The Brass From Utopia

Posted: April 18, 2014 in fz related album review, transcriptions, zappa
The Norwegian Wind Ensemble, The Brass From Utopia, NORWIND records, 2013

The Norwegian Wind Ensemble, The Brass From Utopia, NORWIND records, 2013


Great (old) news from Norway. In October 2013 The Norwegian Wind Ensemble released his tribute to Frank Zappa: The Brass From Utopia. In the words of the artistic leader Stian Aareskjold: “In 1993 I, as many others, was blown away by Frank Zappa’s record with Ensemble Modern, The Yellow Shark, from that day I dug into the complex, wonderful and humorous world of Frank Zappa, I wanted to play his music. And I wanted to do it in a new way. Not as a copy of Zappa’s own band. Not as a copy of the Ensemble Modern. I wanted to do it for brass and percussion. It took a while to find the right group of brass players, but The Norwegian Wind Ensemble has got the perfect mix of musicians to express the many styles and moods of Zappa’s intriguing music. They took the Challenge!” (from the liner notes).

The outcome is truly entertaining, the Ensemble is tight and deliver a very accurate performance, mostly of familiar arrangements adapted for this particular setting, with a lot of new details that contribute to create their original voice as Zappa performers. The album includes three new transcriptions also, and this is a really appealing part of their work, for sure for who is looking for a new light upon the Zappa catalogue. Namely Fembot In a Wet T- Shirt, I Promise not to Come in Your Mouth and Blessed Relief. And between those three I would choose re-orchestration of the Zappa in New York song as the most intriguing. The original is great and The Norwegian Wind Ensemble succeeded in rendering the ambiguous tone of such a “sensitive instrumental ballad for late-nite easy listening”, and for creatures from the outer space.

From the Det Norske Blåseensemble (DNBE) profile web page, and with a little help of a pernicious on-line translator, we understand that the Ensemble is a very old institution, being founded in 1774, that today focuses on improvised music and early music, especially baroque.

In the case of the Zappa album, “Det Norske Zappa-ensemble” is a thirteen piece band: ten brass musicians (two of them at bass trombone and tuba), one drummer and two percussionists.

Here are the complete credits from back and inner sleeve (note that it is a ZFT approved project).

The Norwegian Wind Ensemble, The Brass From Utopia, digipack back cover

The Norwegian Wind Ensemble, The Brass From Utopia, digipack back cover


The Norwegian Wind Ensemble, The Brass From Utopia, digipack inner cover

The Norwegian Wind Ensemble, The Brass From Utopia, digipack inner cover


The album starts with Peaches en Regalia, the reference arrangement is that of the Ensemble Modern (from Greggery Peccary and other Persuasions). In this case the piece starts at a slower tempo and there are a lot of differences in the orchestration, such as a written trombone solo (0:58-1:14) instead of a woodwinds/guitar section, just to give an example. A perfect intro to the sound of the Ensemble.

Medley from “Make a Jazz Noise Here” declares his origin in the name. This arrangement sounds quite natural due to the brass nature of the original. The Tuba lines are a truly entertaining substitute of the Scott Thunes parts. And the xylophone instead of the electric guitar intro to Theme from Lumpy Gravy is a choice that gives a slightly different tone to the humor inside. It would be interesting to hear this very same version in a mix where the percussion is more upfront, it seems too much far here.

For the next two pieces the reference arrangement is the Dog/Meat Yellow Shark duo. The lack of woodwinds adds drama in some passages, during the first Dog Breath theme for instance, the band timbre sounds really dark.

Back to Make a Jazz Noise Here for the first part of Big Swifty. The classical quotes are here also: Lohengrin, prelude to act III (Wagner), Carmen (Bizet) and the 1812 Overture (Tchaikovsky). The following Best Band improvised “Jazz Noise” section is replaced by a long trumpet solo where the Ensemble swings like a great Jazz Big Band. Back to the original for the closing section.

Fembot In a Wet T-Shirt, the first new transcription, follows and goes with the Joe’s Garage version until more or less 2:15 in the original, which features a middle section with the short composition #8, and materials from the first movement of Mo ‘N Herb’s Vacation. Especially for this middle section the result is brilliant, and the Ensemble is really at ease with the swing nature of the rest of the piece.

