Frank Zappa: Hot Rats

By Alan Heineman

DownBeat, 19 March 1970

Frank Zappa

HOT RATS – Bizarre 6356: Peaches En Regalia; Willie the Pimp; Son of Mr. Green Genes; Little Umbrellas; The Gumbo Variations; It Must Be a Camel.

Personnel: Ian Underwood, flute, reeds, piano, organ; Sugar Cane Harris ( tracks 2, 5) or Jean-Luc Ponty (track 6), violin; Zappa, guitar, octave bass, percussion; Shuggie Otis ( track 1) or Max Bennett, electric bass; John Guerin (tracks 2, 4, 6), Paul Humphrey (tracks 3, 5) or Ron
Seiko (track 1), drums; Captain Beefheart, vocal (track 2).

Rating: ★★★★

The constant temptation is to say that Zappa is a genius (which he is) and consequently to rank highly all his offerings. I've done it; but the four stars should indicate that there is a good deal of utterly inspired music here, plus a lot of straight ahead rock 'n' roll which is good and groovy and virtuoso and all, but not breathtaking.

Zappa's underlying premise seems to be that there's something very special about rock, but he doesn't know quite what. So he knocks it in interviews and liner notes and parodies it in his music, but he retains various elements of it nonetheless. In Ruben and the Jets, it was principally the harmonies of early rock; in some of the early Mothers sides, it was the rawness of the music and/or the message potential of lyrics. Here, it's chiefly the beat, and there's none of the metric experimentation that characterizes some of his other compositions. Much as the Katzenjammer Kid of contemporary music might hate the thought, you can dance to all these tunes. You might even want to.

Peaches is the least rock-like track. Here, Zappa is concerned primarily with textures, and so a reasonably simple composition is restated in a number of fascinating ways – differences in voicings and dynamics, electronic alterations. There's a fantastic "electric drum" fill behind Underwood's crescendoing organ near the close.

Willie is one riff, repeated four times, and it's a showcase for guitar. Zappa's solo is logical and accomplished, but he does go on a bit (the track runs 9:25). Gumbo is really the same idea, but Underwood has a marvelous konkingsqueakingswirling tenor solo with a rusty knife edge of a tone. Toward the end of Underwood's solo, Zappa drops out and the tenorist plays freely but in rhythm. One thinks instantly of Sonny Rollins.

Harris enters on violin like a demented bagpiper and wrings a dazzling variety of emotional shades out of what is basically a blues-oriented solo. Zappa briefly, and now Harris again, way up high, with Underwood's organ trilling behind him excruciatingly, then rushing low, setting up Harris for an arhythmic but highly melodic cadenza. Now dat's rock 'n' roll.

Genes is a reprise of the same tune on Uncle Meat: some nice playing by all (dig especially Humphrey's stickwork on closed hi-hat behind Zappa, who throws in a boogie figure among other things in his solo). The track is marred by a gratuitous comic ending. And Umbrellas has some incredible voicings, especially on the melody restatement, mostly featuring Underwood multi-tracked on about 63 different instruments. It's one of the few charts that I've heard nothing like in all of the Ellington canon, and that's saying something. Listen to this one.

The Ponty track is nothing special. An intro more or less in the contemporary "classical" vein and then into a rock beat with the only extended metric variation on the album – sort of a flow-jerk-flow effect hung, I think, on a 6/8 frame.

It's a good session, no question. Something's missing – maybe the sound of maniacal surprise, which makes sense in retrospect, that's found in some of the Mother's records. But Zappa can play wawa rock guitar with almost anybody.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)