Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #19: Roxy and Elsewhere

Legend has it there were two rules for members of Frank Zappa’s bands. First, no drugs. If Zappa caught you using, he would fire you. (Zappa’s only vices were cigarettes and coffee.) And second, you had to keep up. Zappa was remarkably prolific, often composing new and dazzlingly intricate pieces of music in his hotel room between shows on a tour. Once you were handed these new pieces, you had to play them quickly and correctly.

It’s no surprise, then, that Zappa’s bands routinely included the best musicians available. Passing the composer’s rigorous audition was like graduating from a conservatory. Buying a ticket to a Zappa show was essentially a guarantee that you were about to see some of the most remarkable players on the planet play some of the most challenging music they’d ever encountered. And the 11-member band that recorded Roxy and Elsewhere in 1973 and 1974 is routinely considered one of Zappa’s very best ensembles.

The Roxy band is top-to-bottom stacked with brilliant players. It includes several holdovers from the Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe (‘) sessions, including saxophone player and singer Napoleon Murphy Brock, keyboardist George Duke, the three Fowlers (bassist Tom, trombonist Bruce and trumpeter Walt), drummer Ralph Humphrey, and the absolutely astonishing Ruth Underwood on mallet percussion. They’re joined by Mothers mainstays Don Preston and Jeff Simmons, and brand new (and fantastic) drummer Chester Thompson.

As you might expect, the better the players at his disposal, the more intricate the music Zappa would compose. This group could easily play the slicker, simpler material that made up most of Over-Nite and Apostrophe (‘), although hearing those songs performed by this ensemble was certainly thrilling. But Roxy and Elsewhere debuts the music Zappa wrote specifically for this band, and while they retain much of the jazz-rock feel, these songs head into much more complex waters.

As the title implies, Roxy and Elsewhere is a live album, although Zappa’s process blurs the lines between studio and concert documents. Most of the basic tracks were put to tape between December 8 and 10, 1973 (with additional recordings in May of 1974 in Pennsylvania and Chicago), but the album was extensively overdubbed in the studio. The live feel is certainly retained – the studio tracks were not fixes, but embellishments.

The songs on Roxy and Elsewhere are almost entirely new, making their album debuts here. The album is divided into four suites of nearly equal length, each taking up an entire record side. While the first side eases you in – “Penguin in Bondage” is practically a ditty, “Pygmy Twylyte” a brief horn-fueled segue and “Dummy Up” a hilarious jam in which the band tries to get Brock to smoke a gym sock, a high school diploma and a college degree – it’s the second side that truly showcases what this band can do.

“Village of the Sun” is one of Zappa’s most straightforward tunes, with its sweet melody and its clean guitar tones. (Steve Vai would go on to pinch this sound for most of his career.) It leads into a pair of dizzying instrumentals. The lightning-fast runs of “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” segue into the nine-minute “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing,” which showcases Bruce Fowler, George Duke, Zappa and the two drummers in solo spots. But the hero of these songs is Underwood, displaying a dexterity on the vibes that borders on the inhuman. It’s no wonder Zappa specifically calls her out during “Don’t You Ever,” announcing that she’s about to amaze the audience. While the crowd obviously can’t be seen, their wide-eyed stares can certainly be imagined.

Zappa kicks off the third side with “Cheepnis,” his remarkable ode to crappy monster movies. Cheepnis, as he says in the introduction, has nothing to do with the budget of the film, but rather with the quality control – visible wires, obvious zippers, puppeteers wandering into frame. The song is a loving tribute, and a splendid series of melodies. It also contains the album’s requisite poodle reference, making this the third Zappa album in a row to continue this trend. It’s a shame this song was never played beyond this tour, because “Cheepnis” is one of Zappa’s best. These days you can only buy “Cheepnis” in a remixed version, with pitch-shifted vocals and brighter-sounding guitars, and it sticks out on this record.

New versions of two older songs round out the side, and these are complete reinventions. “Son of Orange County” is essentially “Oh No” with a bit of “The Orange County Lumber Truck,” and the pig snorts from Lumpy Gravy thrown in for good measure. It’s played like a blues, with a strong solo from Zappa, and segues nicely into the slower, grittier “More Trouble Every Day,” a new take on Freak Out’s “Trouble Every Day.” This one sounds fully formed – the horn accents, the crawling groove, Zappa’s lower voice, it all works. This song would be played this way from this point on, and while the original, more blues-rap take is still effective, this is clearly Zappa’s preferred arrangement.

The fourth side is given over to the 17-minute “Be-Bop Tango (of the Old Jazzmen’s Church),” an insanely complicated piece of music that leads into an ecstatic jam, complete with audience participation. (When Zappa begins things by saying “this is a hard one to play,” you know it’s damn difficult.) For its first four minutes or so, this sounds like two truckloads of musical notes colliding on an interstate. The Fowlers play lines that would seem humanly impossible, and the two drummers match them perfectly. Underwood naturally follows suit, dazzling once again on the vibes.

But then it becomes a free for all – “sort of like jazz, in its own peculiar way,” Zappa says – with audience members invited to dance to George Duke’s scat singing and playing. It’s fantastic fun, and it remains musically intricate to the end.

Roxy and Elsewhere is one of the few instances in which Zappa’s restless nature becomes a detriment. This particular band is only featured on a few releases, including the archival You Can’t Do That on Stage Anymore Volume 2, and they deserved more. The 11-piece Roxy band is one of the finest ensembles Zappa ever assembled, and on this album, they play some of his most intricate and enjoyable works, combining the crowd-pleasing nature of his early ‘70s material with the complexity of his earlier and later pieces. Plus, Roxy and Elsewhere is a boatload of fun. Should you decide to start your Zappa journey here, you won’t be disappointed.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: If you want the original Roxy and Elsewhere, you only have one option: the 1974 vinyl record. “Cheepnis” was remixed for the original 1992 CD, and the entire album digitally remastered for the 1995 CD. The 2012 Zappa/Universal release mimics the 1995 disc, which means it uses the slightly muffled digital master and includes the remix of “Cheepnis.” But it still sounds pretty great.

Next week: One Size Fits All.

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