What Can You Do That's Fantastic?

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By Mitch Myers
DownBeat, January 2004


10 Years After His Death, Frank Zappa's Musical Inventions Resound as Loud as Ever.

Frank Zappa died 10 years ago. He was only 52, but had created a musical body of work that still resonates loudly. A member of the DownBeat Hall of Fame, he revolutionized rock & roll, and created a convergence between it and jazz, classical, funk, soul, r&b and anything else he decided to throw into the mix. Here, musicians who worked with him look back at the Zappa legacy.

Frank Zappa died 10 years ago, on Dec. 4,1993, at the age of 52. His relentlessness as a composer, guitarist and bandleader resulted in one of the most prolific musical careers of the 20th century. Inspiring cult-like fanaticism, Zappa's output has been documented down to the finest detail, and appreciation of his work has only widened since his passing. According to his widow, Gail, there are countless hours of unreleased recordings (both live and in the studio), and more never-before-heard Zappa collections should be available in the near future.

Zappa's music has never been more universal than it is today. There are tribute groups featuring various Zappa alumni, including The Grandmothers, Banned From Utopia and Project/Object. In Europe, his appeal is even more pervasive, with dedicated repertory groups like Germany's Dwarf Nebula and Cosmic Debris from Hungary. Zappa festivals are actually flourishing overseas, and his classical compositions are now performed the world over.

Until his last concert tour in 1988, which was cut short due to interpersonal problems within the band, Zappa was a certified road dog traveling the globe with various groups and countless sidemen. Sure, Zappa created complete works on his own using the Synclavier and employed entire orchestras upon occasion, but much of his music was developed with working groups in rehearsals, in the studio and on the road.

Zappa's accomplishments as a composer and guitarist can't be overemphasized. Still, it was his disciplined band esthetic that distinguishes him from other pop artists and invites comparisons to seasoned jazz elders.

Much like Miles Davis, Zappa oversaw a constant shifting of personnel, employing many talented players over the decades. And similar to Duke Ellington, Zappa showcased the individual strengths of his band members. "Frank would pick guys that wouldn't ever naturally work together," recalled bassist Tom Fowler. "You might have a guitarist who's a Hendrix freak and a keyboard player that loves Art Tatum; Frank figured out who should play when and orchestrated the band. He had the ability to figure out what they were good at and would utilize that in the shows. Even in the auditions, the question was 'What can you do that's fantastic?' That meant anything, musically or otherwise."

Zappa fought to retain his creative freedom. He developed his own production company, which helped him remain autonomous within the music business. Forever pouring his earnings back into creating music, Zappa was frequently strapped for cash. And because of his legal battles within the recording industry, touring was often Zappa's only source of income – a huge incentive to keep ensembles together.

While each phase of Zappa's career was unique, there was an underlying consistency to the way he approached his art. And from the satiric-rock-improvisations of the original Mothers Of Invention to the passion-meets-precision of his later groups, Zappa composed, conducted and performed music like no one else on the planet.

The Little House I Used To Live In

In the late 1950s, Zappa was a teenaged outsider with a brilliant, profane mind. When he began making recordings in his hometown of Lancaster, Calif., he was a rabid blues and r&b aficionado who loved doo-wop as well as composers like Stravinsky and Edgard Varèse.

Zappa started out playing drums, but switched to guitar and eventually joined a Pomona, Calif., bar band called the Soul Giants. By that time he had already owned and operated a recording studio, written and conducted scores for low budget films, and appeared on the "Steve Allen Show" playing the spokes of a bicycle. It wouldn't be long before Zappa remade the Soul Giants in his own image, that is, the outrageous image of the Mothers Of Invention.

Convincing the Soul Giants to abandon their Top 40 cover tunes in favor of his decidedly original material, Zappa rechristened the group "The Mothers" on Mother's Day 1964. "We began introducing the songs that we had learned from Frank," said original bassist Roy Estrada. "We were getting mixed reactions but we kept on playing them. Frank became more of a bandleader later on because only he knew how he wanted his music played."

