Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Zappa and Jazz: an unwitting third-stream composer?

By Clint Allen

“Jazz is the music of unemployment” – Frank Zappa

It could be said that Zappa had a strange relationship with jazz: on one hand, making fun of jazz and musicians in his typical sardonic manner, yet many of his songs have a distinctly contemporary jazz influence. Zappa typically found ways to poke fun at the jazz establishment with projects like Jazz From Hell, Make A Jazz Noise Here, and compositions such as Jazz Discharge Party Hats. Early in his life, Zappa was influenced by blues, gospel and doo wop music, as well as European classical composers such as Stravinsky, Varese and Webern. Zappa’s music certainly seems to have been influenced later by the jazz tradition when he had jazz players, such as George Duke, Sal Marquez and the Fowler brothers in his band. But arguably, this jazz influence is mostly reflected in the individual improvised solos and less in the compositions themselves.

When asked about Zappa’s approach to jazz improvisation, trombonist Bruce Fowler commented that,

“It was pretty free, mostly free. He would try to set up some backgrounds to play with. He'd say 'Do you want this kind of chords or some other chords?' We would try things out, but it was really like a jazz band. Listening to that 1973 stuff, it's really jazzy. I was interested to find that Frank was interested in jazz. Even in the earliest days. I never realised how much of a jazz tune it was”

It seems plausible to suggest that the impact of jazz on Zappa has been understated, and perhaps even missed in the past, because it has been unclear what the definition of jazz was during this period of time. It comes down to definition. In 1969, Frank Zappa released “Hot Rats” whilst Miles Davis recorded “Bitches Brew”, both albums that embraced jazz and rock elements, electronic instruments, alternative instrumental techniques, studio overdubbing and highly creative improvisation. If Davis’ album is jazz, why is Zappa’s not?

Is it plausible to suggest that Zappa was an unwitting third stream composer? Towards the turn of the 1950s, the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic language of jazz became as complex as that of contemporary classical music. Gunther Schuller argued that as jazz became more of a music to be listened to, utilizing a greatly enriched tonal harmonic language, the music required a greater sense of organization, leading to the development of new musical forms. Schuller’s initial proposal of the term “third stream music” came in a 1957 public lecture at Brandeis University in Boston. It described music where elements of both American Jazz and Western classical music co-existed, creating "a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music" (Schuller, 1961, p. 54). In the years following, Schuller revised and expanded his definition confirming the indefinite nature of his concept. In 1959, he described third stream music as “the fusion of the spontaneity of improvisation and the rhythmical vitality of jazz with the compositional procedures and techniques developed and used for hundreds of years in western music” (Schuller, 1986, p.115). At the time of Schuller’s announcement, many musicians produced cross-genre works. Complex structures, harmonies and timbres existent in Western classical music lured jazz and rock musicians into experimenting and creating music that extended the usual boundaries. It has never before been suggested that Zappa was a ‘third-stream’ composer, but when one looks at his prolific output of works that do utilize a wide range of classical, rock and jazz sensibilites, one must wonder why not?

In 1997, trombonist Bruce Fowler was asked about Zappa’s jazz influences and how much they had in common with the traditional of modern and jazz and classical music. He replied by saying that:

“ It was kind of a combination. We did 'Stolen Moments' in 1988 which Frank thought was a masterpiece. I agree with him. That shows that he's like Duke Ellington, saying 'There's two kinds of music: good music and bad music'. That's it. I think Frank was like that. He would do country and western. It was more the utilitarian use of them in what he was trying to say. I know he thought jazz musicians became more and more tuxedo-like which made him pretty sick. It makes me feel the same way too. He liked Dolphy obviously; that's part of his stuff. He liked Hendrix and he liked all different kinds of music. He was a very versatile and eclectic kind of a guy but we all know that anyway.

