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.