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Zappa and Jazz

By Published: December 23, 2007
Of course, being an alto saxophonist from the Bird/Cannonball/Phil Woods school, I was taken aback when I read in a DownBeat interview about 25 years ago, that Zappa never liked Charlie Parker. Worse than that, he said he sounded like the same "F" word that Ann Coulter recently called John Edwards. Unforgivable? Perhaps for some, but it couldn't erase my deep love for Zappa's music. People are entitled to their own opinion, except maybe Ann Coulter.

One of the great advantages of performing Zappa's music is that I don't have to 'hippify' it. The music is so complex and sophisticated as it is. One of the problems some jazz musicians fall into when they interpret a pop tune is to condescend by reharmonizing (adding new chords). There's nothing wrong with this practice, of course. A lot of times it yields great results, but more often than not, it just comes off as if he's doing the composer a huge favor. "Gee, it's a good thing I was here to save 'Fool On The Hill' from all that damn simplicity. Paul McCartney owes me big time! I wonder why he hasn't called."

And then there's the issue of soloing over this material. Most bebop is based on ll-V-l harmony. You can't be a jazz musician without studying this intensely some time in your life. It was probably easier to grasp if you were born in the '20s and '30s because it was on the radio all the time, but for '60s guys like me who were brought up on the Beatles, it was a formidable challenge. To this day, as an alto saxophonist, I prefer soloing over bebop to any other music. I'm still very intrigued by navigating melodic lines through those chord changes. But when you perform rock or R&B music, you pretty much have to take a modal approach. There's nothing wrong with this, of course, but it can be a challenge to restrain yourself from shoving bebop lines down the throat of an innocent pop tune. I'm in a peculiar situation where I don't love soloing over the music I truly love, like Zappa's. That's okay, though; I just give the solos to the other guys in my band.

I don't consider my Zappa project any kind of crusade or following any trend for that matter. It's just music I love. I'm often asked if the jazz community will ever embrace Zappa's music. I have no idea. I don't even really care. Maybe that's a selfish point of view, but life is short. Why waste time worrying about such stuff. Zappa himself said before he died that he didn't care how he was remembered or even IF he was remembered. Eventually, I and my band will stop doing this Zappa project and go back to my original material, once again happily outnumbering the audience.

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