Sadly, Zappa passed away in 1993 when I was only sixteen years old, so I was not aware of his output of work until a few years later. In a strange twist, I became interested in the music of Frank Zappa by means of a “brass quintet” playing Zappa, and not by an album by Zappa himself. I still recall finding the Meridian Arts Ensemble’s 1994 release, ‘Prime Meridian’ by chance in a HMV store whilst on a trip to Sydney. I was curious to see that they had a drummer playing with them. When I opened the CD jacket, instead of being greeted by the usual group of men wearing bright bowties, there were photos of the ensemble in rehearsal, complete with dreadlocks and looking like they hadn’t washed in days. They were playing pieces not by Bach and Handel, but composers I’d never heard of before with strange names like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and Milton Babbitt. When I eventually put the disc on, the room filled with music that alternated rock tunes with serial Stravinsky fanfares. What was so surprising was that it seemed to work. These guys weren’t the typical ‘orchestral’ players, but they were virtuosic performers…yet they played like a rock band. At this time, the Internet was relatively new to the public. People didn’t have email accounts in 1995. I think our family eventually had a computer fast enough a year later, and we connected a slow dial-up modem to it. I think musicians must have been quick to realise the potential of this new medium, as band websites were evident very early on. I first contacted Jon Nelson, trumpeter with the Meridian Arts Ensemble, in 1998 after finding his email on a Dutch website. I was interested in not only finding out more about the Meridian Arts Ensemble, but also in playing some of their repertoire! Of particular interest were the arrangements Jon had made of Frank Zappa’s music. The entire ensemble had met Zappa shortly before his death in 1993 and had been given permission to do anything with his music that they liked.

My own groups starting playing these Zappa arrangements to Australian audiences in the late 1990’s. Because the music isn’t quite classical, jazz or rock, the music was suitable to be performed successfully in both the concert hall and the nightclub successfully. Zappa’s music appeals to modern audiences and musicians because it embraces so many eclectic styles. In recent times, there have been many jazz musicians embracing the music of Zappa: saxophonist Ed Palermo has arranged around 200 Zappa tunes and recorded three albums with his New York big band. Other big bands such as the Bohuslän Big Band (2000) and Colin Towns with the NDR Big Band (2005) have also released albums breathing new life into Zappa’s music.

After conversing with Ed Palermo, I was prompted into forming my own big band here in Brisbane dedicated to performing the music of Frank Zappa. Despite minimal advertising, our first performance caused chaos at the Brisbane Jazz Club where scores of patrons were turned away at the door unable to squeeze into the venue. What was so refreshing was the mix of demographics in the crowd – older patrons used to listening to big bands sat shoulder to shoulder with others wearing denim jeans and old Zappa tour t-shirts. In September this year, the big band sold-out the 500-seat Spiegeltent that was part of the Brisbane Festival jazz program. There is an undeniable demand and curiosity about the music of Zappa.

Whether conscious or not, jazz does seem to have impacted Zappa’s composition and performance style. I hope I have the opportunity to explore this theme in greater detail.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Third Stream - Journey Into Jazz

This is a wonderful example of "Third Stream" music, Gunther Schuller's "Journey Into Jazz" - all based around the character of Peter, a trumpet player!!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Praxis Axis

My good friend, Tom Green, is currently composing and recording some computer-game inspired music for an upcoming 'Praxis Axis' album. Although most of the composition is based in electronica, other prominent musicians including Mark Henman (drums) and Paul Henderson (guitar) and Sam Vincent (bass). I recorded the trumpet lines last's coming together quite nicely!

For a raw sample, check out: LEVEL FOUR TEST MIX

Friday, July 30, 2010

Evelyn, a modified dog

Evelyn, a modified dog
Viewed the quivering fringe of a special doily
Draped across the piano, with some surprise

In the darkened room
Where the chairs dismayed
And the horrible curtains
Muffled the rain
She could hardly believe her eyes

A curious breeze
A garlic breath
Which sounded like a snore
Somewhere near the Steinway (or even from within)
Had caused the doily fringe to waft & tremble in the gloom

Evelyn, a dog, having undergone
Further modification
Pondered the significance of short-person behavior
In pedal-depressed panchromatic resonance
And other highly ambient domains . . .

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Zappa interview

As part of this concert at the Globe, I recently did an interview with Dan Condon for Timeoff Magazine. He asked me the following:

1. Last time we spoke you hadn't yet performed this Zappa show; how do you feel it has gone down?

There really has been an overwhelming response – the Zappa Big Band debuted in late January at a sold-out Brisbane Jazz Club where we were forced to turn around 70 patrons at the door, who were unable to squeeze into the packed venue. It was a really interesting audience – a mixture of people who were there for the jazz, but also a heap of Zappa fanatics (many with Zappa t-shirts on!), which was really fantastic to see!

2. You're playing another show on the weekend, can we assume that we'll be seeing more of this group in the future?

Yes, we’re headlining one of the Sunday Jazz gigs at the Brisbane Festival (in the Spiegeltent on Sunday 5 September) and then another show at the Brisbane Jazz Club in early December.

