Frank Zappa was a genius.
It seems obvious, but I feel as though that statement needs to be made. Frank Zappa was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century. He was right up there with Gershwin, Ellington, and (one of Zappa’s favorites) Stravinsky. People who dismiss Zappa because of his appearance (which often led to false conclusions) or because they only know of songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” are sorely missing the point. Zappa’s music was intricate, complex, and wondrous. His compositional skills were put on display on more than 80 albums over his 35-year career, with another 20 or so released since his death in 1993. Bottom line: there was a metric TON more to the man than “Valley Girl” or “Titties and Beer.”
I have a difficult time picking a favorite Zappa album. There’s too much to choose from. To attempt to declare a single album superior to the rest strikes me as a fool’s errand. I can find something to love in every period of his work. But I do find myself gravitating toward one particular era, more often than not. That period seems to run between 1973 and ’75. I like to call it The Roxy Era. This band, and the music it produced, was something special.
A musician couldn’t just waltz his way into Frank Zappa’s band. You had to have CHOPS for days. The Roxy band (which I’m naming after the release Roxy and Elsewhere) had those chops, and then some. They were a a positively stunning collection of musicians, consisting of Zappa (guitar and vocals), George Duke (keyboards and vocals), Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax and vocals), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Ruth Underwood (percussion), Tom Fowler (bass), Chester Thompson (drums), and Ralph Humphrey (drums). The combined talents of this band were beyond staggering. (*)
This is the band that produced Roxy and Elsewhere, One Size Fits All, You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore: Volume 2 (The Helsinki Concert), and posthumous releases Roxy by Proxy and Roxy: The Movie. I’m having a difficult time thinking of a band that did more with the material it had on hand.
What was it about this band? Frank Zappa employed a TON of amazing musicians. Artists like Jean-Luc Ponty, Adrian Belew, Mike Keneally, and Steve Vai dominate my collection. So made the Roxy band so special? I suppose it starts with the material.
Zappa was well known for his satire, sense of humor, and social commentary. While the Roxy band played music with a little snark in it, a lot more emphasis seemed to be placed on the compositions, and the importance of playing them, as Zappa would say, “correctly and consistently.” By its very nature, most of Zappa’s music could not be categorized. But this band came as close to playing pure jazz on a consistent basis as any other I’ve heard over the years. Even if it couldn’t be labeled as such. And thank goodness of that, because I HATE putting labels on music. Take “Inca Roads,” for example. It burns like a rock song, but plays out like jazz.
When I listen to Zappa compositions, I have trouble comprehending the level of brilliance that went into that music. I’ve heard some amazing tunes over the years. Yet Zappa’s is the only kind I have to mentally prepare myself for. One does not casually listen to FZ. In order to get the most out of it, you MUST be in the moment with the rest of the band. There’s too much going on to check in and out.
What amazed me about this band wasn’t just its ability to execute this complicated music. What got me was realizing that between Roxy and Elsewhere and The Helsinki Concert, the band had not only mastered the music at hand, but they were actually playing it faster! Unreal!
When was the last time you heard someone say a song called “Penguin in Bondage” held sentimental value? Well, it does. I connected to my best friend from the police academy, T.J. DuPree, via this song. It was our first week, and the two of us got to talking about music. When I mentioned my love for Zappa, he immediately started singing this song. I had a friend for life. When cancer took my friend from me six years ago, I always thought about that moment. Now this song makes me smile for multiple reasons.
I was a initially drawn to Zappa by his guitar playing. For a while, I spent most of my listening time waiting for the next incredible solo. Over time, I truly came to understand what an amazing composer he was. I also came to appreciate the talents of those he hired to play in his bands. They were all good, but the Roxy band knocked me out the most often. Their skills are beyond reproach.
The funny thing is, I don’t know that I’d point Zappa newcomers to the Roxy band as an entry point into the man’s music. The 3-CD Lather album is truly the ultimate overview of Zappa’s music, as it touches on nearly every style the man created over the course of his career. But if you dug that album, the next place I would take you was directly to the Roxy band, where I would play their albums in sequence, so you could truly appreciate the creation and development of this group. They are truly the gold standard.
There are plenty of other Zappa moments that have elicited a “WOW” or two. But we’ll talk about those another time. For now, absorb and appreciate the Roxy band. You’ll never look at conventional commercial music the same again.
(*) A few other musicians made cameo contributions during this era, and not every musician appeared on every record. But this was the core group.