Frank Zappa: Everything Is Healing Nicely

By Ben Watson

Hi-Fi News & Record Review, September 2000

Just a cynically released CD of some rehearsals? Far from it! This is essential Frank Zappa.

Frank Zappa's death in October 1993 did not finish his career. It persists, a spectral reproach to mainstream normalcy, the lengthiest stretch of CDs under 'wxyz' on the racks. Before he died he told his wife Gail to sell his catalogue to Rykodisc: 73 CDs-worth, the original masters retrieved from various labels and remixed for digital. Ryko keep each album in print. As with Hendrix, there are Zappa fans emerging who are too young to have seen him live (they turn out to see cover bands instead, like the Grandmothers, the Muffin Men, Project/Object and John Etheridge's Zapatistas). Once listeners clock Zappa's satirical resistance to the pressures of peer-group approval (a syndrome the Marxist musicologist Theodor Adorno called 'identity thinking'), 'completism' proves compulsive. Here is an oeuvre that never repeats its musical forms, is extravagant with internal and external reference, and engages in a ceaseless, playful-yet-inventive interrogation of the social relations of musical production: band dynamics, recording technology and commercial promotion (Zappa can also write a heart-rending tune, a skill conspicuously absent in his successor-eclectic, John Zorn).

Considering the fabulous quantity of music in the Zappa vaults – Frank was simultaneously the most active touring star in rock and the most obsessive documenter of his own activities – Gail Zappa's label has been extraordinarily inactive. Now she's released Everything Is Healing Nicely, and fans are complaining it's simply a CD of rehearsals with Frankfurt's Ensemble Modern, the end-result of which was The Yellow Shark [Rykodisc RCD40560], a deluxe edition of concerts staged in September 1992. Besides, Healing is not a 'real' Frank album. It was edited and sequenced by Spencer Chrislu. (One of Zappa's closest associates during his last years, Chrislu had the dubious honour of recording a projected 4CD spoken-word album by yours truly up at Zappa's Laurel Canyon mansion in October 1993, shortly before Zappa's death.) Chrislu's editing is sensitive, but it doesn't include those transitions and contrasts that lead some critics to claim that Zappa-qua-producer is the finest collagiste to emerge since Kurt Schwitters (the German Dadaist). Healing lacks the changes of register – baroque to heavy metal, electro-acoustic to surf rock, intimate spoken-word to full-on orchestra – which make Zappa's albums so impressive and piquant to anyone with broad listening habits.

Le Pingouin Ligoté – organ for Les Fils de l'Invention, the Zappa Fan Club in Paris – did not mince its words: compared to the final versions on The Yellow Shark, 'None Of The Above' is too long, 'Amnerika' is 'slow and lame', while Hermann Kretzschmar's recitation of letters from a body-piercing magazine ('everything is healing nicely' was the touching conclusion) to improvised accompaniment by a Zappa-directed Ensemble quickly 'loses its attraction'. In other words, those familiar with The Yellow Shark – and Zappa's own exacting performance standards – will tend to dismiss these improvisatory 'rehearsals'. As Ali Askin says in his liners: 'if you are looking for polished music, this CD is not for you'.

However, for those casting around in modern music for answers to the old quandaries – improvisation versus composition, how recording technology should approach acoustic instruments playing in real time – Everything Is Healing Nicely is exemplary. It should be required listening for anyone arranging for jazz improvisors or recording orchestral music. In other words, it deserves an audience outside the circle of obsessives who claim Zappa as their own.

Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain, the Asko Ensemble playing Ligeti, Reservoir playing Xenakis... encounters between crack classical forces and genuinely innovative composers depend on a fine balance between funding, careers and politics. The Ensemble Modern's committment to Zappa's music was rare indeed. Some of the 24 musicians put up their own money to fly to Hollywood to rehearse. Some postponed their flights at their own expense to be able to enjoy a few extra days. Most of the Ensemble regularly turned up hours early every day to practise Zappa's fiendish requests (the 23-against 24-tuplets in 'T'Mershi Duween' – named after a camel in a story by Zappa's daughter Moon Unit – were a particular favourite). Zappa decided to work with the Ensemble after hearing their performances of Kurt Weill and Helmut Lachenmann, composers who require performers to push beyond conservatory legitimacy. Unrepressed musical intonation works like the human voice: sincerity cannot be faked. From the first Richard Strauss-like cluster that opens the album you can hear this committed quality.

Much of Healing was recorded by Marqueson Coy at Zappa's Los Angeles rehearsal studio Joe's Garage Act I, using a traditional cross-mic strung high in the air in front of the orchestra, supplemented by individual mics for each instrument, several for the piano, and mics left and right at the back. If improvisors are recorded with individual mics, there is a danger that they play to the mic – keen to sound good – rather than into the shared air that is the real space of musical occasion. This impairs the collective ésprit and flaws the total sound. Frank Zappa's legendary status and witty conducting made the musicians forget their individual mics: even during the most anarchic improvisations, there's a luscious collective resonance that really glows. Zappa and Chrislu's mix respects this quality, showing that multi-mic recordings mixed with musical ears can indeed sound hi-fi: and with greater detail and better balance than a solitary cross-mic.

To direct his musicians, Zappa was using techniques that derive from Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Sun Ra. Sure, there were scores – neither the aching melody of 'Amnerika', hocketed to different instruments, nor the atonal drama of 'None Of The Above' could have been achieved any other way – but Zappa also set up 'objects', 'motifs', 'vamps', ' chord structures' and 'gestures (musical or theatrical)' which could be cued spontaneously by hand signals, funny faces and even eyebrow twitches, events that could be triggered at any moment. (The slogan at the time was: 'anything anytime anywhere for no reason at all'.)

Fully-rounded sounds redolent of expensive musical educations are whorled up with bleats and moos from children's toys, a didgeridoo burbling into a spitoon full of water, bizarre groans from the percussion, vocal ejaculations. Nevertheless, because these sounds resonate in real time, they establish real musical relations with each other. At one point, Zappa picked up his guitar to play a duet with Indian violinist L Shankar ('Strat Vindaloo', a crass title bestowed by Frank's son Dweezil), and you can hear the vamping back-up musicians think through the metres they're playing to.

Everything Is Healing Nicely may derive from improvisations and rehearsals, but the edge and vitality of the playing is palpable. It delivers what any true jazz fan craves: state-of-the-art instrumental skill challenged by the dizzying freedoms and multiple possibilities of the instant. So, after the orchestral triumph of The Yellow Shark, the late composer releases... an album of superb jazz. It's also recorded in stunning hi-fi.