Frank Zappa: Jazz From Hell

By Bill Milkowski

Down Beat, April 1987



Personnel: Zappa, Synclavier digital music synthesizer (cuts 1-6, 8), guitar (7); Steve Vai, Ray White, guitar (7); Tommy Mars, Bobby Martin, keyboards (7); Ed Mann, percussion (7); Scott Thunes, bass (7); Chad Wackerman, drums (7).

★ ★ ★ ★½

This has got to be Frank's favorite album among all 50 or so he's recorded since 1966's Freak Out. It sounds so good – crisp, precise, crystalline, executed with sheer perfection by the ultimate music machine of the day, the incredible Synclavier. You can bet this little piece of techno-hardware never misses a beat, blows a note, or flubs one of those tricky Zappa time signatures. The notoriously fastidious FZ must've been smiling all the way through this project. Imagine – no human error, no egos to deal with, no incompetent, lackluster symphony orchestra musicians with their outrageous union scale. The Synclavier shows up on time, works tirelessly around the clock, and never makes a mistake. Ah, perfection at last!

Zappa has exerted Svengali-like control over his various ensembles through the years (humorously spoofed in the movie 200 Motels). From Freak Out to 1984's Them Or Us, Zappa has continually upgraded the quality of his sidemen. Now he's taken the next logical leap by interfacing with the computer. I mean, Ruth Underwood played some pretty mean marimba on Overnight Sensation, but she could never handle the intricate marimba-sampled lines here on the bizarre Beltway Bandits. And what synth player – no matter how accomplished – could possibly cop the proper rhythmic feel on the surreal While You Were Art II, the aural equivalent of a Hieronymous Bosch painting? No band on this planet could cut this demanding tune to Frank's satisfaction.

For fans of "out" jazz there's the eccentric swing of Damp Ankles, with its moody, obtuse horn lines and dissonant melody fragments bubbling on top. Or the ambitious title cut, with its Mingus-like upright bass lines undulating behind George Russell-esque horn arrangements. And fear not, guitar fans. Frank has not forgotten how much you love his extended soloing. For you there is St. Etienne, a live band cut that features some six minutes of Zappa at his frenzied finest on a minor blues dirge. Riffs to make your toes curl.

Yes, this is perfect music. Flawlessly executed. Five stars for the craft. Of course, human error has often resulted in some very magical "mistakes." There are none on this album. And there's none of the preachy sarcasm of Teenage Wind or Be In My Video, none of the outrageous raunch of Dinah Moe Humm or Baby Take Your Teeth Out, no social commentary like Who Are The Brain Police, no novelty numbers like Valley Girl or Goblin Girl, and no 50s doo-wop numbers like The Closer You Are or Sharleena. This album is not entirely devoid of humor, however. The wacky G-Spot Tornado is an aural riot, with its sampled voices and comical dwarf noises. This one could be a great soundtrack for some insane, animated video (but I'm sure Zappas already hard at work on something along those lines).

Admittedly, the human element is gone here. That's good and bad. Good because it finally allows Zappa (and the listener) to hear his compositions fully-realized. Bad because I sorta miss the human antics of Jimmy Carl Black, Flo & Eddie, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Johnny Guitar Watson, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, et al.