3. I hear you've prepared some new charts; what informs your decisions as to what tunes you choose to perform?

I really wanted to feature our wonderful vocalist, Stu Fisher, a little more. A lot of people know him as the big guy in the Brisbane Broncos Jersey who features in that classic NRMA television commercial. What people don’t know is that he is a very fine jazz singer – it’s an absolute pleasure having him in the group. Of course, I’m also looking for charts that feature some of the amazing soloists in the band – “Spider of Destiny” features Matt Carpenter on guitar whilst “Dwarf Nebula” features the freakish Scott Griffith on alto sax.

4. Has it been difficult getting all of the players together to perform again?

Sure – it’s always tricky co-coordinating 19 musicians, but I’ve been really lucky to have a lot of support from the band. They all really want to be there – I think they realize it’s a pretty unique opportunity to play music by one of the most underrated composers of the 20th Century.

5. What can we expect from your live show this time around?

Quite simply, a bigger sound in a bigger venue to a bigger audience! The band has also been working on a heap of new charts like “Village of the Sun” and “Evelyn A Modified Dog”. As well, we’ll be featuring an old friend of mine this time – DJ KATCH (Hydrofunk / 2 Dogs) – we played in the Resin Dogs together for many years, so it’ll be great to have him perform on the night as well!

6. What are your plans for the near future?

My plan is to keep increasing the repertoire of the band, and to inform as many people as I can in Brisbane about this extraordinary group. It’s not often you can walk into a club in the valley and see a 19-piece band grooving on stage. I think those days are possibly over, so I’m hoping people come out to check this one out!!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Zappa Big Band in rehearsal

So, the Zappa band has started rehearsing once more! Last night, some of Brisbane's most well known musicians read through a heap of new charts ("Village of the Sun", "Spider of Destiny") and revisited a few tricky ones (such as "Moggio" and "Echidna's Arf").

I'm always a little apprehensive about doing projects like this - you never know just how quickly the music is going to come together!! But it's been wonderful to have had so much support, not only from the musicians, but also from the public who all seem quite eager to hear a little Zappa in Brisbane! Can't wait till the next rehearsal.....

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


Sympatico, an ensemble that I (co)-formed late last year consisting of trumpet, piano and percussion, started rehearsals today. We're intending on performing a recital of new works by composers Daniel Hamburger, Dafnis Prieto and Tom Green. The concert, scheduled to take place on Saturday 28 August at the Queensland Conservatorium, is part of the New Music Network's 2010 Concert Series, which can be viewed online here:

It's a wonderful group, which features two friends of mine - Dave Kemp on percussion, and Kellee Green on piano. It's always a great pleasure to play with those two musicians.

Dave and I are performing Dafnis Prieto's Trail of Memories (for C trumpet and percussion), which was commissioned by the New Trumpet Consortium in 2005. Also on the program is Dutch composer Daniel Hamburger's Reminiscences of Laura, scored for trumpet, piano quatre mains, percussion and electronics (which I run using MaxMSP on my MacBook Pro). Daniel Hamburger is a young, versatile composer who creates music for the stage and for multidisciplinary projects. Being a graduate in music technology, he organically integrates electronics in his compositions. Reminiscences of Laura, composed in 2003, received the public's prize in the final of the Henriette Bosmansprijs, a competition for young composers. We'll also be premiering a new four-movement work by Tom Green, which also features electronics as well. A draft (midi) version can be listen to at his website:

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Zappa Big Band

So I now have a blog. How did this happen? I’ve never really thought I’ve had anything worthwhile to say, and besides, who has the time to actually say it? In the past, I’ve had fantasies of being a writer – spending time in some cold deserted cabin writing eccentric stories, similar to JD Salinger’s Glass family or Jaclyn Moriarty’s tales. Of course, this is just me being fanciful, but I’ve come to realise that writing a blog might be able to act as a type of online reference, or at the very least, a way to clarify a sense of direction when planning different projects, or even further research.

So I write this on a cold winter’s day, my toes freezing inside my socks, and wondering whether the milk in my coffee was okay to drink. Does “Use by July 2” really mean that, or do they just put it there as a guide?

