Progression

Artist

Frank Zappa (lead guitar)

CD

Shut Up 'n Play Yer Guitar (Rykodisc 10533)

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Musicians:

Frank Zappa (lead guitar), Steve Vai (rhythm guitar), Ike Willis (rhythm guitar), Tommy Mars (keyboards), Vinnie Colaiuta (drums),

Ray White (rhythm guitar), Bob Harris (keyboards), Arthur Barrow (bass)

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Composed by Frank Zappa (with chords provided by Carlos Santana)

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Recorded: Dallas Civic Arena, Dallas, October 17, 1980

Albumcoverfzappashutupnplayyerguitar

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

Ah, not just any set of changes here, but the Carlos Santana secret chord progression. The small-minded people will point out that it is just a two-chord vamp on G minor and C7. But didn't Santana hit the top of the charts with two lousy chords on "Evil Ways" and "Oye Como Va"? Well, the secret's out, Carlos. Every guitarist at West L.A. Music and Sam Ash now knows the score. To reinforce the point, Zappa enlists seven people for his rhythm section -- if you can believe the personnel credits, which seem a wee bit padded to these ears -- and they pound away at G minor and C7 like it's the second coming of F major soon to arrive on a cloud in the sky. But forget about the harmonies here. The magic is concentrated in Zappa's lead guitar, which sizzles like a downed power line on wet pavement. Very edgy work with no comic relief, just straight playin'.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Frank Zappa: Blessed Relief

Track

Blessed Relief

Group

Frank Zappa & the Mothers

CD

The Grand Wazoo (Rykodisc 10517)

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Musicians:

Frank Zappa (lead guitar), George Duke (keyboards), Sal Marquez (trumpet), Mike Altschul (reeds), Joel Peskin (reeds), Tony Duran (rhythm guitar), Aynsley Dunbar (drums),

Alex Dmochowski [aka ‘Erroneous’] (bass)

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Composed by Frank Zappa

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Recorded: Hollywood, April-May, 1972

Albumcoverfrankzappathegrandwazoo

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

"Jazz is the music of unemployment," Zappa once quipped. But Miles Davis showed, with his 1969 Bitches Brew sessions, that the proper mixture of jazz and rock could produce a gold record. Zappa dug deeper and deeper into jazz-oriented material during the pre- and post-Bitches period, and though efforts such as The Grand Wazoo and Waka / Jawaka did not sell as well as Davis's or Hancock's fusion projects -- or even Zappa's own edgier, scatological efforts -- they have held up well with the passing years. "Blessed Relief" is a catchy jazz waltz that could almost pass for a Blue Note hard-bop chart. Sal Marquez and George Duke contribute first-rate solos, and Zappa follows with some tasty guitar lines that are very, very jazzy. If he had kept this up, Frank might have been applying for unemployment benefits. But just in the nick of time, Zappa ended his jazz period. The next year, he had his first charted single with "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," which would not be appropriate for a hard-bop recording.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Frank Zappa: Down in De Dew

Track

Down in De Dew

Artist

Frank Zappa (all guitars)

CD

Läther

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Musicians:

Frank Zappa (all guitars),

Jim Gordon (drums)

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Composed by Frank Zappa

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Recorded: 1973-1977

Albumcoverfzappalather

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

The jazz content in Frank Zappa' music declined after the early 1970s. His later work relied more on monologues and routines, and the instrumentals veered off into either rock or avant-garde classical bags. The inclusion of this track in the 1996 Läther set -- three CDs of unreleased material from the mid-1970s -- was an unexpected treat. The writing and soloing are fresh and exciting, and the track features a bouncy jazz-fusion groove that we missed in Zappa's late period. One of my dream bands would find Zappa playing songs of this type with an all-star jazz band, hot players who would push him outside his comfort zone -- assuming that there was a discomfort zone for this fearless artist.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Ed Palermo: Toads of the Short Forest

Track

Toads of the Short Forest

Group

The Ed Palermo Big Band

CD

The Ed Palermo Big Band Plays the Music of Frank Zappa (Astor Place 4005)

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Musicians:

Ed Palermo (alto sax), Bob Mintzer (tenor sax),

Cliff Lyons, Phil Chester, Chuck Fisher, Jeff Lederer, Al Hunt (reeds); Liesl Whitaker, Jeff Holmes, Jami Dauber, Ronny Buttacavoli (trumpet); Dan Levine, Dale Kirkland (trombone); Jack Schatz (bass trombone), Bob Quaranta (piano), Ted Kooshian (organ), Paul Adamy (electric bass), Ray Marchica (drums)

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Arranged by Ed Palermo. Composed by Frank Zappa

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Recorded: New York, July 10 & 11, 1996

Albumcoveredpalermozappa

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

The next time some sourpuss tells you that the big band is dead . . . whip out your copy of The Ed Palermo Big Band Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. Better yet, just cold-cock the guy and keep your copy of this CD. It's too good to share with the naysayers, plastic people, brain police, San Bernardino police department, and other small-minded weasels who wouldn't appreciate a big band unless it had bubbles floating out from behind the bandstand. Ed Palermo takes this song from Zappa's Weasels Ripped My Flesh (but without also borrowing -- alas! -- the stylish Roy Lichtenstein-esque illustration that distinguished this memorable Mothers' release) and reworks it into a smooth band chart. Bob Mintzer high-steps over the 6/8 rhythm with such grace and ease that soon you're forgetting about weasels and toads, and are ready for the TV dinner by the pool.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


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