Those songs were satiric commentaries on the precarious social and political climates of the '60s, breaking sexual taboos and sporting provocative humor akin to Lenny Bruce, but performed by coarse longhaired men dressed in full hippie garb.

There was also the Mothers' musicality. In an effort to maximize the crude but unusual talents of his bandmates, Zappa instituted a schedule of rehearsals that became a template of discipline for all his future groups. "We sounded tight because we practiced all the time," remembered original drummer Jimmy Carl Black. "Frank was a hard bandleader and he demanded perfection whether he got it or not, and he was never totally satisfied."

One particular incarnation of The Mothers consisted of Zappa, singer Ray Collins, guitarist Elliot Ingber and the Black/Estrada rhythm section. When they recorded the groundbreaking album debut, Freak Out!, Zappa augmented his strange quintet with two dozen musicians in the studio including Les McCann, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) and session pro Carol Kaye on 12-string guitar.

Rock music would never be the same. Devising radical tracks like "Who Are The Brain Police?" and the avant-garde performance of "The Return Of The Son Of Monster Magnet," Zappa combined social commentary and psychedelic improv in the studio. "How many people do something that's new and different?" Ingber said. "As a bandleader Frank was able to utilize our individual skills toward his vision."

Los Angeles rock denizen Kim Fowley was also on hand for Freak Out!, reciting the now-immortal composition "Help, I'm A Rock." He remembered Zappa as an enterprising producer/musician who directed the sessions down to the smallest theatrical detail. "Frank was all over the studio," Fowley said. "He was singing, playing, arranging and conducting. There wasn't one bystander and if there was, they were on the recording, too. Everybody got utilized somehow."

As the '60s progressed, the Mothers were as peripatetic as their shifting musical esthetic. Looking for work, they moved from Los Angeles to Manhattan and back to Los Angeles again. In the course of these travels, Zappa pushed his group through an aggressive series of expansions and transformations, lending greater sophistication and more outrageous personalities to the mix. The band's theatrical stage show at the Garrick Theater in New York City made them the talk of the hippie/boho underground and resulted in a lengthy performance run before returning to L.A.

Live, the Mothers fused Zappa's biting social commentary with visceral humor, dynamic rock noise, neo-jazz squall and spontaneous interactions with the audience. While recordings like Absolutely Free were poorly marketed and misunderstood by the buying public, the group's reputation grew thanks to its provocative live shows.

The Mothers were one of the first rock groups to use two drummers, a move driven by Zappa's enthusiasm for percussion and odd time signatures. The additions of keyboardist Don Preston and saxophonist Bunk Gardner gave Zappa incentive to stretch his compositional approach. They were familiar with progressive music: Preston had worked with Charlie Haden and Elvin Jones while Gardner had played with the Cleveland Philharmonic.

Musically unleashed, Zappa began composing complex material to suit his expanded group. "At first, Frank couldn't do the far-out stuff because [Roy and Jimmy] didn't have a clue of what he wanted," Preston said. "By 1967 we were playing things like 'Little House I Used To Live In,' which is a combination of 12/8 against 13/8. Nobody was doing that kind of stuff."

With greater emphasis on written scores, the Mothers entered another rigorous stage of development. "We enabled Frank to open up a lot, being able to read music," Gardner agreed. "Everything was by rote for the rhythm section, that's one reason why some of the rehearsals were 12 hours long. But I hadn't encountered that kind of musical challenge in my life and had to spend a lot of time practicing and memorizing – like 24 hours a day."

Zappa's discipline, fearless experimentalism and counterculture satire led to the record We're Only In It For The Money and the double-LP Uncle Meat, which featured his classical-rock-jazz opus "King Kong." Concept albums that redefined the boundaries of underground rock and instrumental music of the '60s, they still sound distinctive today.

