Frank Zappa was, among many other things, a stern taskmaster. The iconic, trailblazing singer/songwriter/guitarist/composer demanded nothing less than perfection from his bands through the years. Not unlike Miles Davis and Art Blakey, his rock ensembles were often a proving ground for young musicians to demonstrate their considerable chops before moving on to greater recognition as solo artists. Adrian Belew, George Duke, and Steve Vai are just a few examples.
Much to Zappa’s chagrin, musicians are only human and thus not infallible. For a perfectionist of his level to be truly satisfied with the result of a complex composition, the best solution is to remove the human element. That’s where New England Digital’s Synclavier came in.
Zappa discovered the Synclavier, a high-end digital keyboard sampler, in the early ‘80s and after purchasing one for his home studio, he began learning the method to its madness. In 1984, he released Francesco Zappa, an album of compositions by an obscure Italian baroque composer (and Zappa descendant), programmed and performed entirely on the Synclavier. It’s an odd, curious entry in Zappa’s discography, and while it sounds pleasant enough (think Switched on Bach), it hardly explored the vast depths of the keyboard’s capabilities.
In 1985, Zappa released Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, which contained a handful of more challenging Synclavier pieces (including the epic “Porn Wars”, which hilariously intersperses audio samples from the PMRC hearings at which Zappa testified). That was followed by Jazz From Hell in 1986, which is really the first full-on example of the maestro putting the Synclavier through the wringer. Seven of the album’s eight songs were programmed and executed on the machine.
Removing the human element from any musical endeavor will always be met with protests from purists who believe the art form must contain the primal forces of improvisation and happy accidents. Zappa himself has certainly benefited from the joy of soloing and other raw, organic aspects of music. But as he has pointed out, if you want it done right, why not let a computer spit out the notes exactly as they were meant to be heard? Hell, he even berated the London Symphony Orchestra for their (alleged) inaccurate performances of his orchestral pieces. Nobody was safe from Zappa’s highly attuned ear.
As a result, Jazz From Hell has a cold, almost antiseptic sound to it. Which isn’t to say it’s not an enjoyable listen. Most of the tracks include the usual hyper-complex trademarks of Zappa’s instrumental music — jittery clusters of notes, complicated time signatures, dense, meticulous melody lines, and of course, an almost cartoonish playfulness.
The opening track, “Night School”, is an appropriate way of easing into the album, as its breezy pace and relatively safe atmosphere initially suggest a luxurious bullet train at high speed (the song’s title is also the name of a current events talk show Zappa unsuccessfully pitched to ABC in 1987, which may explain its somewhat straightforward, digestible nature). The usual Zappa-isms eventually come out of the woodwork before the song’s end, however: twitchy melodic leads, aggressive percussion patches, unique timbres. Things soon get even weirder as “Beltway Bandits” suggests an interstellar traffic jam with alien car horn samples and relentless computerized melodies.
“While You Were Art II” is arguably the album’s sophisticated centerpiece. An arrangement of an earlier guitar-solo-based song (“While You Were Out”) requested by an orchestral ensemble, Zappa fed the updated arrangement into the Synclavier with dizzying results. Melodies — notably led by a dramatic woodwind patch — weave in and out, while a fusillade of percussion blasts away. A random sample of the track may seem nonsensical at first listen, but taken as a whole, the song is a sterling representation of Zappa’s composition skills in full bloom.
One of Jazz From Hell’s most audacious moments comes in the form of “G-Spot Tornado”, a hyper-caffeinated three-minute blast of frenetic melody fueled by relentless, manic energy. It should be noted that when the Ensemble Modern played a series of concerts of Zappa’s music in 1992 (resulting in The Yellow Shark, the last album Zappa released in his lifetime), they defied Zappa’s opinion that it was “impossible for humans to play” by essentially killing it, resulting in a thunderous standing ovation. It speaks volumes not only for the Ensemble’s performance but for the composition itself, one of Zappa’s most memorable.
I mentioned that seven of the album’s eight songs were performed on the Synclavier. Zappa threw his more traditional “rock” fans a bone with the inclusion of the anachronistic yet utterly brilliant “St. Etienne”. The track is a full-band instrumental, a guitar solo extraction from a 1982 Zappa concert in St. Etienne, France. Students of Zappa’s unfiltered guitar soloing (evident on albums like Shut Up’n’Play Yer Guitar, Guitar and the posthumous Trance-Fusion) will not be disappointed. Zappa’s intricate, sinewy guitar soloing provides a respite from the calculated programming of the rest of the album. Ably backed by his seven-piece touring ensemble, Zappa’s playing is fluid and dexterous and moves through the band’s sparse, bluesy backing with grace.
Jazz From Hell went on to win Zappa his first Grammy (the other two, including a lifetime achievement award, were posthumous), and it was by no means the end of his love affair with the Synclavier. He took it on the road for his final full-band tour in 1988 and recorded a slew of additional music with it, including the staggering, brilliant Civilization Phaze III (released in 1994, a year after his death from prostate cancer) and the more recent posthumous albums Feeding the Monkies at Ma Maison (2011) and Dance Me This (2015). As technology improved, the Synclavier’s sounds became richer and more sophisticated. And while he did occasionally make music with human beings during the last few years of his life, the Synclavier seemed to represent how Frank Zappa ultimately wanted his music to sound. At times cold and clinical, Jazz From Hell is still Zappa the way he was intended. The ultimate collaboration between man and machine.