That funny smell

Posted: November 7, 2016 in zappa, zappology
Frank Zappa, by The-OXette @DeviantArt

Frank Zappa, by The-OXette @DeviantArt


After a first listen of Little Dots, I already have the feeling that it will remain in my audioscape for a long time. And listening to the Petit Wazoo band back again after a few years, I recalled a 2011 Italian press article: Luca Conti, Frank Zappa: lo strano odore del jazz, Musica Jazz n. 5 (maggio 2011). Or FZ: the funny smell of jazz.

Luca Conti, now director of the Italian monthly magazine Musica Jazz, has been so kind the let this blog share his article that gives interesting context information related to the early seventies jazz scene, and properly focuses on the relatioship between Zappa and his musicians, and between Zappa and jazz.

Please click THIS LINK for the Italian version, an English translation follows.


Luca Conti
Frank Zappa: lo strano odore del jazz
Musica Jazz n. 5 (maggio 2011)

Zappa had a dream and he probably ended up confessing it in one of his various interviews too: he could do without musicians, a human category that he despised with all his might since 1969 – that is since the disbanding of the Mothers of Invention – making use of them just because, in a very Ellingtonian way, he needed someone to perform his compositions. Judging from the direction he had taken for some time at the time of his death (1993), and considering the huge progress that information technology applied to music was going through, such a course was widely feasible.

Zappa has always been obsessively pursuing absolute perfection, uncompromising to the point of self-destructiveness when dealing with performance mistakes (his own, but also and especially those of his musicians), relentless in demanding hundred and ten percent from those who wanted to play with him (as handed down through dozens of anecdotes about his legendary auditions), and above all convinced that music that cannot be performed does not exist: when the human element fails machines enter the stage.

All this could not obviously come out in favor of an untroubled and easygoing relationship with the musicians he hired to perform extraordinarily difficult scores, enough to convince him that in the long run he could probably do without musicians, flesh and blood. In 1982, the purchase of a Synclavier – a truly expensive system that served as a digital synthesizer and sampler – allowed him to implement his old plan: to do everything by himself replacing the human element with technology (or even better: making technology human; so to eliminate every mistake, absolutely).

Such an approach would seem, at least in theory, the exact antithesis of that commonly used in jazz, although since 1941 – in The Sheik Of Araby – Sidney Bechet certainly did not hesitate to overdub clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums, just as Lennie Tristano career long tape manipulations are well-known.

And it is quite remarkable that Zappa has decided to name his first full Synclavier album (apart from a song, and excluding an implausible baroque divertissement such as Francesco Zappa) precisely Jazz From Hell as to highlight such a dichotomy even more. There is not much jazz in Jazz From Hell actually, at least not much jazz as usually taken: however we find the evident intention to tame the machine, to bend its sound characteristics to an outcome as much natural as possible, with no need to deal with idiosyncrasies of real musicians, mostly source of problems if not trouble from his point of view.

The comparison with Tristano is not as out of place as it might appear: in a totally surprising way, theoretically too. We know the diatribes that occurred at that time between the pianist – who claimed the creative legitimacy of his editing interventions with pre-recorded rhythm tracks – and the critics who quite explicitly accused him to “cheat”: people do not care much to listen to music, rather to compete with it, that was the Tristano bitter conclusion. Almost identical words to those used by Zappa in 1990, after he overdubbed new rhythm sections for some of his historical album for their reissue on CD: “I’m actually flattered that people are listening that closely to the albums, but what’s disturbing me is that they’re listening to the production more than the music.” (Frank Zappa Discusses Upcoming CD Projects by Pete Howard, ICE, September & October, 1990).

One example among many: Rubber Shirt released in ’79 in Sheik Yerbouti, perhaps the most selling Zappa album. Undoubtedly a typical jazz performance: a dialogue less than three-minute long between bass (Patrick O’Hearn) and drums (Terry Bozzio) defined by Zappa himself an example of “sensitive, interesting interplay.” Remarkably, such a duet never took place, although Bozzio and O’Hearn had been in Zappa’s touring band for a long time.

According to the album liner notes, the song have been created starting from a live 1974 4/4 guitar solo, upon which O’Hearn overdubbed a new bass part (“not completely an improvised “bass solo”,” Zappa hastens to point out). After that, the new bass line has been used with the drums track of a completely different song, a piece in 11/4 that had nothing to do with the previous one. Therefore the guitar solo is disappeared, and we can listen to O’Hearn and Bozzio simultaneously improvising on different pieces (and at different times).

As a matter of fact, Tristano pursued the same procedure on his first Atlantic album, where Peter Ind and Jeff Morton rhythm section came from different performances from those later completed with the piano (Ind himself relates about it in his book Jazz Visions: Lennie Tristano and his Legacy, Equinox Books 2005). Of course, we can ask ourselves what was Zappa purpose while undertaking such an operation. Perhaps Bozzio and O’Hearn, musicians with a strong jazz background (the bass player had been a Gary Peacock student for many years and together with Bozzio had extensively played with the likes of Joe Henderson and Julian Priester), would have been able to simultaneously improvise each one at a different tempo, however Zappa was convinced of the contrary. “You can ask [your musicians] for it, but it won’t happen,” he said to Bob Marshall in 1988, “Suppose you were a composer […], there’s only one way to hear that, and that’s to do what I did.” As we can see, it is the same philosophy of Tristano.

