A Few Word’s About “Zappa in New York (40th Anniversary Box)”

FRANK ZAPPA, Zappa in New York, 40th Anniversary (Zappa Records, 2019)

PERSONNEL: Frank Zappa (Conductor, lead guitar, vocals); Ray White (rhythm guitar, vocals); Eddie Jobson (keyboards, violin, vocals); Patrick O’Hearn (bass, vocals); Terry Bozzio (drums, vocals); Ruth Underwood (percussion, synthesizer, “variously humanly impossible overdubs); FEATURING: Don Pardo (sophisticated narration); David Samuel (timpani, vibes); Randy Brecker (trumpet); Mike Brecker (tenor sax, flute); Lou Marini (alto sax, flute); Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax, clarinet); Tom Malone (trombone, trumpet, piccolo)

TRACK LISTING (DISC 1, The Original 1977 Vinyl Mix):

  1. Titties & Beer
  2. I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth
  3. Big Leg Emma
  4. Sofa
  5. Manx Needs Women
  6. The Black Page Drum Solo/Black Page #1
  7. Black Page #2
  8. Honey, Don’t You Want a Man Like Me?
  9. The Illinois Enema Bandit
  10. The Purple Lagoon

DISCS 2-4, Bonus Concert Performances, part 1-3

DISC 5, Bonus Vault Content

The most accomplished artists embrace change. It is the necessary driving force that makes the next level of achievement possible. Miles Davis was known for feeling compelled to change direction every few years. Prince rarely kept a band or a sound alive for lengthy periods, preferring instead to switch musical gears almost on a dime. Robert Fripp has changed the sound and personnel in King Crimson almost more times than we can count. It can be argued that change is the only true constant where these musicians are concerned.

Frank Zappa is no exception to this rule. In the mid-1970’s, Zappa was at the end of his Roxy period, and headed on to the next Thing. The album One Size Fits All effectively closed the door on both one of the most prolific bands of the decade, along with said band’s moniker, The Mothers of Invention. Zappa’s name alone would be the band’s identity, and it’s doubtful anyone saw fit to argue with this new identification.

Zappa’s new band (temporarily augmented by the horn section from NBC television’s Saturday Night Live show, along with its narrator, Don Pardo) officially made its presence known over four nights at New York City’s Palladium. Zappa loved to play New York, and between December 26 and 29 of 1976, the maestro and his orchestra absolutely owned the place. The result of their efforts was an album called Zappa in New York, originally released in 1978. This 60-minute LP was the official documentation of the Palladium residency until 1990, when Zappa remixed the tracks digitally and added additional material to flesh out a two-CD set of the album, thereby making the LP mix obsolete. The original album quickly went out of print.

To celebrate the album’s 40th anniversary, Zappa Family Trust vault master Joe Travers and company set about restoring the original vinyl mix of Zappa in New York, and added four additional discs of material from the Palladium residency along with a couple of extra surprises. The end result is nothing short of glorious.

One might be leery of the generic brown box these discs appear to come in. Not to worry, because inside is a manhole-shaped container that houses all the contents. There may be some symbolism here, as taking on this project (by opening there lid) can be a bit of a daunting leap into great depths.

The packaging in and of itself is relatively simple past that point. A 40-plus page booklet containing three essays, photos, and liner notes; five individually sleeved CDs with a unique photo on each; and a duplicate concert ticket are housed within. This is a true high-profile, lo-frills box set. But let’s be honest: we’re not here for the art. We’re here for the music! And that is where the lion’s share of this release’s efforts have gone.

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Not enough can be said about the new mixes, originally mastered to two-inch, 24-track reels of master tape and now transferred painstakingly to the digital realm. Compared to the CD mix of ’90, the new mix is unbelievably warm to the point of intimacy. The music sounds more like it was recorded in an acoustically perfect studio setting, as opposed to on stage. The sound of the audience almost feels like an afterthought. The band envelops the listener into a virtual sonic embrace, and never lets go. I never heard the original LP, having come into Zappa’s world in the mid ’80s. But thanks to this set, I now hold that original mix in the highest regard.

While the Roxy-era band seemed more composition driven, the New York band leaned a little more on Zappa’s wicked sense of humor with tunes like “Punky’s Whips,” “The Illinois Enema Bandit,” and the legendary “Titties & Beer.” It would be easy to get hung up on the silly nature of the lyrics (or even the lurid title of the instrumental “I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth”), but to do so would be to ignore the remarkable musicality underneath. Frank Zappa was without question one of the most important composers of the 20th century, and he hired musicians able to carry out his vision flawlessly. The definitive proof comes from tunes like “The Black Page,” a drum solo written for and mastered by Terry Bozzio (soon accompanied by a pair of melodies) or “The Purple Lagoon” a jazz workout that would test the most battle-hardened musician. This is serious music performed by serious people … while sporting an evil sideways grin.

Discs 2-4 contain the best non-album performances of the four-night residency. Zappa’s original razor-blade edits to his master reels made restoring each show to its original state a virtual impossibility (unlike the Roxy box set). Instead, we are treated to a virtual concert, performed in the original set list running order. It’s from here we are treated to marvelous renditions of “Peaches En Regalia,” “The Torture Never Stops,” “I’m the Slime,” and “Cruisin’ for Burgers.” Writing about it does not do the music justice. It must be heard.

Disc 5 contains a few more extras — none of which should be considered filler — bookended by two beautiful solo piano renditions of “The Black Page.” The first was recorded by Tommy Mars in ’78. The second comes from Ruth Underwood, recorded in her living room in 2017. If ever there was testament to be found for Zappa’s abilities as a composer, it lies in these two performances.

A true Frank Zappa fan will move mountains to obtain this box set. At the minimum, get hold of the original album mix, put on your headphones, and go back in time to a world before MTV, when the proof was in the music rather than the image.

#cirdecsongs

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