Frank Zappa: You Should Be Listening

I’ve mentioned Zappa a few times on this site but have never delved into how much I admire him as a musician and composer.  To be clear, Zappa’s music isn’t for everyone.  The lyrics are juvenile or filthy most of the time and the music is a little “far out” but, for me, it’s mostly brilliant.  I will use other posts to dispel some of the many misconceptions about Zappa (for example, this drug crazed madman hippy was very much anti-drug and made fun of the hippy movement constantly) and take this time to focus on the music.  It is impossible to pigeon-hole Zappa’s music into any one genre since he was an acclaimed rock, classical, jazz and avant garde composer so I’m going to walk you through my top picks from his many different fields of composition.  Please keep in mind that some of the lyrics may be objectionable to the easily objectable…you’ve been warned.

We start with his most famous piece the “Yellow Snow Suite”.  It is important to remember that these songs are through composed with every note exactly where Zappa wants it and performed by living breathing musicians.  I think, because it’s funny, this is one of Frank’s most accessible songs.

Not bad, right? I now take you to something live because his live bands were legendary and featured some of the greatest musicians of all time. This piece is from the famous Roxy and Elsewhere album.

These are some of Zappa’s rock tunes but he was also a good jazz composer and this next song, Peaches en Regalia, is actually featured in some editions of the Jazz Real Book…although I’ve never heard anyone call it at a gig.

And we continue to the classical stuff. There’s a lot of amazing pieces to choose from but I’m going with the closer from his Yellow Shark album entitled G Spot Tornado. This is performed by The Berlin Philharmonic, live, and was thought by many to be impossible to perform by human musicians (it was composed as early computer music). I’ve always wanted to hear a drum/bugle corp tackle this track.

Now, onto the weird stuff! This tune, performed live in concert, spans every genre, time signature and tempo you could possibly cram into one song. Coupled with a lyric that makes no sense at all (except for the dirty parts) and it is one of my favorite of Zappa’s songs. Remember, this is live so try to tap your foot and keep up with this incredibly complex arrangement.

Here’s a tune about dental floss entitled Montana. In case you were wondering, that is Tina Turner on background vocals. This song seems simple enough, at first, but quickly becomes a complex arrangement with some crazy vocal lines and a great guitar solo.

Known for his guitar work, which inspired countless players after him, here is one of Zappa’s greatest compositions and his favorite guitar solo, Watermellon in Easter Hay. I’ve written about this elsewhere on the site so I won’t bore you with all of that again, just enjoy the music.

For a time, Zappa experimented with a speak/sing style of melody that resulted in songs like Dangerous Kitchen. Steve Vai, who started his career as Zappa’s guitarist, transcribed Zappa’s nonsensical singing for guitar and doubles it on this recording. Not one of my favorites but worth listening to.

And one more tune just for good luck. One of my favorite tunes from one of my favorite albums.