Frank Zappa: Jazz From Hell (Yesterday’s Jukebox)

Frank Zappa's complex, electronic masterpiece showed what the late, great maestro could achieve by removing the human element and harnessing the power of a machine.
Frank Zappa
Jazz From Hell

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.