Tentative Review #97

Frank Zappa
Make A Jazz Noise Here

(released 1991)

1. Stinkfoot****1/2
2. When Yuppies Go To Hell*****
3. Fire And Chains****1/2
4. Let's Make The Water Turn Black****1/2
5. Harry, You're A Beast/The Orange County Lumber Truck*****
6. Oh No*****
7. Theme From Lumpy Gravy*****
8. Eat That Question****1/2
9. Black Napkins*****
10. Big Swifty*****
11. King Kong****1/2
12. Star Wars Won't Work*****
13. The Black Page (new-age version)****1/2
14. T'Mershi Duween****1/2
15. Dupree's Paradise*****
16. City Of Tiny Lights****1/2
17. Royal March From L'Histoire Du Soldat*****
18. Theme From The Bartok Piano Concerto No. 3*****
19. Sinister Footwear, Second Movement*****
20. Stevie's Spanking****
21. Alien Orifice*****
22. Cruisin' For Burgers*****
23. Advance Romance****1/2
24. Strictly Genteel*****



Let it never be said that the unfinished 1988 Zappa tour has not been preserved for the ages.

Between 1988 and 1991, three separate CDs (two of which were doubles, no less) were issued from this period. The first was Broadway The Hard Way, a collection of new material which focused on parodies of various American political figures. The second was The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, with various novelty and semi-novelty covers standing beside updated versions of older Zappa numbers. And the third was Make A Jazz Noise Here.

It would seem reasonable to suggest that Zappa was targeting various diverging elements of his audience through these releases. Broadway The Hard Way and Make A Jazz Noise Here are such polar opposites, from a musical standpoint, that it almost seems difficult to believe that they were spawned by the same lineup at about the same time. The former is the sort of Zappa album that fans of Over-Nite Sensation, Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garage would be most impressed with -- musical chops can be found in spades, but the driving ethos seems to be based in the "novelty" tradition of Zappa recordings. Make A Jazz Noise Here, on the other hand, is the other for Zappa fans who were impressed with The Grand Wazoo, Studio Tan and (of course) Jazz From Hell -- musical chops in such abundance that it's almost scary. This, in other words, is the one that fans of progressive inclinations would find most to their tastes -- by far. (Best Band falls somewhere in between the two extremes.)

The amount of material that the 1988 band had at their disposal is simply amazing, as suggested by the diversity of material on this release. Besides which, the Utility Muffin resource base was further expanded by Zappa's liberal use of Synclavier performances (strongest on "When Yuppies Go To Hell"), which this reviewer originally believed to have been overdubs. It's basically unthinkable that a project possessing this much in the way of musicality and creativity could possibly fail. If there's ever a dispute as to the definitive "embarrassment of riches" album from the progressive genre (or simply of Zappa's catalogue), this might finish rather strongly.

Given this, it seems rather odd that "Stinkfoot" would be the track selected to start the work off (though I suppose that FZ would have preferred something song-oriented as a lead-in; maybe it's not that odd as such). The track begins with Zappa encouraging his followers to register to vote and, in a perfectly timely manner, mentioning that Jimmy Swaggart was officially placed under investigation on the day of the concert (and there was much enthusiasm). This then leads to the song, a perfectly organized work of stupidity with FZ singing his lines in a willfully detached matter (with material like this, how could he not?). The brass section hurts neither the song nor the stupidity, using the melodic/effects role that come into play to a much greater extent on other parts of the album -- Willis, Keneally and Mann all have decent tricks on hand as well, though the instrumental high point is clearly Zappa's bluesy solo with accompaniment from Thunes. Finally, with the "song" completed, FZ has one further surprise for the listener -- a special on-stage "practice" by Ed Mann of the riff in "Dickie's Such An Asshole", in response to a fan's complaint that he had played it incorrectly on an earlier night (Zappa's description of this is almost worth the price of admission alone). This track gets things started out fairly well -- about the only thing that stops it from getting a perfect rating is the fact that it's, well, "Stinkfoot", hardly a shining light in Zappa's catalogue.

And then comes "When Yuppies Go To Hell", easily one of the most bizarre things on this release. Synclavier noodlings (including demented vocal samples) mix in and out with more organic instrumental lead. In a span of fourteen minutes, the track spans cool jazz (led by the brass section, of course), "normal" Synclavier performances (having a distinct connection to Jazz From Hell), absurd samples of a preacher voice yelling "Go to hell!" in infinite loop, bizarre Synclavier sound samples, and a modern classical section towards the end. Zappa's combination of Synclavier drums in conjunction with Wackerman's spotlight works quite well, verifying that something new can be done within the confines of such drum showcases -- the distorted "Middle Eastern" vocals of Ike Willis in one section of the song also correspond to that particular part of the music quite well. All told, this is as musically impressive as it is downright bizarre -- and an appropriate masterwork in the Zappa legacy.

