Frank Zappa on CD (and LP), Part I-III Page 3

Again, Zappa's talent for finding new and previously unheard voicings among the standard orchestral instruments is well evidenced here. His eclectic, Stravinskian compositional style seems particularly well suited to chamber orchestra; more to the point, his works have never been conducted by a conductor of Boulez's stature and acumen. The latter's legendary attention to detail finds a worthy foil in Zappa's demanding scores.

Zappa's orchestral pieces, like Strauss's tone poems, tend to the extremely programmatic. As his notes to these seven "dance pieces" hint, and listening confirms, he graphically indicates ringing doorbells, raised eyebrows, vacuum cleaners, and "an elderly Republican couple trying to make love while break-dancing." Though this often reduces his music, particularly the title piece, to the level of a well-made cartoon, there is still plenty of musical information to repay repeated listenings.

"Naval Aviation in Art," a tense, foreboding vignette, receives a much better reading here than on 1979's ill-fated, entirely uncredited Orchestral Favorites LP. It is also a rare instance of a Zappa composition in which there are very few notes, and all the more striking for that. This is an area I'd love to see him explore further.

"Dupree's Paradise" owes much, again, to Stravinsky's works for small orchestra, particularly his Symphony in C. Depicting in early-20th-Century musical language a jam session in a Watts bar in 1964, it is fresh, acerbic, funny, and sharp. I particularly enjoy the double piano passage soon after the beginning.

The remaining four synclavier pieces function as a primer in the use of that remarkable instrument, and as the rough draft for last year's Jazz From Hell. Listen carefully to the album's finale, "Jonestown," a terrifying tonepoem in which Jim Jones is musically depicted banging a child's skull against the side of a steel vat full of poison, droning "Come and get it!" in nightmarish slow motion. The nth chapter in Zappa's crusade against organized religion, and the most effective.

The sound is virtually identical in black and silver formats, with the LP sounding just a hair more lush in resonance and bass. Both are highly recommended.

London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. II:
This release is a bit of an afterthought, being the last takes from the LSO sessions that resulted in LSO I's very different LP and CD configurations. The LSO I CD replaced the LP's "Pedro's Dowry" and "Envelopes" with "Bogus Pomp"; LSO II also contains "Bogus Pomp," along with the third version of "Strictly Genteel" and the new "Bob In Dacron."

Zappa's notes explain that he held up release of these recordings for over three years in the vain hope that someone would develop a piece of digital hardware that would allow him to edit out the considerable number of wrong notes. He complains bitterly of the LSO's brass section, which popped out for a drink en masse during the last break of the last day of sessions, returning too late to rerecord "Strictly Genteel." This and other orchestral problems forced Zappa to make 50 edits in 6:53 (as he fumes in the liner notes), and it's still far from perfect.

Truth to tell, it doesn't help that "Strictly Genteel" is the least interesting of Zappa's large-scale orchestral works; the orchestration is lame, diffuse, and fuzzy in all three of its incarnations (it's also on 200 Motels and Orchestral Favorites), and its film-soundtrack origins are awkwardly betrayed in the closing electronic fade. The melodic content is a tired English-style hymn, although the harmonic permutations are interesting.

"Bogus Pomp" sounds much better, in all ways, on CD. The brass, in particular, suffer on this LP, conveying only a fraction of the CD's bite and presence. I'm afraid, however, that I'll still have to recommend LSO II to owners of the black and silver discs of LSO I: "Bob In Dacron" is muscular and dramatic music. Another ballet, this one about an urban make-out artist's adventures in a singles bar, "Bob" is a consistently tough composition that does not pull the rug out from under its own feet with cartoonish humor. Particularly fine is the writing for middle strings, brass, and English horn.

A definite buy for Zappists; all others should let the LSO I CD and The Perfect Stranger take precedence.

Still More To Come:
Now that Zappa's won a Grammy (for Jazz from Hell) and is in the midst of a months-long US tour, complete with voter registration booths at each concert, there's no stopping him: Next on Rykodisc's rerelease list is the 12-CD (!) You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore, a retrospective series slated for release this month, along with another 2-CD set of guitar solos. YCDTOSA consists of six double-CD sets recording unchronologically the "live" histories of Zappa's various bands, from 1965 through 1988. Zappa intends to take full advantage of CD's 74-minute-plus program capabilities (which Ryko has just pushed to 80:05); we can anticipate at least 12, and as many as 15, hours of previously unreleased music. Then there's the 2-CD/3-LP The Helsinki Tapes, Box III of the Old Masters, Lumpy Gravy Phase III, and...JA, LA, can I write Part III? Please?---Richard Lehnert