Every few years, some academic or filmmaker suddenly gets really passionate about putting out the “definitive” piece of Frank Zappa media. From books to philosophical discourses to Wittgenstenian-deconstructions to TV documentaries and countless films coming out decades after his death – Zappa Family Trust released Roxy: The Movie in 2015, a new Zappa doc is premiering in New York this month, and Bill and Ted star Alex Winter has just launched his own Zappa documentary project – Zappa is, to put it crudely, somebody that interests a whole lot of people.
I became fascinated with him a few years ago in college, after I’d devoured all the extreme metal, hardcore, and prog music that I could in high school. At first I was repelled: the man has an immense discography, there’s no digestible narrative or image to cling to, and the music is basically unlike anything ever made. Zappa was so flat-out weird that he made Robert Fripp and Henry Threadgill look like punk rockers.
But then I did something that I’m not sure many of Zappa’s chroniclers have ever really done: I studied the music itself. Independently, of course: the one time I brought up Zappa in a jazz course I was taking at the time, the professor said Zappa was “music for kids,” but I couldn’t comprehend how someone would say that about a musician who composed something as sublimely beautiful as Hot Rats.
I found quickly that there were endless threads to explore in his music, much like another composer I’ve written about, Duke Ellington. Zappa can be studied as an arranger, composer, band leader, guitarist, improviser, public intellectual, politician, comedian, filmmaker, businessman, inventor, and family man. And the thing was, he was pretty fucking good at all of them (for example, when it comes to comedy, read his “autobiography” – a funny, profound little piece of work that’s miles ahead of the toilet humor on his albums). It makes your head spin, particularly in an era when we have public figures like Quentin Tarantino and Slavoj Zizek barely cutting it at one or two of those pursuits.
The thing was, it was the music that fascinated me. All of the other stuff was like an added bonus to a man who to me, first and foremost, had a way of communicating emotion through sound that was unlike any of his peers, during multiple eras in music history where there were a whole lot of pretty unfuckwithable peers. My personal favorite period of his work, and the one I’ve studied the closest, is his flirtation with “big band jazz” in the early 70’s, a kind of rehearsal for his most iconic live band, the second incarnation of the Mothers of Invention in the mid-70’s.
My favorite album of his is The Grand Wazoo, a spiritual sequel to Hot Rats. Composed during a dark period in Zappa’s life when he was wheelchair-bound following a nasty onstage accident, it’s the only album of his that I’ve heard that truly captures, explores, and achieves at a high level everything that Frank attempted throughout his career. The melding of genres, the dense chordal arrangements, the exciting and unexpected compositional strokes, the intricate attention to sound design – it’s all there. It’s also possibly the funniest, most fun big band jazz album ever made; not because of toilet humor, of which there’s none, but because of the sheer balls of the music itself.
A personal highlight is “Blessed Relief,” a gentle jazz ballad structured around a melody, bridge, and an improvised solo section. It contains maybe the best guitar solo Frank ever played, using what I believe is an envelope filter in place of a wah (which he used on many other, more popularly iconic solos, like “Ship Ahoy”). Frank wasn’t the most educated guitarist of his era, but his mastery of simple blues expression is on full display here. The progression itself is a pretty tricky for rock music, but Frank essentially takes the whole thing on minor pentatonic scales, allowing his ear to guide him to the chord tones and leading notes. Frank was also incredibly sensitive to the tonal range of the guitar itself: adjusting his picking strength, varying up how hard or soft he frets, and using open strings. It’s an exercise in using the simplest tools in a musician’s toolbox to create sublimity.
Frank Zappa is like the Jean-Luc Godard of music. He had multiple eras of artistic development, completely independent of anything else that was happening – yet still in dialogue with the popular consciousness. In every decade of his career, he went in and out of mainstream success, he worked on big and small-budget albums, he toured with countless incarnations of his band, and he never played the same exact show or guitar solo. To him, every moment was a chance for spontaneous creation. He challenged expectations, not to simply challenge them, but because he himself was just a weird dude. He channeled his experience, drive, and love for music into productive creativity. If that’s not party smashing, well, it’s at least barking-pumpkin smushing.