I always say this about every year, but the first half of 2010 has been extremely busy. It feels like a lot of this year has been dedicated to finishing my masters dissertation, but the truth is that there has been a lot going on. My friend and colleague, Jon Nelson has been in Australia where we worked on a few projects including an ensemble that played Jon’s arrangements of music by Zappa, Beefheart, Radiohead, King Crimson, Webern and Yes. Other groups that I perform with, such as Hot Mambo, Soundscapes, Bassboy, have all been busy as well. Sympatico, an ensemble (trumpet/piano/percussion) that I formed with Dave and Kellee was successful in obtaining a New Music Network grant, so we’ll be performing a recital at the Queensland Conservatorium at the end of August. Tom Green has composed a new four-movement work that we’ll premiere there. Which reminds me….I need to start practicing the tricky thing!!

So what’s next? My next project is the Zappa Big Band, a 19-piece big band that will perform at the Globe Theatre (in Brisbane, Australia) on Saturday 24 July. The late Frank Zappa worked in a variety of mediums including rock, jazz, classical, electronic, orchestral and musique concrete. It is this diverse nature that drives my belief that this large jazz ensemble can attract an audience that appeals to a wide demographic. This type of group not only gives tribute to Frank Zappa, but breathes new life into his innovative body of work. The band debuted in late January this year at a sold-out Brisbane Jazz Club where they were forced to turn away scores of enthusiastic patrons unable to squeeze into the packed venue! Brandon Stewart, an admirer of Zappa’s music attended the gig at the Brisbane Jazz Club (, wrote:

“So, what gives with Zappa’s music in a Jazz Club? Truth is, it really belongs on any kind of stage because Frank was never restricted to any one musical style. If you can imagine how an 19-piece orchestra might appear, precariously squeezed into your lounge room, you will have some idea of how tiny the Brisbane Jazz Club’s dimensions looked on Sunday night. Our table was up front, with the horn section literally two feet away. Suffice to say, we didn’t miss one glorious note. Could I have been any more impressed? Under the circumstances, I very much doubt it. Clint Allen might well be able to sweat for Australia, but The Zappa Big Band did him proud on Sunday night and if they ever play in Brisbane again, I’ll be first in line for a ticket.”

I’ll finish my first blog by posting an interview I recently did for Time-Off where I talked about the band:

1. Can you tell us how the idea for this project came about?

I’ve always had a great love for the music of Frank Zappa. I’ve always respected that he was a rock musician, but also admired avant-garde classical composers such as Edgard Varese, Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok. The idea of combining musicial influences and creating very hip confluent music really appealed to me – I think Zappa was really ahead of his time there.

A few years ago, I came across Ed Palermo, a New York saxophonist who had started arranging the music of Zappa for a large jazz group of 17-players. His group had been playing them to large crowds at the infamous Iridium Jazz Club in Manhattan (New York). After hearing the band, I knew I had to bring Frank Zappa’s back home to Brisbane! After a little negotiation, these innovative charts have made it down to Australia, and so the band will be performing them for the very first time this Sunday night (31st January) at the Brisbane Jazz Club.

2. How did you go about recruiting the players?

I’ve had the great fortune of working with some amazing musicians both in Australia and overseas during the past few decade. Some of the guys in this group, I’ve known since I was 17 years old when I did my music degree. I’ve always been interested in playing adventurous, intricate complex music and so, for those projects, I’ve asked the top players around town to play. This incredible band brings all of these players together – such as the incredible Scott Griffiths on also sax, drummer Joe Marchisella (who regularly plays with trumpeter James Morrison), Michael Rogers (who fronts the bands Doch and Miguel) and pianist, Kellee Green, a rare performer who is equally brilliant playing jazz and contemporary classical music! This is by far, the cream of the crop – every musician in this band is a virtusoso on their particular instrument – and it’s an absolute pleasure to get everyone together on stage at the same time.

3. Was it difficult selecting what material you would play?

Frank Zappa released about 80 albums during his lifetime, so there was PLENTY of material to choose from! I’ve tried to include songs from as many of his records as possible, such as “Hot Rats” (1969), “One Size Fits All” (1975), and “Jazz From Hell” (1986). Also, it was important to try to choose material that would feature the musicians too. I think the audience is really going to enjoy classical Zappa charts such as “Echidna’s Arf”, “Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance”, “King Kong”, “G-Spot Tornado” and “Peaches en Rengalia”.

4. How have people responded to the idea of this project so far?

Zappa himself once said, “Jazz isn’t dead….it just smells funny”. People have responded very positively to the idea of this project. Ticket sales have been strong so far. I think that although people aren’t sure of Zappa’s music, they know that it’s often fiendishly difficult. Zappa has a certain element of cult status about him; it’s not often that you get to hear Zappa music these days!!