Frank Zappa "Jazz From Hell"

By Bill Camarata

Scene, 26 March 1987

Frank Zappa
Jazz From Hell
Barking Pumpkin

In the ever continuing struggle, the present day composer refuses to die, or something like that. The struggle of Frank Zappa for the past 20 years, is to get his music heard. A self-taught musical genius, he has composed orchestra music most of his life and spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to get the music played. Most of the time, all he ever got was frustration. He continued to compose the music, but rock and roll still was the big billpayer. Eventually a couple of orchestral music albums were released of Zappa’s music, but the ones that had the large ensemble required to play the music, namely the London Symphony Orchestra, weren’t allotted enough rehearsal time to play the pieces really right. All of the musicians played together instead of falling apart rhythmically, and the numerous difficult parts played without compromise. The result was a 90 per cent perfect reading of Zappacs music.

Now the orchestra has been thrown away. Frank has spent over a quarter of a million bucks on the ultimate music-making computer, the Synclavier. Not just any Synclavier, mind you, but the model with all of the attachments, extra memory, hard disks, and interfaces for the most complex music making possible. For the sound sources, FZ has digitally sampled, in stereo, sounds of almost every conceivable instrument. He’s even modified the sounds where necessary in order to give them just the right timbre. The result of all of this work has resulted in a computer that can play just about any musical passage Zappa has in mind, with precision human beings can’t even dream of approaching. Kind of like a player piano taken beyond imaginable limits. He gave us two examples of this music-making on his last record, The Mothers Of Prevention. Now we’ve got a whole record of this Jazz From Hell.

This instrumental music, sounds unlike a computer. That’s because pains were taken to keep it as unlike a computer as possible. “Night School,” the first track, sounds like one of Zappa”s larger ensembles in the beginning. That is, however, until you hear the acoustic piano bending notes like a guitar at a faster rate than most guitar players can pick. “While You Were Art II ” is an extension of a piece on the Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar, with a similar title. Only this electronic ensemble has woodwinds, bells, marimbas, and bonking synthesizer grunts punctuating the guitar and percussion sounds in passages that have no time signature, just a tempo and a composer crushing his cigarette into the ashtray.

The clear standout on Jazz From Hell is the first cut on side two, “G-Spot Tornado’’ stumbling from the starting gate from the word go and attacking the senses at a speed of no less than presto. It’s characteristic Zappa melodies and subsequent harmonies are a joy. The bass line is even more entertaining. Instead of repeating a banal pattern to set a background for the rest of the music, it changes into alternate patterns constantly, forming another composition in itself. Yet, it never gets out of line. Zappa continues to be the perfect arranger.

For all of you guitar fans out there, one cut does feature actual musicians, including Steve Vai on rhythm guitar. “St. Etienne” is a guitar solo in the same vein as the Shut Up And... albums but recorded more recently.

As always, the titles are almost as entertaining as the tunes themselves. “Damp Ankles,” “The Beltway Bandits,” and “Massagio Galore” are all brilliant. I could listen to them for days.

I hope Zappa plans to do more of this in the future, as well as using this composing technique as an interface with other musicians and songs. In the meantime, this immaculately recorded, brilliantly executed Jazz From Hell (which you won’t find in the jazz section of any competent record store) will do quite nicely.