Waiting for ‘Zappa’

I suppose most people, these days, know of Frank Zappa, though probably not too many have heard his music. My first introduction to Frank Zappa’s music came many years ago with his 1977 double-album, Zappa In New York. The opening number was his take on the theme of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat, exploring the same conceptual ideas of loneliness and temptation faced by a hero tempted by the devil. They were, of course, quite different pieces of music; where Stravinsky used dissonant percussion and march-time, Zappa wrote a disco-style vamp. Oh, and Stravinsky didn’t call his piece Titties and Beer, either.

That, to me, summed up Zappa; a genius composer in his own right – someone equally adept at writing complex modern orchestral pieces as doowop, whose ouvre encompassed prog-rock, jazz, disco, doowop and much more. He defied classification: those who regarded him a rock guitarist with penchant for grubby lyrics missed the point. He was a composer – and one of the more accomplished American composers of the twentieth century. Here’s his rock band (with Steve Vai on guitar) performing Sinister Footwear, for instance. It’s an orchestral number he wrote:

Zappa later performed the Royal March from Stravinsky’s work on his album Make A Jazz Noise Here (1991), immediately followed by part of the third movement of Bartok’s 3rd Piano Concerto. The album also features a marvellous cover of Oliver Nelson’s Stolen Moments. But I digress.

Zappa was, without question, a genius, equally at home making political commentary as music, whose autobiography – The Real Frank Zappa Book (1991) mused on the concept of parenting as dada. He died of cancer, aged 53, in 1993 – just as his orchestral compositions were being recognised for the genius they were by the musical establishment in Europe. Yup – the guy who wrote numbers such as ‘Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow’, and ‘Montana’ (a ridiculous song about dental floss) was picked up by the snobbish intellectuals of the music world and recognised for his calibre.

I’ve been a fan for decades. And the point of this post is that Alex Winter – as in ‘Ted’ from ‘Bill and Ted’ – has just released a documentary, built with unbridled access to the motherlode of all things Zappa, the family ‘vault’, the archive Zappa built over the decades of his career.

I’ll be watching it. Will you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

3 thoughts on “Waiting for ‘Zappa’

  1. Zappa was a name we all knew, but I confess, I never listened to his music. I was more into Pink Floyd, Supertramp and Yes. That said, this piece you’ve included is rather good. 🙂

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    1. I listened to a lot of that too at the time (still do – managed to see Rick Wakeman live a few years ago, brilliant performer). Zappa’s compositions were brilliant. He had this ability to match obscure time signatures and dissonant melodic structures in ways that really worked. It demanded absolute musicianship to play & the musicians he worked with were all talented virtuoso performers, many of them university music graduates (George Duke, for instance – who was a stunningly talented jazz composer and musician). The story went that when Zappa organised orchestral performances of the same pieces, the LSO struggled with it. At the time there was a conceit in the classically trained/Royal Schools of Music world that ‘rock musicians’ (ptooey) were inept by comparison. So Zappa telling the LSO that his rock band could play the piece – why couldn’t they – did not go down well. He also wasn’t happy with the brass section coming back drunk after a lunch break. However, it was all recorded – I have the albums – and later he worked with the Ensemble Modern.

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