As the scene suddenly shifts back to the stage performance, we then segue into "Fire And Chains". Starting with various secular humanist lyrical darts (as well as a sample of Senator Ernest Hollings's infamous reference to Zappa's music as "outrageous filth"), the track goes through a brief ambient/eccentricity section before proceeding to its real raison d'etre -- a harsh-tone guitar solo of a rather impressive quality. This sounds vaguely akin to "Inca Roads" at the very beginning, though this similarity doesn't really hold throughout the track. The earliest part of the song brings the overall quality down by a very small amount, but this is still pretty impressive.

The concert then turns to an extended "suite" of older Zappa numbers, re-arranged for the jazz/big-band experience. This section (lasting from "Let's Make The Water Turn Black" through to "Big Swifty") may be the single greatest feature of the album -- the band operates its way through an amazing number of instrumental motifs here, all of which seem to function extremely well in the context of the work.

The section begins with a series of tracks which had been incorporated into a stage medley by the original Mothers of Invention. This version of "Let's Make The Water Turn Black" (thankfully an instrumental) sees the brass section taking the lead role, with Thunes and Mann providing the necessary comical backing. This leads to "Harry You're A Beast/The Orange County Lumber Truck" (quite thankfully an instrumental), with the rhythmic punchiness attaining a state which the original studio version never quite reached. With the time listings for each having seemingly been chosen at random, the band eventually makes its way into "Oh No" -- Ike Willis's take on Zappa's cynical lyrics works very well, and the band follows through with him in a flawless manner (especially the brass section, of course). After a Latin Jazz section, another guitar solo (better than "Fire And Chains") then emerges, and develops for a fair degree of time.

This leads into "Theme From Lumpy Gravy", the vessel which Zappa uses for one of his better in-jokes of the disc (involving a Hendrix quote and a surf music spotlight). On its own, the track continues the impressive jazz playing of the earlier numbers. Things take a brief, low-key turn with "Eat That Question", with Keneally getting in a rare keyboard spotlight (actually not one of the better "solos" on the album, though, in comparison to the other works ... to be fair, it isn't really a "solo"). And from there to an unbelieveable version of "Black Napkins", featuring solos from various members of the brass section (including a notable part by Walt Fowler). Towards the end of the track, a fluid-yet-harsh guitar solo intrudes upon the cool jazz slightly, though not at all to the disadvantage of the track. This is one of the single best tracks on the album.

This version of "Big Swifty" then shows the band shifting into more of a "humour" direction. The source of the vocal manipulations can be found here, as can a novelty brass rendition of the 1812 Overture. The real silliness, however, doesn't begin until the end, when the Synclavier soloing and hyperactive vocal distortions by Keneally and Willis appear in conjunction -- this is probably guaranteed to drive any mainstream rock fan from the room screaming, and is useful to possess accordingly. In the midst of all this absurdity, though, the band still manages to go through numerous serious jazz passages, all of which are done quite well. For the successful combination of music and insanity, the track earns top marks fairly easily.

"King Kong" then makes an appearance. While the mere fact of the early-Zappa staple showing up on the album is noteworthy in itself, the arrangement of this particular version seems slightly flawed. The infamous fake-Zappa-reggae is featured here; it isn't that intrusive, but its role in introducing the main theme takes a bit out of the "punch" of the track, accordingly. Given the strength of the performance (everyone is "on" for the musical portion of this one), this is a bit regrettable -- it wouldn't bring the song rating down, though, if it weren't also for a rather contrived mid-song story (by Bruce Fowler) about a creative, prehistoric fish being hounded by religious fanatics -- such self-promotion just seems a bit too obvious, and neither it, nor the belch-like vocal sample of Ike Willis= thereafter, nor inane "shark bubbles" section adds much to the value of the song. The track gets on its feet again after this with a fusion-esque solo from Thunes, but the damage caused by this section can't be entirely erased. [In fairness, Fowler does get in one really good line, claiming he "might just play a wrong note!" if such creative fish are still to be hounded down in the modern age.]

The first disc then ends with "Star Wars Won't Work" (again, having a contemporary edge for 1988 -- Zappa's "Why are they still even talking about it?" works quite well). The low-down blues intro (vocally and musically) is fairly impressive on its own, and the guitar solo which follows is an heir to the classic Zappa legacy as such. FZ's closing diatribe gets cut off halfway through, and we move to the second half of our program.