Another significant example of the Zappa poetics concerns Inca Roads, one of the cornerstones of his entire career. The original version (different from the one included in 1975 in One Size Fits All) has been released in 1996 in The Lost Episodes and has been recorded 1973 with Jean-Luc Ponty, George Duke, Ralph Humphrey, Bruce and Tom Fowler, Ian and Ruth Underwood. After a long exposition, a truly complicated theme leaves room for trombone, flute and marimba solos; if it is not jazz pure and simple, we would like to know what it is. In fact, the first signs of this piece begin to appear since 1969, in the guitar solo of Holiday In Berlin, Full Blown; however, what is truly unique is how the solos performed on Inca Roads during the February 1979 London concerts then become, in the hands of Zappa, the starting material for at least three songs with different titles, all included in the double CD Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar (originally three different vinyl records). And we can go on and on.

Apparently the relationship between Zappa and jazz seems to have always been intermittent, concentrated in periods in which the jazz component has been really emphasized, reduced instead when rock has been the main language (for instance with the bands of the first half of the eighties). We suspect that such an understanding has been pursued and induced by Zappa himself by releasing, while alive, a deliberately confusing official discography.

Thanks to the advent of the CD, to the Rykodisc reprint of Zappa’s entire opus as “approved by the artist” versions – as already mentioned, often with new mixes and overdubs coming from historical material – and also thanks to the publication of a series of studio and live unreleased recordings, it has finally begun clear that the jazz practice has belong to the entire career of the Master from Baltimore, not really in a concealed way, making it impossible not to consider him also a jazz musician, among his various qualifications. Indeed we believe that, in some respects, Zappa has always wanted to conceal the most obvious features of his interest for jazz, not that much in terms of habits, rather for specific jazz characteristics, to avoid being locked into a cage destined to stay around him tightly. So his jazz incursions have always been seeded sparingly throughout his albums, dropped as Hop-o’-My-Thumb stones to indicate one of many possible paths within a monumental and largely to be explored opus.

For a long time it has been believed that very well-known albums such as Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, both from 1972, represented the most clear point of contact between Zappa and jazz. In September of that year (confined to a wheelchair having being thrown in an orchestra pit by a deranged man) Zappa had left on tour with a remarkably large band: six brasses, six winds, keyboards, vibraphone and marimba, two guitars, cello, bass, drums and percussion. After the Hollywood Bowl opening concert, the band had flown to Europe for four shows (one of which was canceled) before returning to the US for other performances. The last concert, on September 24 in Boston, has been released on CD as Wazoo in 2007 only, it is an impressive document of the group sound and performance power (why it has remained unreleased for thirty-five years remains a mystery).

Also, we would say that it should be a must for any serious big band fan, since it completely belongs to those contemporary experiments conducted by Don Ellis and composers-arrangers like Hank Levy during that very period. Among other things, in those times, most of the musicians that play in Wazoo went in and out from Ellis Orchestra, but also from those of Stan Kenton and Gerald Wilson, as well as some of them would have been part of Blood Sweat & Tears, for example: Tom Malone, Glen Ferris, Mike Altschul, Jay Migliori, Earle Dumler, Ray Reed, Charles Owens, Ken Shoroyer and still others.

Having concluded this tour (economically disastrous), Zappa instantly left again for a second round of concerts, much longer – three months – and with a “portable” version of the former monstrous band: ten musicians, including him, all from the Grand Wazoo band plus trumpeter Gary Barone, yet another veteran from the California jazz scene and an old Shelly Manne pal. The new group had been re-baptised, no doubt, Petit Wazoo (however in retrospect, or so it seems) and a selection of their performances has been released on CD a few years back only (Imaginary Diseases, 2006).

Barone himself recalls that – during that tour – Zappa used to go to any jam session in the city after the concerts, right because, according to him, he was interested into diving – in his way – into the jazz environment, precisely as he had done in 1969 when, invited to Belgium to present the Actuel Festival organized by Byg, he found himself playing – as well as with Pink Floyd and the Caravan – with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago, with the Archie Shepp group (which included, among others, Philly Joe Jones and Grachan Moncur) and with the rhythm section of the Chris McGregor Group, namely Johnny Dyani and Louis Moholo.

The Grad Wazoo band will appear again in 1975, under the deranged moniker of Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Orchestra, for a series of studio recordings and, in September, for a notorious concert at the Royce Hall in Los Angeles; in December 1976 Zappa will perform live in New York with his regular band augmented with the likes of Randy and Michael Brecker, Ronnie Cuber, Lou Marine and Dave Samuels, while in 1988 he will focus on his last world tour – that would bring him close to an economic meltdown – with one of the most versatile and phantasmagorical bands of his whole career, that could face any genre and any arrangement with supreme ease. A band well represented on disc (Broadway the Hard Way, Make a Jazz Noise Here, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life), but seriously undermined by relationship problems between some of the members.

Apparently, Zappa was so disappointed by the pugnacity and the infantilism of many of his musicians to convince himself once and for all that he could do without musicians, sure he had to. And we will always remain curious to know if two of the greatest manipulators of men in the history of modern music, that is Ellington and Zappa – who met in person in 1969 during a festival organized by George Wein – they had never discussed such an issue. Perhaps they would have agreed.


The 1988 Bob Marshall interview is available through Wiki Jawaka, while the Gary Barone interview mentioned by Luca Conti has been conducted by Charles Ulrich: An Interview with Petit Wazoo Trumpeter Gary Barone. This latter interview is part of the The Petit Wazoo Tour web pages, a nice place to raise your FZ in 1972 knowledge up!





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