Friday, July 20, 2012

Zappa, Rahsaan, NRBQ and Genre-Smashing

It’s been said “there’s a first time for everything” and this morning marked a “first” for me. Today was the first time I ever started my day by listening to the music of Edgard Varèse . More specifically: side one of the infamous Complete Works of Edgard Varèse EMS 401 – the very same LP that propelled Frank Zappa headfirst into a life as a composer of challenging music.
Varèse is not exactly what I would call “morning music”. But I wanted to hear this record again since I installed a conical stylus on my trusty SONY turntable (conical-shaped needles are more forgiving with old mono records like EMS 401). Anyone familiar with Zappa’s orchestral works will immediately hear familiar noises when spinning a Varèse composition for the first time. Led Zeppelin borrowed from Willie Dixon; Zappa borrowed from Varèse.

Yet, if dissonant orchestral workouts were all we heard from Frank Zappa it is unlikely that either his or Varèse’s music would have become as widely known as they are today. There is only one musician I know of who credited the influence of Varèse in his music before The Mothers of Invention’s “Freak Out” appeared – Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk put out a record in 1965 called “Rip, Rig and Panic” (“Freak Out” was released in the summer of 1966).
In the liner notes, Kirk identified the works of Varèse as an influence on his decision to use electronic sounds to enhance what was essentially a “jazz” record. Rahsaan was every bit the musical maverick that Zappa was and took as much pleasure in busting down barriers between different genres. There was at least one time these two giants of the 20th Century shared a stage together - Boston 1969:

Now I would be mighty shocked if there isn’t an audio tape (at least) of this encounter somewhere – in the Zappa vault maybe? The mind’s ear boggles!

Of the two men, Zappa would enjoy more commercial success. Kirk would suffer a series of strokes hastening his demise at the far too young age of 42 in 1977. A terrible loss to the music world. Kirk would have been a welcome antidote to the more conservative “mainstream jazz” that has followed in the wake of his death. But as we all know, if jazz was ever a popular music it certainly hasn’t been in the last 30 or so years. Therefore, the work of anyone in jazz today who might be inclined to stretch the boundaries of music in general would not manage to find a wider audience because there just isn’t such an audience anymore. (Could this have been part of the subtext of Zappa’s “Yo Cats”?)

The idea of melding the so-called classical (composed?) tradition with the jazz (improvised?) tradition had been lurking in the background ever since, well, probably Scott Joplin or Jelly Roll Morton’s time at least. Efforts that leaned towards more “serious” concert-hall fare eventually got tagged with the label “Third Stream”. Lots of folks went swimming in the “third stream” – Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Gunther Schuller, The MJQ – even Ornette Coleman. Frank Zappa’s brilliant contribution to this tradition came out as “The Grand Wazoo”: through-composed music for a swinging jazz big-band.
 Yet even if Zappa had limited his output to modern classical and third-stream music a-la The Grand Wazoo, we’d still be left with limited impact on the larger picture of the music listening public. It’s hard to consider, but there was a time before “Yellow Snow”  in Zappa’s life. What was he doing before the goofy novelty song propelled his popularity to new heights in 1974? Playing rock guitar and sharpening his media-savvy marketing skills and image projection chops. That droopy moustache and oversized soul patch wound up being one of the best trademark visuals of the 20th century. A natural calling-card for weird musical hilarity.

That and the ability to be an outspoken and willing participant in the heated public discourse of his times distinguished Zappa from his peers and rocketed his image into the forefront of not just alternative, but even mainstream media outlets. The only other figure in popular music at the time who displayed a shrewdness in the handling of the media was John Lennon. Not even Bob Dylan was as good as Lennon and Zappa were.

What further distinguishes the musical leaders of yore, like Lennon and Zappa, from their current counterparts (Lady Gaga?) is how willing the earlier guys were to give credit to their musical (and otherwise) influences. It is remarkable to read all the names listed on the inside panel of “Freak Out” – investigating every name on that list alone could take a lifetime, if done properly. No doubt The Beatles took this idea to the visual level with the Sgt. Pepper front cover. Could we imagine a world where Lady Gaga would encourage her fans to listen to Stravinsky, Ravi Shankar or even Stockhausen? I know…….I know…..
While Zappa and Lennon used their personalities to promote more challenging music to the masses, others were equally hard at work breaking down the walls separating musical genres. In spite of strong songwriting, excellent musical ability and a tireless work ethic, NRBQ never quite caught the break all groups hope for: the HIT SONG. In the meantime, their live performances became the stuff of legend – careening heedlessly from 50s-styled rock and roll to Sun Ra-inspired free jazz to crazed polka-beat workouts.

Fans could drop requests in “The Magic Box” and the group would pick a request randomly and play the song – whether they knew it or not! Or you might see ventriloquist dummies appear – that looked remarkably like the guys in the band! Or “Cabbage Patch” dolls. Group members would swap instruments. But before things might devolve into utter chaos, the Q could turn on a dime and whip out a stompin’ blues shuffle to get folks up and dancing or a wistful Beatle-esque ballad that’d make a believer out of even the most cynical Grinch in the house. There’s going to come a time when future generations are going to look at this and just stare in disbelief:

NRBQ made a career out of dragging their audiences along wherever Terry Adams (still the great key-banger and leader) decided to take them. Just as Zappa spread the gospel according to Varese and Stravinsky, NRBQ spread the super-sonic vibes of Theolonious Monk, Sun Ra and Boozoo Chavis to the unsuspecting throngs that kept showing up at those clubs and bars all over the US in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Probably their biggest audience came in 1999 when the Q was featured at the end of a Simpsons episode playing the theme music over the closing credits -–the only live-action clip ever to grace the otherwise all-animated show in its long, successful run on tv.

Zappa left us in 1993. Lennon thirteen years earlier. There’s still a Terry Adams-led version of NRBQ out there (and absolutely worth seeing), but I wonder how much poorer we’ll be as a culture when this caliber of musical leadership has departed from us for good? I hope some brave spirits get the courage to pick up the banner to rail against the artificial compartmentalization of music – this segregated mentality that seems to be creeping upon us like the dreaded homogenized meatball The Fugs warned us about all those years ago. Think of all the fun we could have if we challenge ourselves to listen “outside of the box”. I’ll let Rahsaan have the last word here (with a little help from John Cage) – in the key of “W”, baby!!

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