Frank Zappa was an iconoclastic American musician. He surfaced in the ’60s but was decidedly non-hippie and anti-drug, and his music drew more on jazz and cabaret than the folk and acid-rock of that decade. If I had to pick two artists of the era whose music and worldviews were antithetical, an obvious choice would be Zappa and the Grateful Dead.
It’s a sign of just how far-reaching Zappa’s influence is, then, that Jon Fishman is a big fan. Fishman is the bearded but otherwise cherubic drummer for the wildly popular jam band Phish, many of whose fans started out as Dead fans. This is the sort of band that can play all-night-long noodling jams much like the late Jerry Garcia and company – although to be fair Phish has quite a bit more range than that and has many followers who probably never cared for the Dead.
Rykodisc is in charge of Zappa’s back catalog, and has come up with an interesting way of marketing it, by having some of today’s popular musicians put together Zappa compilations. For this one, Fishman has given us some of his favorites, and a short essay on how Zappa and his music influenced his own life and music.
These picks are grouped by the albums they first appeared on, and the liner notes credit the musicians who appeared on the original albums, which may be somewhat misleading, because they may or may not be on the individual tracks here. Be that as it may, it’s apparent from the list that Zappa attracted some of the best names in the field, including drummers Jim Gordon and Aynsley Dunbar, bassist Jack Bruce (Cream), multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, and former J.Geils frontman Peter Wolf on keyboards. And of course Frank Zappa himself on vocals and guitar. Zappa was one of the premier guitarists of the era, blending blues, jazz and rock into an instantly recognizable style that ranges from sublime to screaming.
This collection kicks off immediately with a Zappa guitar workout on “Excentrifugal Forz” and “Apostrophe” that after six minutes or so gives way to the silliness of “Magdalena,” from Just Another Band From L.A. This album featured an early Mothers of Invention band that included Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (a.k.a. Flo & Eddie), late of the happy-together pop-rock band The Turtles. “Magdalena” combines Firesign Theater-type satire with complex rhythm schemes and shifting time signatures in a semi-pornographic musical stew that includes doo-wop, r&b, and jazz fusion. Over-the-top doesn’t begin to describe this bit, and it’s followed by a scorching set of wah-wah guitar histrionics on “Dog Breath.”
And that’s just the first four tracks! Before the album ends more than an hour later, you’ll hear just about all of the possible moods and modes of Zappa music, except for classical. On “Cheepnis” he extolls the virtues of really bad horror movies, and on “I’m the Slime,” he bashes the drivel that oozes out of your television set. “More Trouble Every Day” details the madness of the world in a slow r&b groove. “Keep it Greasey” is a slice of filthy funk from the rock-operatic production Joe’s Garage. “Rat Tomago” is a superb guitar rave with some really hot drumming, bookended by short bits of silly studio chatter from the album Sheik Yerbouti.
There’s even an unexpected incursion of country rock, Zappa style. “It Just Might Be A One-Shot Deal” from Waka/Jawaka features the great “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow on pedal steel and Jeff Simons on Hawaiian guitar, and the rare occurrence of Zappa playing acoustic rhythm guitar.
I have no idea if this stuff will appeal to Phish fans, but it seems like a pretty good Zappa sampler to me. Inspired lunacy, controlled chaos, social commentary, puerile humor, sex and rock ‘n’ roll without the drugs, and that mean guitar. Yup, I believe that covers it.
[Update: This CD and its companion disc Zappa Picks – by Larry LaLonde of Primus are still in print but no longer on Rykodisc. According to Wikipedia, “The Zappa Family Trust and Ryko parted ways in 2012 with the Zappa Family Trust reacquiring Frank Zappa’s recorded music catalogue and Universal Music Enterprises taking over distribution of the Zappa catalogue.”]