Zappa and the burning strings

Mick Raubenheimer BY

Sign in to view read count
A year later I owned around a dozen Zappa albums and my Grunge and Rock collection was mysteriously being replaced by experimental Jazz and WARP Electronica.
Zappa. A glimpse.

The composition was entering its fifth mood, a diabolical, gleeful, lurching rhythm, led by deep-plowed violin. The song was "Revised Music for Violin and Low Budget Orchestra," it was written for Jean-Luc Ponty by Frank Zappa. A new instrument dawned into my framework as that composition wheezed and moaned and ranted and spun—that classic, demure, genteel pansy of an instrument had been plucked from its staid Old European stand and forged into a complex, eloquent and savage beast. A potent instrument of sound that could howl piercingly and stagger drunk and ominous, and still weave elegant swathes of pure, shining sound..

I'll never forget the first time I heard the music of that Comic Rock guy Frank Zappa. At the time I was shoulder-deep in garage band bliss ('Wiener Type Person' thank you very much, in case you hadn't heard of us), and eagerly plowing through the Rock Canon of years yonder. For some reason I'd always skipped the opportunity to listen to Zappa's stuff. Look, the guy had an enviable moustache-thingie going and it was kinda cool that they'd named a flammable liquour after him (Okay I'd Assumed it was named after him, and I was a kid okay—Zappa Sambuca was The Shit; more importantly, chicks loved seeing it drop down your gullet all saccharine fire), but he did look a bit like Weird Al Yankovic, which kinda sucked.. Then my best-buddy-in-the-world at the time played us some songs after rehearsal. Two-and-a-half songs at the back-end of a cassette consisting mostly of Mudhoney and early Soundgarden. The first song ["Peaches en Regalia" on Hot Rats] should have been uncool—kinda Circus-music-played-on-tinny- classical-instrumentsey—but something about the curious twists in the composition perked my young ears. The second track was more of a song a-proper. A funny tune about some Eskimo kid taking revenge on a seal hunter ["Don't Eat The Yellow Snow" on Apostrophe]. The song made us giggle (and frown—"Is Rock music Allowed to be funny?") and then, out of the blue, came a blind barrage of solo guitar, about three seconds long. Our jaws dropped. We rewound. Our jaws dropped again. I was never quite the same. A year later I owned around a dozen Zappa albums and my Grunge and Rock collection was mysteriously being replaced by experimental Jazz and WARP Electronica.

Lyrics exist for those who need them

Nowadays, aside from the handful of annual Zappa fests, most of his music is performed by acclaimed Classical ensembles. A 2m statue of the man overlooks a park somewhere in Vilnius Lithuania. Following his death in 1993, Bill Clinton and then-senator Al Gore sent letters of commiseration to his wife Gail. Quite the hullabaloo for a man most remember as a '70s musician who wrote funny and crude novelty songs. Sculpting around 80 albums over the course of a 28-year career, Zappa's music is inexhaustibly diverse; and unmatched for sheer originality. Influenced by a wacky palette ranging from '50s Doo-Wop and Rhythm & Blues to the avant-garde experiments of composers like Stravinsky and Varèse, Zappa concocted a heterogenous signature that is instantly recogniseable despite the wild stylistic diversity of his compositions.

Don't you guys know any Nice songs?

Joe's Garage, his 1979 concept album, is a musical tour-de-force that explores a dystopian future where Music and other perversions like free thought and sensuality have been banned because, well, they disrupt the efficiency of the carefully groomed workforce (otherwise known as society). The album's narrative follows a by now familiar Orwellian arc—Naive hero Joe shrugs off Society's prescriptions and, instead of joining the grotesquely bland assembly-line on offer, starts a band and tries to get a girlfriend. Oops. Zappa being Zappa the superficially formulaic storyline careens and swells to explore and poke fun at such phenomena as Scientology; the intrinsic contradiction of music journalism; the abject nature of Wet T-shirt contests; the melodramatic highs and lows of starting a band; pornographic robots; and the evils of selling your soul. Instrumentally, Joe's Garage teems with wonder— from the impossible time signatures of "Keep it Greasy" to the off-kilter Rock splendour of 'Why does it hurt when I pee?'; from mutant Funk and Venutian Jazz and Vinnie (only Tony Williams matches me) Coluaiota to the melancholic, grandiose eloquence of guitar solo's "He Used To Cut The Grass," "Outside Now" and "Watermelon in Easter Hay" (the latter one of the most emotionally affecting pieces ever executed on six strings). A great introduction into the quantum sonics of one of the 20th century's greatest composers, and one of mankind's most fierce and eloquent defenders of free speech and individualism.

Jean-Luc Ponty on Zappa

Q: You're the godfather of electric violin, and eventually employed an array of electronics in your compositions. How did this electrification come about?

A: Well (laughs), I first started amplifying my violin for no other reason than to play louder than the audience's conversational volume! Later, when I was in Zappa's band, we were approached by all these young, crazy inventors, like Robert Moog, who would bring their latest prototypes to us to experiment with, so Zappa got Wah-Wah pedals, and I think he got the first Phaser—it was the boom of electronic gadgets in Jazz and Rock, especially in California, so that was great! Because I could play keyboard I could access all these synthesizers coming out, and immediately experimented with them, and on and on. Experimenting with sound started to trigger my imagination, because sound—new sounds—stimulate new compositional perspectives. There actually were other electric violinists in America at the time, but I guess I was the first one to push as far with experimentation.

Q: You've collaborated with everybody from Stephane Grappelli and The Modern Jazz Quartet through to Chick Corea and John McLaughlin... what have been some of your favourite collaborations?

A: It's always hard to say. Okay, Frank Zappa was the furthest away from my initial musical world, I feel a lot closer to Chick Corea in style, but the improvisational approach in Zappa's band was just so much higher, I mean he was such a brilliant composer, some of his pieces were very impressive, very original. He was just way ahead of his time, and really a pioneer of fusion music, in general. I was already a mature musician when I worked with him, so my little inputs were also there, it was a real collaboration.

This article was first published in Muse Magazine (2013).

Post a comment



Shop Amazon


Jazz article: Zappa and the burning strings
Highly Opinionated
Zappa and the burning strings
Jazz article: Ornette Coleman: An Outsider Cracks the Egg
Jazz article: The Trump Files
Highly Opinionated
The Trump Files
Jazz article: Craft Recording's Chet is a Rare Win for Baker
Jazz article: Blue Note's 80th Anniversary Vinyl Initiative
Jazz article: Good Vibes, Bad Vibes: Jazz in Film
Jazz article: Bolden: A Movie Review And Beyond


Read Chico Hamilton: The Master
Read Wayne Shorter: An Essential Top Ten Albums
Read John Clayton: Career Reflections
Read Fire Music: The Story of Free Jazz
Read Jon Hendricks: An Essential Top Ten Albums
Read Meet Jack DiMonte
Out and About: The Super Fans
Meet Jack DiMonte
Read Take Five with Alex Jenkins
Take Five With...
Take Five with Alex Jenkins

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.