Frank Zappa: The Mother Of All Reinventions

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By Charles Shaar Murray
The Independent, 21 November 2003

If cigarettes and coffee are available in the afterlife, the shade of Frank Zappa is probably allowing himself a wry smile from beneath his formidable moustache as he fires up another Winston, enjoys a slug of steaming tarry liquid and contemplates the controversy his work still generates 10 years after his death at the age of 53.

That sinister organisation known as "The Friends Of Radio 3" is up in arms over the station's decision to devote an edition of Jazz File to Zappa's work. "If they put Frank Zappa on," a FoR3 spokesperson warns direly, "they are likely to alienate jazz fans the way they have classical fans."

Actually, it's worse than FoR3 feared. The Zappa special in question, Jazz From Hell, which I wrote and will present, takes up three Jazz File programmes on successive Saturdays. That's three occasions on which unsuspecting listeners risk exposure to Zappa's unique musical universe. And all at the taxpayers' expense!

Why should the notion of giving air time to Frank Zappa be so provocative? Well, "provocative" was Zappa's middle name (actually, it was Vincent) and through a career spanning almost three decades, he managed to offend an astonishing variety of people for an equally astonishing variety of reasons, ranging from his juxtaposition of high art and low comedy – and Zappa's comedy got really low – to his behaviour on and off stage. For years the key image of Zappa was a poster of him sitting on the lavatory. In 1967 he appeared on the cover of Melody Maker with his hair in bunches, wearing a dress and padded bra. Almost 20 years later, his testimony before a US Senate committee in the "Porn Rock" inquiry so upset the Parents Music Resource Center they demanded that his 1986 album Jazz From Hell (after which our series is named) should carry a "parental advisory" sticker. The album was entirely instrumental.

Yet Zappa was no wild man of rock. He was a non-drugging workaholic who rarely left his Los Angeles home studio except to tour. Between 1966, when the first Mothers of Invention album Freak Out! was released, and his death in 1993, he managed to compose, perform and record more than 60 albums in a bewildering variety of musical idioms from hard rock to contemporary classical; to function as a social satirist; and to earn a place in the front rank of a generation of guitarists that included Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton.

Zappa saw the jazz world as fair game. "Jazz is not dead," he once said, "it just smells funny." He disliked bebop and never listened to jazz for pleasure, preferring his first loves: 1950s R&B and avant-garde 20th-century classical music, alongside Indian, Arabic and Eastern European music and, somewhat incongruously, sea shanties.

So why should we dedicate a prime slice of air time to a man who claimed to dislike jazz? In the mid-Sixties, he formed the Mothers of Invention by taking over the leadership of a rocking bar-band called The Soul Giants. He soon realised that the original Mothers didn't have the musical skills to execute his compositions the way he wanted to hear them. He needed trained musicians, and the only ones capable of meeting his requirements came from the jazz and classical worlds. He augmented the original Mothers by recruiting just such musicians.

By the time the Mothers released Uncle Meat in 1969, Zappa's band included three first-class jazz players – the keyboard player Don Preston, the saxophonist Bunk Gardner and the pianist/alto saxophonist Ian Underwood – and Art Tripp, who had spent two years as a percussionist with the Cincinnati Philharmonic. Not to showcase their talents would have been foolish. The Mothers began to play jazz festivals and impress upon audiences that, despite their freakish appearance and anarchic clowning, these Mothers could play.

Temporarily defeated by the financial burden of a 10-piece band that wasn't selling an awful lot of records, Zappa disbanded the Mothers at the end of 1969. He'd spent the autumn recording Hot Rats, a primarily instrumental "solo album" leaning heavily on Underwood's keyboard and sax skills and providing plenty of soloing space for Underwood and violinists "Sugar Cane" Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty as well as for the leader's own idiosyncratic electric guitar. Pieces such as 'Little Umbrellas' and 'It Must Be A Camel' rendered it a close rival to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew as an influence on the jazz-rock movement.

After the incident at the Rainbow Theatre in London in December 1971, when Zappa was attacked on stage and seriously injured, he abandoned the rowdy, populist edition of the Mothers and recorded a second jazz-oriented, mainly instrumental album called Waka/Jawaka, followed by an almost classicist big-band jazz album called The Grand Wazoo. That line-up, a brassy 17-piece, even toured, with Zappa (still on crutches) spending more time conducting than playing guitar.

After that, Zappa regularly employed jazz musicians and gave them plenty of interesting stuff to do. George Duke did two stints with Zappa, one with a mid-Seventies line-up that some consider the best he had.

From the Sixties to his last tour in 1988, Zappa's output has been studded with gems to intrigue jazz fans. One suspects that the somewhat frenzied reaction to news of the Zappa shows on Radio 3 has been more a reaction to his fearsome reputation than a considered response to his music. Zappa was, after all, a serious composer who has had orchestral music performed by the Ensemble Moderne and conducted by the likes of Pierre Boulez, Kent Nagano and Zubin Mehta.

In last weekend's Independent on Sunday, Nick Coleman described his relationship with a friend who is a Zappa fanatic. "Where I hear smug, overwrought, paranoid, snobbish, facetious cold music of limitless ill grace," Coleman wrote, "my friend hears magnificently intricate, humorous, bewitchingly sly, deeply honest music of ground-breaking originality and imagination."

I know what both of them mean. I've heard both points of view justified in Zappa's canon, sometimes on the same album, sometimes even in the same song. It's part of what made Zappa the infuriating paradox he was: a man whose political position somehow encompassed left- and right-wing ideas, a purveyor of Swiftian satire and mind-numbing knob gags, and the musician who navigated by the twin pole stars of Igor Stravinsky and Johnny "Guitar" Watson.

It would be a cliché to say that there was only one Frank Zappa, especially as there were so many facets to what was an eclectic yet cohesive body of work. On the next three Saturdays, we hope to delight your ears, engage your brain and play with your poodle.

'Jazz from Hell', BBC Radio 3, 6pm, 22, 29 Nov and 6 Dec 2003

© Charles Shaar Murray, 2003