With musicians like classically trained percussionist Arthur Tripp, reed/keyboard whiz Ian Underwood and untrained saxmaniac Jim "Motorhead" Sherwood, the Mothers reached full flower blending greasy ethnic bar band machismo with progressive jazz chops, classical structures, rhythmic workouts and free-form freak-outs. The band even jammed with saxophonist Roland Kirk, and albums like Weasels Ripped My Flesh showed a sense of sonic adventure featuring scorching Pachuco blues and snarling rock guitar alongside more atonal sound experiments.

In spite of references to Eric Dolphy, Debussy and Stravinsky, the Mothers were rarely perceived to be as serious as their jazz peers. Mike Keneally, who first played guitar with Zappa's band in 1988, commented on the chronic underassessment of Zappa's progressive side. "Frank never got as many props for that stuff because he would turn around and do a moronic pop song or three minutes of noise," Keneally said. "He didn't see anything wrong with moving from area to area rapidly."

Besides their creative struggles, the Mothers also suffered through typical group problems, mostly centering on money. Facing the incompatible chores of recording, touring and composing, Zappa made the tough judgment to close shop and gave his group their walking papers. The Mothers were unhappy with Zappa's decision, but many of them worked with him again in different contexts over time.

The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing

After disbanding the Mothers Of Invention, Zappa released an instrumental album. Hot Rats, showcasing his guitar playing and lan Underwood's diverse talents. The album's lone vocal track was "Willie The Pimp," an avant-blues workout sung by Zappa's high school buddy, Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), who collaborated with Zappa on several occasions, only to become alienated after nearly every encounter.

In 1970 Zappa assembled a band of interim Mothers to appear with conductor Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Symphony. His first live orchestral performance, the gig was expensive to produce and somewhat rushed. This theme would repeat itself often with Zappa's classical efforts. Lacking adequate rehearsal time and maintaining high expectations for bureaucratic, disinterested orchestras, the symphonic process frustrated Zappa's perfectionist tendencies. Later recordings with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Ensemble Modern performing "The Yellow Shark" demonstrate his progress in the classical realm.

Zappa's rock ensembles were more easily modified to suit his performance needs. Conducting the ribald stage theatrics of another version of the Mothers including singers Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan and drummer Aynsley Dunbar, Zappa toured with the group and featured them in his surrealistic road documentary, 200 Motels. This humorous edition of the Mothers met a premature end when a crazed concertgoer pushed Zappa off the stage in London. Zappa fell 15 feet, breaking several bones and crushing his larynx.

Returning to the safety of the studio, Zappa organized a big band and recorded the horn-heavy/quirk-jazz albums Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. From these sessions emerged a large touring ensemble that included trombonist Bruce Fowler. A veteran of several Zappa groups, Fowler recalled the more personal side of Zappa the bandleader. "Part of the reason Frank hired different guys or kept someone in the band was because of their sense of humor and their ability to mesh with his concepts on a personality basis."

Zappa soon discovered that instrumental big bands didn't appeal to the rock-oriented masses. A smaller group that coalesced around the recording of Over-Nite Sensation, however, signaled another shift in his touring ensembles. Emphasizing precision playing, greater reading ability and a sense of the absurd, musicians like keyboardist/singer George Duke, percussionist Ruth Underwood and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty came together as the nucleus of a killer road group.

The strength of this band's chops worked to Zappa's advantage on several levels. Singer/saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock was performing in a Hawaiian nightclub when Zappa invited him into the group, using the reputation of his accompanists as bait. "I came to the audition because Frank told me that George Duke and Jean-Luc Ponty were in his band, that set the standard right there," Brock said. "Those were the only two people whose names I recognized because when I first met Frank I hadn't even heard of him."

Zappa's group had evolved from outrageous rock philistines to technique-oriented virtuosos. Showcasing riotous onstage camaraderie, superb musicianship and complex-yet-hilarious compositions, Zappa's proto-rock-jazz-theater resulted in a musical flashpoint exhibited on the 1973 live album Roxy & Elsewhere. "It was jazz-fusion," Duke said. "But Frank would never admit it. He was always focused on presenting challenging, entertaining music that was funny and diverse. The technical aspect was important because he wanted to amaze people."

