Zappa's Universe & The Yellow Shark

By Howard Mandel

Audio, March 1994

Zappa's Universe
Various Artists
VERVE 314 513 575-2 CD; 68:00
Sound: B+, Performance: B+

The Yellow Shark
German Ensemble Modern
Sound: A, Performance: A

Modernist composer, acid satirist, and guitar god Frank Zappa stood alone as a pop star with greater ambitions who inveigled three decades of rock fans to laugh at teen lust and status issues. He also brought the influences of Boulez, Stravinsky, and Varèse to greasy '50s songs, and free-jazz-like improvisation to amplified-for-arena bands.

Zappa died last December; his final illness limited his involvement with the ambitious and well-received concerts of '91 and '93 documented in Zappa's Universe and The Yellow Shark, respectively. He did, however, participate in their elaborate preparations, and his sensibility suffuses these CDs.

On Zappa's Universe, Joel Thome conducts an expert studio rock sextet-combined with two a cappella groups (The Persuasions and Rockapella), The Orchestra of Our Time, and such guests as guitarist Steve Vai – through his arrangements of repertoire that the Maestro selected for two nights at the Ritz in New York. The edited tapes' live sound has a lot of surface presence; all vocals, electric solos, and emphatic ensemble passages are focused and hot, so that both Mothers of Invention classics and mid-period Zappa rudenesses retain their raunch. Yet Zappa's Universe celebrates only part of his genius; the symphonic details and depths of the composer's so-called "serious" efforts are not served in the mix. For this, The Yellow Shark truly is a revelation.

The Yellow Shark's 18 mostly unknown works, originally scored by Zappa on Synclavier, were adapted with great care for the 22-member German Ensemble Modern under the baton of Peter Rundel. Piano duets, woodwind and string sonatas, chamber orchestra pieces – all present Zappa in glory hardly hinted at by 1967's Lumpy Gravy or other previous large-scale recordings. Innovative "surround" instrument placement is preserved by faultless recording technique, and the handsome CD booklet provides information with which we can begin to reevaluate the man most often associated with the scathing humor of Freak Out, Absolutely Free, Ruben and the Jets, and Hot Rats.

Editor's Note: Scheduled for release in April is Civilization: Phase III, an orchestral work performed by Zappa on Synclavier and considered by him as the sequel to the Lumpy Gravy recording. – M.B.