The first time I heard about Frank Zappa was in the early '70s. I was in high school, and a friend came with this LP called "Freak Out." By that time (and that LP) the music scene was like a pop party names like Beatles, Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, Doors, Vanilla Fudge, Hendrix, Santana, Pink Floyd, the Who, The Byrds and Procol Harum, were among the "grooviest" groups teenage music consumers could dream!
"I'm just saying that if a person wants to write music, he's going to do it whether he's getting performances or not, and that's the attitude I take. I started off putting a band together because I wrote music and I wanted to hear it and nobody else would play it."
The core of Zappa's music was rock, but not our regular sweet by-product, not the same Beatle-clone, but the opposite!
Years went by, and the humor that was present in his earlier works never disappeared, and with a king-sized recording output (that featured many deserving new talents passing under his tutelage), songs like "The Illinois Enema Bandit," "The Torture Never Stops," "Inca Roads," "Dumb All Over," "Stink Foot" and "Cosmic Debris" (to name a very few) became rock classics. Along with his touring and road traveling, it made him a kind of real-time living legend, even playing with John Lennon.
Zappa also loved Edgar Varese, and was mastering recording techniques that went ahead, discovering using the recording medium as a real, creative tool.
Zappa was not in the headlines all the time, but he managed to create a following of people who felt pleasure, laughter and joy hearing his music.
In an interview with Tim Schneckloth in the May 18, 1978 issue of Downbeat, Zappa talked about his music being written, every part of it, and that everyone or almost everyone in his band had to read music!
"I'll tell you, the kind of musician I need for the bands that I have doesn't exist. I need somebody who understands polyrhythms, has good enough execution on the instrument to play all kinds of styles, understands staging, understands rhythm and blues, and understands how a lot of different composition techniques function. When I give him a part, he should know how it works in the mix with all the other parts. You'd be surprised how many people who have chops in one department are completely deficient in others."
Quite a demand a stimulation and challenge for his musicians. They had to rock, use combined harmonies, be in pitch, and accept an impetuous practical joker coming with new ideas encouraged by his love/respect for his art!
The three-LP album "Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar," alongside "Joe's Garage," "You Are What You Is" and "Man From Nutopia," drove my attention back to Zappa, especially "Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar." Zappa does not only play guitar solos, but heavy music; he is a kind of Don Quixote pop rock-poet guitar player!
"A guy's got to start somewhere. You've got to mess around with it. Even if you think you know how they work, there's always a chance that you'll come up with something new just by doing a dumb experiment. Remember: dumbness is the American way. Dumbness has created more progress for this country just from people saying, Well, I really don't know what's going on here, but let's try this. And then they come up with something great. The best example of that is Thomas Edison. You know about the filament in the electric light bulb, don't you? He'd tried everything until he finally said, I'd be willing to try a piece of dental floss with some cheese on it if I thought it would work."
He was not commercial, but his music on that set of LPs could elevate anyone who loves music. It was not just rock: Zappa was reaping his own making, his musical arrow was aimed high, and the result had no limits, it was true to his spirit: an acknowledged self-imposed, honest gut frankness!
"Here's my theory. First of all, music functions in the time domain there's decor and the time domain. That's the canvas you paint on when you're working with music. Another distinction: written music is to real music what a recipe is to real food. You can't listen to music on a piece of paper and you can't eat a recipe, so I put them both into the same category. And once the music comes off the paper and goes into the air, what you're literally doing is making a sculpture with the air, because your ear is detecting the peturbations in the air. It's decoding the way the air has been shaken by the different instruments. So the duration of your piece occupies a space of time that's your canvas. And the medium you're working in is the air. So no matter what you play, you have to be consciously aware that it is not just a note. It is an impulse which is going to alter the shape of the air space, which in turn is going to be detected by the human ear.
"Now, you compound the misery when you start dealing with recorded material, because usually the material, if you're doing it in a studio, is being recorded in a very unimpressive air space. It's blank, dead, uninteresting. All the reverberation is being added electronically. Furthermore, the person who finally listens to the piece is going to be listening to it on equipment that is not quite as spectacular as the stuff in the studio. So you have to rely on the efficiency of the home speaker to create your air sculpture live in person for the listener."Yes, underneath the long nose and moustachioed face and bass-voiced man was a musician who went to Congress and spoke on behalf of the right of artists to express their art without warning labels on the covers of their records, who wrote classical contemporary music, who stayed on the Billboard charts with "Yellow Shark," defied censorship with "Dinah Moe Hum"-style songs and lyrics, and used and combined different sources of music into one song (the "Sheik Yerbouti" album is an example). Even Mix Magazine recently devoted recently a two-part story on him!
Which takes me to the Downbeat issue that recently had his portrait on the cover ten years after his death, causing some jazz purists to say it was a shame Zappa was on the cover!
I wonder what would the purists thought of Hendrix in the cover; did they know Miles Davis went to Hendrix' funeral? It was his recognition of the musician. And given today's state of things, a musician who integrated race, electric sounds and improvisation (far before Miles himself) in "Freak Out!" surely was doing something more than just plain rock.
What is my point?
Listen! Pay attention, let prejudice apart, let the music speak. If you hear something you consider new, at the beginning it will be stamped as unconventional. But as soon you study it or take the time to hear it, you will find if it is for your ears or not, but that does not mean it is an unpure sound.
Zappa was not Coltrane; he did not want to be. He was a musician, producer, composer and an American! He went as a lone warrior fighting for his rights.
Appearances are deceiving indeed. Zappa changed his look with tie and short hair, then long again, but looks don't make the music, and as he sang in "The Illinois Enema Bandit": "It can happen here soon!", or in "Trouble Every Day": "I'm not black but there are days I wish I could say I'm not white!"
If Zappa was not a pure jazz player, he cannot be blamed for being good and swinging greatly with many hats, including humor and, of course, humanity! A good quality for an artist whose legacy is still surfacing, still ahead, and, well, freaky if you want it.
Chiván Santiago Rivera
Copyright © Turbula.net