Frank Zappa’s 1981 guitar solo trilogy closes out with this, perhaps its most varied and interesting installment. Four live tracks make up the first side, and two extended studio tracks the second. This record showcases Zappa’s fiery technique and melodic mastery alongside a variety of other players, but as usual, it’s a veritable showcase for drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and bassist Arthur Barrow.
The 1979-1980 band gets a workout on side one. The brief “Beat It With Your Fist” kicks things off – a snippet of guitar solo from an October 1980 performance of “The Torture Never Stops,” this rapid-fire salvo gives way to recordings of the voices in the piano from 1967’s Lumpy Gravy, before smashing into the third in the title track trilogy. “Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar” is another long, liquid solo from “Inca Roads,” this one recorded in February 1979. It goes on for more than eight minutes, and never gets tiresome.
“Pinocchio’s Furniture” is the witty title for a two-minute solo from a December 1980 take of “Chunga’s Revenge.” Coliauta is positively reserved on this one, while Zappa is spitting fire, his solo constantly moving and never landing where you expect it will. “Why Johnny Can’t Read” closes the live side out with four minutes of a February 1979 performance of “Pound for a Brown,” Zappa exploring a cleaner tone and filling the spaces beautifully. When you’re done listening to his fluid playing (more fluid than Jeff Beck?), tune in to what Coliauta is doing. He’s following Zappa’s lead almost telepathically, leaping through spinning hoops behind him, with Barrow in tow.
The studio side is quieter and more reflective. Both of the songs top nine minutes, and find Zappa exploring new musical combinations. Colaiuta joins him again for “Stucco Homes” – he recorded his drum track in early 1979, and Zappa and second guitarist Warren Cuccurullo overdubbed their performance on top. The guitar parts are clean and subtle – Cuccurullo is on an acoustic, Zappa soloing in a gorgeous ringing tone – while the drums lay down a fascinating, ever-changing, percolating bed. Though they were recorded months apart, the two elements of this song complement each other surprisingly well.
The final track, “Canard du Jour,” is a duet between Zappa on bouzouki, a Greek stringed instrument similar to a lute, and Jean-Luc Ponty on baritone violin. This is Ponty’s first appearance since Apostrophe, and in fact the track was recorded in 1972, before the Over-Nite Sensation sessions. It’s a revelation – Zappa takes the bouzouki as many places as he can in 10 minutes, and Ponty provides an otherworldly counterpoint to his improvisations. It’s quiet, but never restful – the two musicians constantly circle each other, and the collaboration clearly brings out new sides in both of them.
Taken on its own, Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar does a fine job of showcasing the different aspects of Frank Zappa’s guitar playing. But listened to as a trilogy – which is the only way you can buy them now – the Shut Up records are Exhibit A in the argument that Zappa was a master of the instrument, a sculptor creating tiny pieces of art whenever he played. As any connoisseur of the later and live albums can tell you, some of Zappa’s solos were better than others. But all of them – and especially the 20 collected here – are surprising, novel redefinitions of the art. Gail Zappa has said that Hendrix sits at Zappa’s feet in heaven. The three Shut Up albums make it hard to argue.
Which version to buy: The three Shut Up albums have been packaged together on CD since 1986, when they were first issued as a 2-CD set. The 1995 edition restored the three-LPs-in-a-box feel by separating each album onto its own disc, but this made the entire endeavor more expensive. Your best and most economical bet is the 2012 Zappa/Universal remaster, which sounds better than any other edition, and reverts to the 2-CD format.
Next week: You Are What You Is.