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Frank Zappa: The Big Band Years

First an update on my previous survey: after a couple more listens, I am really digging 200 Motels. It casts the widest net of any of the albums so far, ranging from very simple rock to atonal orchestral pieces (if you have any doubts that Zappa had real classical compositional chops, find The Frank Zappa Songbook and check out the orchestral manuscript excerpts there), which makes it tough to get a handle on. But I kind of look at it (this goes for a lot of Zappa albums) like an interesting topographical landscape that is mostly underwater. At first you just see a few islands; these are the easily identifiable musical elements that come along a few times per side and are all you can really orient yourself by at first. Over repeated listens, the waters recede bit by bit, and you can identify more and more elements of the musical landscape that were opaque at first. Eventually the whole work becomes familiar, and you can begin to understand it as a whole.

This is the way I approach a lot of modern classical music; a few years back I spent a month listening to Elliott Carter’s first string quartet once every day in the background, and by the end of it I certainly did recognize a decent fraction of it. Of course Zappa is easier to process this way because those initial landmarks are pop riffs rather than odd intervallic collections, but the principle is the same and in some ways it can be more rewarding because there’s more to hang on to.

Anyway, on to the big band years, which is really just one year, 1972. These two records are mostly instrumental and have big horn sections, and revisit some of the jazz elements he started exploring in Hot Rats back in 1969.

Waka/Jawaka (1972) is less successful for me. Side one is completely occupied by a single piece, “Big Swifty”, which starts with a very promising multi-metric theme (or “head”, I guess), and then wastes it by settling into a jam for most of its 17 minutes. The two vocal pieces that follow seem to be generally regarded as space-fillers, though the second one, the country-tinged “It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal”, is actually my favorite thing on the album, then things are finished off with the title track, 11 minutes long with again too much of it occupied by solos.

(There are a lot of contradictory elements in Zappa’s work, but to me one of the oddest is the character of his solos. Most of his music, even when it’s dumb, is pretty complicated, sometimes deceptively so, but when it comes to solos he’s happy to sit on a couple of chords for five minutes wanking away. Maybe there’s more there I’m not seeing yet, but so far they’re not grabbing me.)

The Grand Wazoo (1972) is a big improvement. The whole thing just feels tighter and more directed, and side two in particular has a nice arc from beginning to end. There are practically no vocals at all on this record, probably a plus for a lot of people.

After a short tour presenting this music, Zappa assembled yet one more version of the Mothers of Invention and returned to rock with sort of a prog flavor. Stay tuned,

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