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Frank Zappa was a restless, industrious character. From founding the Mothers of Invention in 1966 he garnered an undergound following, impressed the critics with a string of thought-provoking albums, mastered numerous genres from doo-wop to musique concrete to rhythm n' blues, and riled up most of the conservative right AND the liberal hippies, all in the space of three years. In 1969, he released this 'solo' album, recruiting an ensemble of impressive jazz-flavoured musicians for the project.
It opens with the delightful 'Peaches en Regalia'. An instrumental introduction to a mostly instrumental album, it is more classical in its feel and does lead the listener into a false sense of security. It's a fanfare of bizarre woodwind and vibrato-treated keyboards and is so Zappa-esque in its quirkiness it was lifted from the album to introduce the, err, 'commercial' Zappa 'Best Of' compilation. Littered with mental time changes, it lets the band show off their well-oiled gearbox. It sounds fiendishly difficult to execute.
Things then change for the sleazier. Returning the favour to Zappa for producing his album 'Trout Mask Replica', Captain Beefheart turns up to provide the vocals for 'Willie the Pimp' on the track of the same name. Featuring Don 'Sugarcane' Harris knocking out a killer riff on his amped-up violin, it's a blues-funk-jazz-rock melting pot of a track as slick as Willie the Pimp's 'gassed-back hair'. It lays down a killer groove,and lets Frank show off for the first time just what a mean guitarist he was. Beefheart bellows his seedy lyrics with his trademark swamp-growl, and it is impossible not to nod in approval to the beat as it morphs into a killer instrumental passage. It's probably also the only documented use of a monkey-wrench being used as musical instrument.
'Son of Mr. Green Genes' sounds like the natural progression from 'Peaches en Regalia', with its own little fanfares and classical nuances chucked into the mix, before suddenly screeching round a hairpin bend to become a piece of electric blues, then back again. From here on in, it's all instrumental to the end of the album, which in many ways is utterly refreshing. It's a sad truism that instrumental music does not sell well, as market demands dictate that a record won't sell unless it's got a human voice on it. Listening to this is a pretty good remedy if you've accidentally watched a whole episode of X Factor.
We then encounter the murkiest jazz-blues night club sound on the record, with 'Little Umbrellas'. The bass slides around shiftily, and the piano and woodwind slither around, drenched in Eastern-flavoured modes. Zappa's ability to change mood from bar-to-bar, and sometimes even within bars is remarkable. It lurches from sinister minor sounds to upbeat plonky lounge jazz to mental proggy keyboard runs without ever losing its focus. It's almost a mini jazz-symphony in its own right, with various sections of the band taking up a main theme and then running with it.
Things then go completely insane. 'The Gumbo Variations' is a platform for everyone to go mental, but in an orderly fashion. The horns go on a jazz-soul bender, followed by violin maestros Jean-Luc Ponty and
Sugarcane Harris to provide the string equivalent of a Wild West gunfight, only for the Zappa to wade in as the Sherriff and try to break it up with his guitar work. It then all cools down with 'It Must Be A Camel', which finishes things off with a fairly restrained bit of blues-jazz, albeit in a myriad of mental time signatures.
This is a total departure from the style(s) developed by the Mothers. While Zappa had always maintained he was highly suspicious of jazz music, and never considered himself a fan, the influences here are immediately apparent. This album is a jazz-rock fusion experiment, cooked up with a recipe quite different from Miles Davis' 'Bitch's Brew', but with results no less impressive.
The release of this album has a potted history. The original version, as released on LP in 1969 was deleted in the 1980s and was the only way to hear how it first sounded. Zappa did not believe any of his work was sacrosanct, and promptly drastically remixed it in 1987 for a reissue. It does include various bits that were cut out of the original, extending some of the pieces signficantly, but removing or re-recording other bits. The 1969 was reissued a couple of years ago, and it's best to find both copies to hear what Frank had bubbling away in his head at the time.
This is one of Zappa's 'safer' albums, as it doesn't have any naughty words and can appeal to jazz fans too. I'd recommend this after trying his more accessible 70s stuff like 'Overnite Sensation' or 'Zoot Allures' first. It's a monster of a fusion album, and if you like jazz of any kind, or just want to hear something great that doesn't have the human voice plastered all over it, then check it's worth checking out.
Tracklisting 1. Peaches En Regalia 2. Willie The Pimp 3. Son Of Mr. Green Genes 4. Little Umbrellas 5. The Gumbo Variations 6. It Must Be A Camel