Disc Two begins with the "new age version" of "The Black Page", the notoriously complex work that Zappa auditioned drummers with in the 1970s. The sheer sarcastic value of this piece automatically gives it a few extra points, as the fake, laid-back nature in which the entire band plays the opening section would probably be quite disgusting were it not parodic. Some rhythmic fits and starts along the way ultimately take down the "new age" value of the track somewhat -- perhaps there's only so much that one can do to dumb down a work of this sort. Wackerman and Mann get a few decent licks in eventually, and Zappa's dronelike guitar seems to fit in fairly well.

"T'Mershi Duween" takes a novelty form for a few seconds, but eventually emerges into a decent instrumental passage with a good bass solo -- not bad, but at under two minutes, this version doesn't provide much incentive for more elaborate analysis. This is followed by another work from an earlier time -- "Dupree's Paradise", as arranged for a big-band rock ensemble, is without question another one of the most impressive numbers on this release. The first half of the song is about as perfect as would be imaginable from a purely musical standpoint -- eventually, other elements (older jazz features, a "Star Wars Won't Work" reprise) develop without the work; not quite as good, these still don't bring down the overall value of the track.

"DP" merges into a punchy, brass-driven version of "City Of Tiny Lights", featuring Martin on lead vocals. Regarding the first "song" section, it must be allowed that the fake reggae brings it down again, slightly; also, my own impression is that Belew's older version of this particular track is slightly better than Martin's (though the difference is marginal). In mid-song, a typical Zappa technique of arrangement takes over: the middle of the work is devoted to a masterful guitar solo (easily a five-star work on its own), and the final section of the track has a stronger "feel" to it than does the first part. Not a perfect number, again, but pretty good as a comprehensive whole.

The band then shifts to Stravinsky's "Royal March from L'Histoire Du Soldat" and "Theme From The Bartok Piano Concerto #3", both of which are over with fairly quickly. The Stravinsky number may be the single best composition on the album, and it played quite well -- the juxtaposition of Martin with the rest of the band makes the Bartok excerpt a bit more jarring on first listen, but it's still a strong performance (and a brave one -- I wonder how many people in the audience recognized the themes).

Zappa then leads to "Sinister Footwear, 2nd Movement", a performance which may actually surpass the value of the original studio version. It's very impressive that the band would even attempt this piece, and much moreso that they'd pull it off so well (even if this particular version is a montage of several different nights). Some of the texturing of the original Synclavier tune is lost in the process, but something else of worth replaces it -- the complex arrangement is ultimately transposed very well. I could probably do without the return of the fake reggae (over a brass solo), but this doesn't take much away from the track.

In the "curious transition" moment of the album, things them switch to "Stevie's Spanking", Zappa's ... er ... charming tale of Stevie Vai's extra-curricular activities from an earlier period in the decade. As always, the loud, full-force guitars have to be seen as somewhat (if not entirely) parodic for this work -- the transition to a brief laid-back jazz bit in the middle is as odd as would be expected, and Keneally's closing solo fits the mood of the song fairly well. This track would go fairly quickly if one album track had to be removed, but it's actually a good rendition on its own terms.

"Alien Orifice" then takes things back up to another level, with the same successful transition to big-band rock arrangement that "Sinister Footwear" had made only minutes previously. The brass melodic leads, the rhythmic and melodic complexity, the classic guitar solo -- it's all there, and it's another testimony to the power of this particular lineup.

This version of "Cruisin' For Burgers" begins with a masterful-as- always interpretation of FZ's sarcastic lyrics from Ike Willis, and quickly transforms itself into an instrumental showcase (as would be expected, of course) -- the guitar solo on this track is perhaps the one which King Crimson fans will find the most immediate connection to, and the entire performance is at the same, by-now-predictable level of excellence that as the rest of the work.

Perhaps a true display of the power of this lineup can be seen in their take on "Advance Romance", where they take the song to a level higher than the 1974 ensemble were capable of on Bongo Fury. This, like "Stinkfoot", is not one of Zappa's finest songwriting moments ... and the band still transforms it into something truly impressive. There's plenty of silliness as well, of course, with several absurd references to baseball announcing (and Ike's watch) during the second verse and beyond. The guitar solo in mid-song isn't completely overwhelming at first, but eventually makes sense as time goes by. It's fortunate that the band didn't stick to material like this, but there's nothing wrong with this track.

And, finally, the album ends with "Strictly Genteel", featuring a brass intro to the "God have mercy on the people of England" section, absurdly accompanied by further "shark bubble" effects soon after. In its five minute course, this track goes through big-band classical effects, an "underwater" guitar solo, progressive keyboard leads, a pure jazz section, and a curious free-form conclusion (obviously still having time more a bit of on-stage tomfoolery in mid-song, which, in this case, probably could have been excised). This one basically summarizes the nature of the entire show, really.

Such is Make A Jazz Noise Here. For progressive fans with an interest in Zappa's late career, this is an essential purchase, though the casual Zappa fan might find it slightly daunting.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 1 May 1998)
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