How Frank Zappa delivered a late classic
Released in November 1986, all instrumental jazz from hell was technically the last studio album that Frank Zappa released during his lifetime, although he completed two more – Civilization Phase III and Dance me that, both of which were released posthumously in 1994 and 2015, respectively. Well Named, jazz from hell was every bit as uncompromising and groundbreaking as the composer’s finest work, providing tantalizing insight into how Zappa might have continued to harness cutting-edge technology had it not been for his untimely death.
Zappa had been an early adopter of the Synclavier digital music system – one of the first digital samplers and synthesizers – using it in the mid-1980s on Fish-Thing, Boulez directs Zappa: the perfect stranger, Francesco Zappaand Frank Zappa meets the mothers of prevention. But jazz from hell It was the first time he had used the technology to this extent on an album of original material – all of his songs except “St. Etienne” were edited solely on the Synclavier.
The gear opened up a world of possibilities for Zappa, allowing him to push the boundaries of his music beyond the capabilities of human players, as he put it. Keyboardist magazine in 1987, “The moment you get your hands on gear like this, where you can modify known instruments in ways that human beings just never do, like adding notes to the top and bottom scale, or allowing a piano to perform pitch-bends or vibrato, even basic things like that will make you rethink the existing musical universe. The other thing you can do is invent sounds from of zero. Of course, this opens up a wide range.
The combination of the latest technology with Zappa’s quest for sonic perfection and his restless imagination resulted in music years ahead of its time. The hyperactive robo-funk of “G-Spot Tornado” alluded to the complex rhythmic mathematical rock of Battles or the messy electro of Squarepusher. The mind wonders what Zappa would have done with ProTools, especially since he was eager to keep up with the rapidly changing world of technology. Like he said talk about song in 1987, “Since they have software updates every year, and there’s new material available every year, every album I’ve done on Synclavier has gotten more and more sophisticated. So compared what i can do now, [previous work] seems technically crude.
If one track highlighted the Synclavier’s potential to radically alter the sound of Zappa’s music, it was “While You Were Art II” – an arrangement of the guitar solo “While You Were Out”, released in 1981 shut up and play your guitar. The solo had been transcribed by Steve Vai, and when Zappa was asked to compose a piece of music for the California EAR Unit ensemble, the transcription was entered into the Synclavier by David Ocker, Zappa’s assistant. Zappa then used the basic chords and melody to work out an arrangement on the Synclavier, with the intention that the ensemble would use their digital arrangement to learn the piece. The ensemble received the arrangement tape too late to learn it in time for their concert at the Los Angeles County Museum on April 30, 1984, so – as Zappa maliciously suggested – the all-digital performance tape was played. on the PA while the whole mimed. The crowd was oblivious. For Zappa, it was an artistic statement, a farce that exposed the fallacy of the “serious music” establishment. Most likely, audiences were too preoccupied with the attempt to follow the music – a spellbinding and playful feat of experimentation – to question its providence.
The only non-Synclavier piece, “St. Etienne”, is a live recording of a concert in the French town of the same name on May 28, 1982. Zappa solos with extraordinary depth of emotion and melodic range over a groove languorous, offering a balm to listeners who may have struggled to come to terms with the brave new world of jazz from hell. At the time of the album’s release, Zappa claimed he hadn’t played his guitar in at least two years – “St. Etienne” may have also served as a reminder of his prowess. In retrospect, and especially if l ‘we consider that jazz from hell would be the last studio album released during Zappa’s lifetime, “St. Etienne” takes an elegiac turn. Generally, however, any sentimental thoughts are quickly swept away by the album’s final track, the savage “Massaggio Galore”, a dense electronic piece that features vocal samples from Zappa and his children – Ahmet, Dweezil and Moon Unit – manipulated to sound like a chorus of malevolent goblins, a reminder that humor definitely belongs in music.
jazz from hell arrived at a time when Frank Zappa’s profile had rarely been so high, thanks to his ongoing battle against censorship in music and the Parent’s Music Resource Center (PMRC) in particular. Hilariously, his efforts to defend free speech meant that jazz from hell – an instrumental album, let’s not forget – was donated a “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” sticker upon release, and it was not stocked at more than 100 retail outlets in the Fred Meyer Music Market chain of stores. Interviewed by Don Menn and Matt Groening for Guitarist in 1992, Zappa recalled, “When Billboard asked the guy about it, he said, “Well, if it’s not the lyrics, then it must be the cover.” The cover was a picture of my face.
Today, jazz from hell still sounds like music from the future. His extensive experiments with the Synclavier would be rewarded with a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the title track in 1988. jazz from hell would be his last studio album released during his lifetime, his next two albums, the released posthumously Civilization Phase IIIrecorded mainly between 1991 and 1992, and Dance me thatrecorded in 1993 shortly before his death, will show the direction he is taking in the studio with the Synclavier as well as with the Ensemble Modern.