Revised Music for Low Budget Orchestra follows the line of the Ensemble Modern arrangement included in Greggery Peccary and other Persuasions, but of course the orchestration is substantially different. The “guitar solo section” is given to the lead trombone and to the trumpet in replacement of the trombone/violin homologous of the Ensemble Modern, and the result is likewise effective.

I Promise not to Come in Your Mouth enters and some sort of heavy listeners will fly to New York, right away in 1976. The guitar solo section is played by the trombone, while the keyboard solo one is played by the trumpet. Thanks to DNBE the world has a new reference for this piece, to be hopefully played a lot more in the future.

Echinda’s Arf (Of You) follows the original, the brass way. Being so near to the Roxy by Proxy tour de force, the above mentioned heavy listener may only hope for a next two drummers brass version.

This Blessed Relief sounds already as a classic, as the other two new transcriptions. One should only ask why they materialized so late in this form. Great trombone solo, great overall swing.

With Dupree’s Paradise we are again back to Make a Jazz Noise Here, with the same approach followed for Big Swifty. Here also the original abstract improvised section is replaced with a Jazz Big Band section. The result is the shortest version ever conceived, but a lot swinging anyway.

G-Spot Tornado for the finale, of course the Ensemble Modern is the reference. A big challenge with a sparkling result. Size of course matters, the impact of the Ensemble Modern full orchestra and throttle is huge, but this accurate rendition is highly entertaining and the long final gong sound is a perfect closer.

“The gong always gets ’em.” Frank Zappa, “Carved In The Rock”, Roxy by Proxy

The Norwegian Wind Ensemble, Echinda’s Arf (Of You), Yellow Snow Festival, Larvik, Norway, February 11, 2012


  1. mmbalint says:

    Hi Mister 🙂

    Nice to read your review – MIGHT change my mind, somtime later, who knows, because I feel a bit the opposite about this album.

    – I bought it online, but was not easy: their homepage did not answer at all, and it turned out that there is NO WAY that I could buy it from my country, so my bought it for me from Canada, and sent it over to me;
    – In the digital version there is NO booklet of any kind… The band do not sent it either.

    I was so happy hearing this band’s LIVE versions on Youtube, those were JUST GREAT – so after hearing this album, I was a bit disappoited. It’s interesting that you say they say in the booklet that the band did not want to copy the original: unfortunately that is exactly waht they did: sometimes the exact notes in solos, exactly the same „joke” in Big Swifty (Carmen): it was disappointing to me.

    Okay, the music itself is quite all right, but nothing special: after a few listens I almost forgot about it: how much more LIFE there is in Ed Palermo’s orchestrations! (BTW: they DID send the booklet with the digital version! 🙂 ). Here what we get is a good, but way-too-well-known version of FZ’s music: its all right, but there are others who do itt better, and more bravely.

    Best points: Revised Music, I promise…
    Low points: Peaches, G-Spot (close to the Yellow Shark version which is by far not the favorite of mine: they just forget about the richness and playfulness of the drum in the original – here, also). Okay, not REALLY bad, any of them, but just soooo obvious…

    Ps: I still did not manage to get the Proxy liner notes by RU… You?…

    • rhoerer says:

      I’m convinced they did a great job, sometimes near to the originals, bur with their own voice. To have a peculiar and distinctive sound I think is one of the most important feat in music.

  2. mmbalint says:

    “sometimes near to the originals” – yes, that’s what they TRY, but that’s also something FZ never did: never wanted to sound like the previous lineup, album, whatever: always changed, that’s the reason it became so live and fresh.

    What do you think of Ed Palermo’s covers? I have all of their albums, and love the way they CHANGE everything to their lineup, and the music becomes really zappa-esque, really live and fun to listen. Trying to be “the same” or “similar” is not a good strategy when it’s FZ. (It’s interesting that they said the opposite: “I wanted to do it in a new way”. Why they did not?

    (I’ve made a mistake earlier: “my brother bought it for me from Canada”.)

