Frank Zappa was often brilliant in composing in his multi-decade career as an agent provocateur in America's fickle, short-memory popular culture. Most early fans, I am convinced, because they thought he was weird, off the wall, psychedelic to a high degree, a man with a band, the Mothers of Invention, creating the perfect soundtrack for whatever recreational drugs you happen to take. It may seem like a conceited thing to say at this point in my life, and it may be due to romancing the glory days of the Sixties when one was discovering literature, art, great music; I love his odd time signatures, abrupt switches between genres sans easy-going transitions, his dedication to dissonance.
It was an audio-assault American audience weren't used to, large audiences, mass audiences in any event, but I soon suspected there was more to Zappa's game than random bizarreness as I encountered him in interviews insisting, over and over, that he didn't do drugs of any kind. He did imbibe alcohol from time to time, which was a relief since I couldn't imagine, in my still expanding mind-- because I was incapable of conceding that anyone could be as not-of-this-earth as Zappa without having to insult his brain in some manner. Even so, he was sober as a judge, a serious composer, and the music he made from the early efforts to the end of his was the work of a man who regarded himself not as a pop star, rock star, or even professional celebrity, but rather as an artist, a composer, a severe composer making use of anything he found helpful in his goal of alternately inspiring or antagonizing his audience. There's much admiration to the dedication to complexity, although I understand why many have seen him off-putting and arrogant.
That he was, but I still like his music and continue to listen to it since I first bought my first Zappa album, We're Only in it for the Money, in the late Sixties. That said, I have become less and less of a fan of Zappa's guitar solos, which I find, and have always found repetitive and without direction. His extended, live solos on many of his albums ruin the experience of hearing fine musicians play arresting compositions. It's a habit born of modern jazz players developed in the 40s and 50s. Through a significant portion of the 60s, when soloists of exceptional caliber would improvise ad infinitum, engaging the process of "spontaneous composition," an idea that a musician, responding to impulse, urge, inspiration and certainly without a great deal of preparation, careens off the highway and ventures down several tonal tributaries in a hunt for a better combination of notes in increasingly tricky formations. Some geniuses managed this consistently in their work, with John Coltrane coming to mind most easily; his music, with his friends Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, and Jimmy Garrison, among a handful of others, being all of a piece. The inventiveness of the extended forays went far beyond a riffing variations-on-a-theme and became whole compositional endeavors. Keith Jarrett also should be mentioned, although that for all the brilliance he demonstrates as band leader and band member, his several multi-disc solo piano concerts have merely bored me; so much effort getting himself warmed up for the inspired parts makes you think more of someone burning gasoline looking for the perfect parking space rather than an artist working their way efficiently to the dimension where they exceed their expectations. For Zappa, he is neither of these two musicians to whatever degree. He is an exciting guitarist, recognizable from the first note, influential in relatively short solos tailored to the material (One Size Fits All). He is not the world-class concert soloist, although his True Believers wish it were the case. I hope he'd written sections for his best improvisers and let them shine, a lesson he might have learned from the Great Ellington. Lately, I've been dialing up interpretations of his daunting pieces, with generally good, even spectacular results.
Here's a unit doing a tight and together take on the dizzying and sonically cubist "G Spot Tornado," originally from his 1986 release Jazz from Hell. This was a disc of wholly instrumental tunes with uncompromised complexity and density. The majority of the tracks were the efforts of Zappa's programming of a then-bleeding edge synthesizer, the Synclavier, without the aid of other musicians for most of the album. The band here, Germany's hr-Bigband out of Frankfurt, serves a blistering version in this clip.