Bassist Fowler was in his early 20s when he joined the Mothers amid changing line-ups and endless rehearsals. "It was an era of discovery," he remembered. "We did a tour with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Frank started thinking in odd meters a lot more after that. We would rehearse and perfect it and memorize as much as we could – it was amazing and he kept you on your toes. Frank was extremely critical but he could control his anger. He never yelled, he just made the appropriate punishment."

Duke also recalled Zappa's strict nature on stage. "Once I screwed up something on 'Approximate,'" Duke said. "Frank stopped everything and announced, 'George made a mistake.' Then he says, 'OK, George, now do it by yourself.' I played the thing by myself and I was OK, but I'll tell you what: I never did it again. I made sure I rehearsed and practiced my part."

Extending Zappa's string of drum masters, Chester Thompson joined the ensemble, performing trademark time signatures with drummer Ralph Humphrey and Underwood. Thompson eventually left to join Weather Report. "Playing with Frank's band gave you credibility at a higher level," Thompson said. "It said a lot as far as gaining respect from other musicians. Everybody in L.A. was aware of what Frank was doing."

A place in Zappa's band was a prize and his auditions would often accommodate dozens of would-be players. Guitarist Denny Walley knew Zappa growing up in Lancaster but didn't work with him until the '70s. "Playing with Frank carried a cachet," he recalled. "Some of his cattle-call auditions were wide open. People were desperate and they wouldn't last 30 seconds. Frank would cut them quick. 'Nope. OK. Thank you.' A lot of those were brutal."

He Used To Cut The Grass

Playing with Zappa's band wasn't just an artistic accomplishment; tenure led to professional recognition. Zappa gave numerous musicians their careers, plucking them from obscurity and legitimizing their talents on a worldwide level. "Nobody would know me if it weren't for Frank," said drummer Terry Bozzio. "I was a decent drummer around San Francisco. He took me and in a month I was internationally known. I had credibility because with Zappa, you've got to be really good and able to play anything."

Zappa first saw guitarist/singer Adrian Belew playing cover tunes with a bar band in Nashville. Although Belew couldn't read music, Zappa hired him anyway. He worked with Zappa for one year before leaving to join David Bowie. "It's truly amazing how many great musicians passed through the school of Frank," Belew said. "He was dedicated at seeking out and encouraging other musicians. I owe everything to Frank in that sense; he gave me my initial start and put me on the international stage."

Zappa launched the careers of musicians as disparate as singer/guitarist Lowell George (of Little Feat fame) and fret-shredder Steve Vai. Vai first made contact with Zappa while he was still a student at Berklee, submitting a transcription of the notoriously difficult composition "The Black Page." Vai was drafted into the group full-time and dubbed "stunt guitarist," adding his dazzling needle-point to Zappa's formidable guitar sound.

Younger musicians were joining the band and a new phase of proficient rock ensembles satisfied Zappa's performance fantasies. Bassist Patrick O'Hearn was playing with saxophonist Joe Henderson when he hooked up with Zappa. He remembered a flexible bandleader who was inspired by the skills of his sidemen. "One thing that struck me about Frank was that he was one of the last composers that operated in a fashion similar to Duke Ellington," O'Heam said. "A lot of his compositions were adjustable, he'd bring in the charts but we were free to embellish."

The years of independent business practice had also paid off: Zappa's later groups enjoyed superior equipment, huge rehearsal spaces, knowledgeable tour managers, great soundmen and the privacy of his home studio. His bands played festivals and arenas, drawing thousands of fans on the strength of his name.

Driven by gifted drummers like Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta or Chad Wackerman, the concerts showcased Zappa's skills as an improvising guitarist, using swooping dynamics on structured rock compositions like "Black Napkins" and "The Torture Never Stops." On the collection Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, Zappa recontextualized his live guitar solos as spontaneous compositions to great effect.

By the late '70s, Zappa needed more help when preparing his band for a tour. The standard was three months of full-time rehearsals before hitting the road. The rehearsals were still eight to 10 hours long, but now Zappa would just show up for the second half of the day. Bassist Arthur Barrow served for a time as Zappa's "Clonemeister" – a surrogate musical director in charge of the band when the maestro was absent.