    • rhoerer says:

      The point for me here is that they do sound different, and it sounds good to me. Excluding the three new arrangements, the difference is determined by the orchestration and by the way they play, a swing dressed up with fresh garlic!
      On the other hand you recognize Ed Palermo as a FZ voice for his jazzy arrangements which often bring bits and bytes from other sources, with a recognizable style. If you like that kind of jazz big band approach better than a brass band sound, you are likely to appreciate Ed Palermo more. Ed Palermo sounds often too “round” to me, it’s a matter of taste, even though I agree that the arrangements are always elegant, and all musicians are great.
      In any case, I think is not a matter to be near or far to the original, it’s a mater of how you sound. Take the Jon Poole tribute, although VERY near to the original it has his own fantastic voice.

      • mmbalint says:

        (how interesting it is to have this conversation – makes me listen to the album again, who knows how my opinion will change after a few listens and/or chat here. 🙂 ).

        On the other hand:

        „In any case, I think is not a matter to be near or far to the original, it’s a mater of how you sound.”

        To me: just the opposite. 🙂 It seems that the thing we prefer is different – the Jon Poole tribute you suggested was an interesting thing, excelent music, but (sorry) after the 4th or 5th song I’ve just stopped it and changed the music in my player: it’s so very much the SAME as the original, that I do not have any reason to listen to it. Why not the original? It has the SAME singinG voice, the same track order, etc. Trying to be „as nearly the same as possible” is not a good strategy – that’s the reason I got tired of listenning to Dweezil’s stuff (after seeing him live 3 times). The last pain for me was hearing the Bebop Tango dance contest (that was a spontenaeus LIVE event!) reproduced (!) on stage WORD BY WORD… Really painful – for me.

        ED PALERMO:
        „If you like that kind of jazz big band approach better than a brass band sound” – well, the main thing for me in Ed Palermo is definitely not the sound but the STRUCTURE, the way they re-arrange the tunes: not just to be „different”, but to nicely FIT to their very own lineup. One of my favorite is Night Scool: the improvised lines beautifully blend into the written parts: the ORIGINALITY comes not from the exact notes, but from the SPIRIT, and the fun! Elegant?.. Well, not the word that expresses it for me – it is more „funny”, „playful”, „rich” to me. The Norwegians play the Ensemble Modern arrangement, sometimes the Jazz Noise arrangement… „some other band’s clothes”. („big band approach” – „brass band sound”: whats the difference?… The „sound” is quite similar to me with this 2 bands, but the approasc is REALLY different.)

  3. mmbalint says:

    (another cover-album [by a big band] I like is the one by LeBocal [France]. The surprising thing was that I managed to get their own album EGO, and I like this one even more then their FZ-album. So: both is fantastic: brae, inventive, exact, improvised, free… GOOD. 🙂 ).

    • rhoerer says:

      I think a taste with music is a like taste with food. If you like it is perfect, if you don’t, you simply go for something else. What you like today maybe different from you liked, and, most relevantly, from you will. Said that, it seems that today your criteria with FZ covers is “be different”, while mine is “develop a personal sound, adding your home curry”.
      As for Ed Palermo, thank you for “rich” and “playful”, these adjectives convince me more than “elegant”.
      And also thank you for mentioning LeBocal. I liked their FZ album but I would not normally go for such kind of projects, if not related to Zappa. Normally is the key here, I always expect exceptions, and I will look for the EGO album. My guess is that in your case this kind of “food” (jazz big bands) is part of your regular diet.
      Just for curiosity, these are a couple of examples of my personal diet:

      And as far as jazz big bands, I would give just a couple of references from my today “diet”: Mike Westbrook and Don Ellis.

      And of course thank you for the conversation!

  4. mmbalint says:

    … now it turned out that these days I only listen to FZ cover-bands. 🙂
    BTW did you get the Proxy album itself? Unfortunately I still did not manage to read the liner notes, in any format… 😦

  5. mmbalint says:

    Check this one out:

    just GREAT, funny – in great audio quality! 🙂


  6. […] Ensemble Ascolta, Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, Ensemble Kontraste, Ensemble MusikFabrik, Norwegian Wind Ensemble, Absolute Ensemble, Ensemble Ambrosius), not to mention the Ensemble […]

  7. […] Norwegian Wind Ensemble, The Brass From Utopia (NORWIND records, 2013) […]

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