Frank Zappa Makes A Jazz Noise

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By Michael Davis
Down Beat, July 1991


Picture by Mark Hanauer/Onyx

Frank Zappa is both proud and pissed-off. His 1988 mad band has been history for more than three years now but he's been reliving the triumphs and frustrations of that band ever since. First, it was over a year at the mixing board, extracting, compiling, and combining the best material into three albums: Broadway The Hard Way, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, and the new Make A Jazz Noise Here, as well as bits and pieces in the ongoing You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series, which fuses performances from Frank's entire career. Since the band – which included drummer Chad Wackerman, bassist Scott Thunes, percussionist Ed Mann, keyboardist Bobby Martin, guitarist/vocalists Ike Willis and Mike Keneally, trumpeter Walt Fowler, trombonist Bruce Fowler, and reedmen Paul Carman, Albert Wing and Kurt McGettrick, along with Frank on guitar, Synclavier, and vocals – only played in Europe and in the northeast United States, Frank can take pride in the fact that many of its finest moments are finally available to his fans. At the same time, the eyebrows scowl and the shrugs turn a tad painful when he discusses the interpersonal problems that led to the premature breakup of the group, leaving Zappa $400,000 in the hole and refusing to put another band together unless someone else foots the bill.

"Most of the guys in the band decided they hated the bass player and refused to go on stage with him again," Frank sighs. "I didn't want to fire the bass player; I liked him. It put me in a position where if I had to replace someone, it meant going back into rehearsal, and rehearsals cost money. We had plenty of offers to do concerts in the U.S. that summer but they just wouldn't do it with Scott."

One of the unique things about this particular ensemble was the five-man horn section. For years, Frank contented himself with synthesized horn sounds, but for this band, he wanted the real thing. Horn arrangements were hammered together in rehearsal but the actual methodology ranged from Kurt McGettrick copying an orchestral score for "Strictly Genteel" to the band learning their parts to "The Untouchables" from a cassette of the TV theme played through the p. a. at a soundcheck. Reedman Paul Carman knew Jimmy Page's guitar solo from Led Zeppelin's immortal "Stairway To Heaven" by heart, so Frank had him teach it to the rest of the horns. Performed over a lively ska rhythm, it's one of The Best Band ...'s most humorous moments.

If the horns are noticeable on The Best Band ..., they're even more so on Make A Jazz Noise Here, where they get to stretch out on instrumental versions of "Let's Make The Water Turn Black" and "Harry You're A Beast," among other delights.

"There's a piece on there called 'When Yuppies Go To Hell' that's a heartwarming experience," Zappa smiles. "Then there's the arrangement of the Royal March From "L'Histoire Du Soldat" by Stravinsky played faster than anybody has ever tried it before, along with the main theme from the third Bartok piano concerto. The version of 'Big Swifty' is pretty outstanding; in the middle, it features a contrapuntal section where one guy is playing 'Carmen' and the other guy is playing the Prelude To Act 3 Of Lohengrin. They're playing them together over a chromatic bass; it's kinda nice."

Another of the surprises on The Best Band ... is the number of tunes using reggae or ska rhythms. But Frank assures me that this is no change.

"No," he shakes his head, "most of the bands I've had since the early 1980's have been doing reggae; it's just that nobody ever wrote about it. There's two things we've done a lot of: reggaes and waltzes. Then sometimes, we've done reggae waltzes. We've done reggae in seven, reggae in 11; we play all kinds of reggae. One thing we were experimenting with on the '88 tour was mariachi rhythm, superimposing mariachi rhythm on top of reggae. We did that in several places."

When congratulated on the reggae-fied version of Ravel's "Boléro", which features some amazing drum work from Wackerman, he just chuckles, "Well, that's a good example of a reggae waltz."

Zappa has other ongoing projects, as well, in varying stages. A couple of spoken-word projects are now languishing on the back burner; closer to completion is an album called Lost Episodes [sic], a compilation of unreleased studio performances dating from 1962 to 1984. The fourth volume of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore should be out as you read this, with two more volumes to go. When I first meet him, however, he's typing into his Synclavier, working on one of five hundred or so new pieces; he promises a follow-up to Jazz From Hell by the end of the year. He's made many modifications to his Synclavier since the Jazz From Hell sessions which should add more realism to his music.

"I bought a direct-to-disc system, 16 tracks, about an hour per track," he explains. "I've expanded the RAM, expanded the number of voices in the machine. In the real world, instruments don't just shut off after you've played a note; if you don't have enough RAM to hold your samples, then you have to use short samples or looped samples, which sound unrealistic. When you have more RAM space, you can use longer samples and because the ring-off is more natural, the things tend to sound better."

Frank has also been getting more involved with the classical world. September of 1990 saw performances of several Zappa pieces by the Lyon Opera Ballet and the Orchestre de l'Opera de Lyon in Lyon, France. But this pales beside the possibilities of an upcoming project.

"The next thing that we're going to try is that I have an offer from the Frankfurt Festival in Germany for 1992, which, in part, is a celebration of John Cage's 80th birthday. Cage is going to be there; Stockhausen is going to be there; and they want me to be there with some of my music. One of the things I proposed to them is that they put the guys in this chamber ensemble called Ensemble Modern on a plane to L.A. for two weeks. I will train them, as I would my band, and build the piece for them."

Congratulating him on finding a way to use his bandleading skills within the classical realm, he nods. "It also means that they're going to wind up with a piece of music written on paper, which they will then be able to play in concert over and over again. It'll be made just for them; it's like cutting them a suit of clothes. Another thing we'll have is a sampling session where I'll make samples of the whole ensemble and then use those samples in the composition, so they get to play against themselves."

Speaking of composition, I had to find out the story behind his notorious tune, "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue" and how much of it was written.

"Just the head is written," Frank replies; "all the rest of it is conducted. I used to listen to Eric Dolphy albums and I really liked 'em. Most of the people I knew didn't. And then, he was dead. So, it's a memorial barbeque for Eric."

Was there ever the sense that it was given that name because jazz pioneers almost never get things like memorial barbeques named after them?

"That could be part of it," Zappa answers.

And now for the big question: If someone gave such a barbeque and invited you, would you go?

"Depends on who's doing the barbeque," Frank says with a smile. "I don't know; with that many live musicians around, I might go crazy. Somebody should throw one, though. What else happens in summer? You've got the 4th of July and then you've gotta wait till Memorial Day. So you've gotta get something in between there."