Caught In The Act

By Lyle Jones

DownBeat, June 1973

Frank Zappa and the New Mothers of Invention

Civic Center Music Hall, Oklahoma City [1]
Personnel: Bruce Fowler, trombone; Ian Underwood, reeds; George Duke, keyboards, synthesizer; Jean-Luc Ponty, violin; Zappa, guitar, vocals; Ruth Underwood, vibes, marimba, tympani. miscellaneous percussion; Tom Fowler, bass: Ralph Humphrey, drums.

Because the state high school basketball tournaments were in town, the conversation in the Holiday Inn lobby among trombonist Bruce Fowler, pianist George Duke and down beat took place over and around the heads of a phalanx of cheerleaders who, upon discovering the Zappa group in their midst, seemed ready to turn in their uniforms for the jeans and halters of the groupie. Nevertheless, just before your reporter was swept into the street by one platoon of girls, he heard Fowler say, “Just say that we do some far-out, groovy stuff.”

He was right.

Of course, those who came to boogie with a whole evening of rock ’n’ roll probably felt disappointed. The New Mothers, as their leader calls them, fuse many musical types in their presentation, yesterday’s acid rock and today’s boogie certainly among them, but their raw material seems to include just about everything the listener can imagine.

The parameters of the evening’s material were provided by two segments from a long, unnamed piece which was largely a feature for George Duke. One moment found the synthesizer running amok, a terrible gale punctuated only by freely skittering electronic leaves from Ian Underwood and Ponty. The sound was nearly beyond music into a fearsome impression of madness in nature. And then out of the sonic chaos came Duke on acoustic piano, striding in ragtime. The ensemble dropped out, and Duke went on as the archetypical solo pianist in a New Orleans sporting house.

Within these parameters almost nothing remained untouched by Zappa’s composition and the Mother’s improvisation. To analyze even briefly all the numbers played that night would be impossible within the space we have here. The Mothers assault the audience, daring the listeners to follow the band through the dizzying changes of time signatures, style, form and sound.

A new piece, Inca Roads, provides a good example. The composition opens with a theme statement by Ms. Underwood on marimba, 4/4 and 3/4 alternate. Back in four, Bruce Fowler on amplified trombone takes a solo. Zappa steps to the mike and does a sprechstimme segment in which he tells a tale of mythical spacemen who landed high in the Andes in pre-historic times. He weaves the story around ensemble swells which can only be compared to awesome sirens. Then the band takes over, and Underwood comes out for a strong amplified flute solo. Behind Underwood, the other horn players look as if they could be riffing, but your ears tell you that the sounds are not riffs but odd electronic comments: bleats and honks. “Comping” electronically is Duke, who leans from side to side to offer notes from the grand, from the electronic piano and from the organ. Suddenly it’s back to ensemble, marimba lead, and there are unhatched chickens from Pictures at an Exhibition dancing in the reed work.

Other compositions and solos draw from as wide a range of possibilities. Fifty-Fifty opens with Duke smokin’ as he did with Cannonball. A minor blues theme emerges, and the listener’s confidence in knowing where he is returns. But the blues gives way to one of Zappa’s favorite forms: a march tempo. Duke cranks up the synthesizer, and again we must hold onto our seats. Ponty’s electric violin speaks 8va basso during a dizzying solo [2]; Zappa’s solo is 1966 acid rock from the Coast.

The group's astonishing range of musical exploration alone should be enough to exhaust the listener. Yet there is more. Humor charactizes an evening with Zappa almost as much as the trip through music history. The titles of compositions: Cosmic Debris (about gurus): Montana (who else would name a tune Montana and then come on with a quasi-Copeland theme?), and the familiar Mr. Green Genes, King Kong and Chunga’s Revenge. Zappa himself: making a production of tuning the group and gaining the evening’s first standing ovation in the process; consulting the audience at length about mix and balance. Too, the humor permeates the music with odd voicings, absurd lyrics, and (increduously in view of a sentence above) riffing by trombone, violin and guitar behind an Underwood soprano ride.

One’s first impression of Zappa on the stage is that he has a great sense of humor. His rapport with the audience is deep and immediate. Yet, once the music starts, Zappa takes himself far from the audience. He concentrates completely on what he is doing and on the work of the other musicians. In addition, he produces masterful guitar work.

The other soloists in the Mothers also combine first-class musicianship with distinctive stage presence. Duke, who has so very much to offer the careful listener, grins wickedly at other members of the group after he has done something particularly successful on one of his keyboards. At other times his face shows excruciating personal involvement in the sound as he grimaces with his eyes shut tightly.

Ponty also contributes much. He ranges all the way from down-home American fiddling through Grappelly and beyond. When not playing, he studies the others, his violin usually still under his chin.

Ian Underwood brings the greatest array of sounds to the group. His alto has Bird in it. He has superb technique on flute and plays weird electronic clarinet. His electronic soprano sax sounds nearly like a wa-wa guitar, a parallel enforced by his Zappa-like phrasing on the instrument. On stage he is motionless, often apparently oblivious to the tumult around him.

Bruce Fowler, on the other hand, is in constant motion. His head bobs from side to side and up and down interminably whenever his trombone is inactive. When he solos, he is the introvert of the group, playing softly, even with amplification. His work is rhythmic and technically disciplined.

Tom Fowler rocks back and forth in time with his notably solid and somehow unobtrusive work. Drummer Humphrey is also unusually inconspicuous, even when smashing away with both hands in steady quarter notes during march segments. Ms. Underwood participates in most ensembles and stays busy manning (womaning?) as many instruments as Ian.

Incredible things happen while this group performs. Their free form work, which always appears as a segment of a larger whole, not an over-indulging spree, is tight and meaningful. (Zappa often conducts and almost always at least cues.) The group is well-rehearsed, and each member seems to know what will and will not fit at a certain point. Their improvisational capability staggers this observer.

Bruce Fowler was right, but “far out” and “groovy" do not begin to cover Frank Zappa and the Mothers. They are stunning.

— lyle jones

1. The concert was in 9 March 1973. There is an audience recording tape circulating: RDNZL, Dog Meat, Fifty-Fifty, Inca Roads, Cosmik Debris, Montana, improvisations, Dupree's Paradise, I'm The Slime, Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?, Mr Green Genes, King Kong, Chunga's Revenge, Mr Green Genes. (FZShows)

2. 8va (ottava) basso - one octave lower