"The intensity was 10 times more than I expected it to be," Barrow said. "The feeling after his rehearsals – especially when Frank was writing new stuff and throwing ideas at you – was this constant mental exercise. I remember driving home and it felt as if my brain was a muscle physically contorting in my head."

Besides using imposing musicians, Zappa also made sure to feature expressive vocalists in his group. In the beginning there was the twisted crooning of Collins and Estrada, and then the mock-rock ravings of Volman and Kaylan. Zappa had a recognizable voice of his own but he surrounded himself with singers rooted in great black vocal traditions. "It's interesting, his association with soul and r&b," Duke said. "Frank liked dichotomy and he would force different things together to see what would happen."

Over the years Zappa incorporated the soul-driven vocals of Brock, Ray White, Bobby Martin and Ike Willis. "Frank was inspired by great vocals and he was a big fan of doo-wop and early rhythm and blues," Belew said. "His was one of the few bands that had many good vocalists come through."

Singer Bob Harris ("the boy soprano") felt that Zappa made a special place for him in the band just to have those great harmonies. "Instrumentally, I was nowhere near the level of players like Tommy Mars," Harris said. "I ended up playing little keyboard parts but my gig was the falsetto guy. The chemistry of Ike Willis, Ray White and I was really something special."

Zappa's bands were so well rehearsed that they intuitively knew what to do on stage. Throughout the decades, Zappa as a conductor would spontaneously jump up in the air and the players had to know what song to go into when he landed without being told. Some on-the-spot changes were directed via mental communication, while others were commanded by little hand signals.

Singer/guitarist Willis was still in college when he first met Zappa and he ended up playing on albums like Joe's Garage. While the music had evolved, Willis' on-stage responsibilities were very much the same as those followed by the Mothers Of Invention so many years before. "The rules are, keep at least one eye on Frank at all times," Willis said. "Because at any time, anywhere, for any reason or no reason at all, he might decide to change the song or go someplace else, or stop the song, or whatever."

Touring Can Make You Crazy

While Zappa's early albums were mostly studio creations with occasional live tracks, Zappa came to prefer live performances for his albums. During the final era of his commercial output, albums like Tinseltown Rebellion, Baby Snakes and even the basic tracks of Sheik Yerbouti were all recorded in concert.

On his series of live anthologies You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, Zappa juxtaposed performances of the early Mothers alongside later groups. Using concert recordings like building blocks, Zappa edited together performances from different eras, forming new versions of his classic compositions. These non-linear productions illustrated Zappa's theory regarding the conceptual continuity of his lifework, a systematic view he called "project/object."

Colaiuta spent a few years playing with Zappa and he related to the conceptual nature of Zappa's metaphysical live recordings. "Frank loved the idea of being able to manipulate things, bend space and time in the studio," Colaiuta said. "But live performance was the most intriguing thing to him. Who's to say that those performances from different time periods aren't supposed to connect with one another in some quantum environment that we don't know about?"

Zappa's final touring band was spectacular, boasting a five-man horn section and the percussion work of Ed Mann and Wackerman. Their diverse performances were documented on several live CD collections, including Make A Jazz Noise Here, Broadway The Hard Way and The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life.

Wackerman still marvels at the stylistic depth of that 1988 ensemble. "We had 120 tunes rehearsed so it was completely different every night," he said. "Frank would change up styles constantly. People might know a tune as reggae, but he might decide to do it as heavy metal. We rehearsed so much that Frank could change anything and the band could do it with confidence."

From his first group to the last, Zappa made sure that the music they played was imbued with his distinctive personality. There was always humor, politics, sex, satire, social commentary, great musicianship and lots of hard work.

Gail Zappa commented on the consistency within her husband's many ensembles. "The quality with which the music was delivered never really changed," she said. "There was always a standard that was maintained – it just comes from a different experience. Frank worked with a lot of musicians and there were very few people who weren't capable and couldn't deliver."

And you still can't do that on stage anymore.