Throughout my many years of listening to Frank Zappa I often get asked by newbies what I would recommend for them. Well, with near 90 official albums, and a HUGE cross section of genres and material to choose from, that question can get a bit difficult to answer. But don’t worry, I’m here to help. Trust me, I know what I’m doing.
The first thing you need to do is figure out what type of music you want to listen to. Throughout his career Frank recorded everything from rock, jazz, classical, funk, doo-wop, comedy, fusion, and of course, the just plain weird. His work, and often times his band, changed from year to year and even album to album. I believe it is this unwavering desire for change (and progress) that sometimes alienates potential fans; after years of being used to a band that plays the same type of material for years, with the same band members, it’s sometimes hard to get on board. But this musical diversity, in both content and musicians, is exactly what makes Zappa so spectacular and a testament to his ever working, madman’s mind.
So, how do you ease in? Well, here are a few helpful tips, on two of my favorite Zappa genres, to help you get started…
• Jazz: I’m going to hit jazz first since it has always been such an important part of Frank’s music and certainly one of my favorites in his catalog. In fact, if I could go back in time I would beg Frank to focus more on jazz, at least for a few more years, because at times it sounds as good as, and often times better, than a lot of jazz schlock that’s been recorded through the years. He could have easily made a career solely on jazz, as his horn charts are wonderful, and the bands he assembled to play them superb.
For the best in Frank Zappa jazz check out Waka Jawaka which he wrote and performed in a wheel chair while recovering from injuries sustained after being pushed off stage in 1971. The main section of the 17 minute “Big Swifty” sounds a lot like Miles Davis’ Bitches’ Brew period with its huge expanses of space and the musicians giving everyone plenty of room to solo. The 11 minute title track is a gorgeous, horn driven masterpiece that should have become a jazz standard. When the song finally gives way to the main theme at the end and they churn out that wonderful bolero, complete with church bells, it sounds like nothing else on the planet and begs for a second listen. Other fine choices in jazz would be: Hot Rats (essential), Grand Wazoo, Imaginary Diseases, and Wazoo.
• Rock: Frank did more rock recordings than anything else; even his jazz and classical recordings have elements of rock tucked away in there. And no one rocked heavier, or harder, than Zappa. He was truly ahead of everyone else in terms of pure rock riffery and absolutely astounding guitar solos. Oh, those guitar solos! Full of such magnificent beauty and power with a seemingly unending train of inventive ideas and phrasings. He was, to me anyway, the best.
Singling out the best in Frank Zappa’s rock is difficult since there is so much of it and so many different kinds. But, if you want just guitar check out the always amazing 3 disc Shut Up N’ Play Yer Guitar. This thing is a monster set, with solos recorded from about 1977 to 1980 or so. But they are not just solos per se. Instead, they are pure pieces of expertly played music that just glisten and sparkle from the speakers. Each track serves as its own composition to such an extent that they sound is if they are entire songs rather than just excerpts. This set proves, perhaps more than any other, that Frank the guitar player was above and beyond everyone else. Pure sheets of electric sound just wash over the audience and range anywhere from heavy hitting balls out rock to introspective (for Frank anyway) acoustic beauty.
We also have to take a look at ANYTHING done by the ’74 band which would include the funky Roxy & Elsewhere and the insanely awesome You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol.2 which documents the band in Helsinki, Finland in September of 1974. Frank’s guitar here is pure rock heaven with a wonderfully articulate tone and some of the greatest riffing chops of his career. Song after song he unfurls gorgeous solos, spurred on by a band that is absolutely devoted to their leader and provide unwavering funk, rock, jazz, and any other background Frank desires. For years now I have said that the band featured here is the tightest in the world. I have yet to change my mind…
Special mention needs to made of the studio masterpiece that is One Size Fits All which is a jazz/rock/funk hybrid and really represents everything Frank was working towards up to 1975. It is a spectacular document of a band that, had they stayed together, could have taken over the world.
As I’m writing this I’m realizing that things are getting a little long. But that’s what happens when I talk about Frank, I could go all day. Like I said, he has a HUGE body of work that would take a lifetime of listening to study. Fortunately for you I have been consuming his music since I was just a young lad so feel free to leave a comment and I can make additional suggestions or answer your Zappa related needs. We will also be featuring more Zappa suggestions, news, and reviews in the future!