Frank Zappa is, without question, one of if not the most prolific artists of the 20th century. Having composed and released a staggering amount of music over the course of his sadly truncated career, one would be hard-pressed to make the time to listen to everything the man recorded and released, officially or otherwise. Yet so devout is the cult of Zappa that, for more than 40 years fans have been clamoring for the release of the ill-fated footage from Zappa’s December 1973 run of shows at Hollywood’s Roxy Theater. Sure Roxy & Elsewhere has been available for years, offering an aural glimpse of some of the most technically demanding music Zappa ever penned performed in front of a rabid audience, but simply hearing it is a far different experience than hearing and seeing it.
With the release of the fabled concerts this year, longtime fans and neophytes alike are finally able to actually see what they’ve been hearing for all these years, taking in the sinuously dexterous playing of Zappa and his backing band, the Mothers. Along with the film’s release, an accompanying soundtrack has also been made available. Here, listeners are provided alternate versions of the majority of the tracks on 1974’s Roxy & Elsewhere. And while these “new” versions may vary only slightly due to Zappa’s densely structured compositional approach to his music, it’s still something to hear them performed in a live setting without the benefit of the studio overdubs ostensibly applied to Roxy & Elsewhere.
Opening with an appropriate spoken introduction by Zappa entitled, “Something Terrible Has Happened…” the band proceeds to vamp into a nearly ten-minute version of “Cosmik Debris” that finds them delivering a simmering funk blues behind a blistering guitar solo from Zappa. Throughout, comical asides are supplemented by assorted sound effects, odd measures, breakneck tempo shifts and deadpan lyrics; essentially what one would expect from Zappa at this time. As he was in between his more complex, composed instrumental period and just post Overnight Sensation, there’s a strong mix of the musically and lyrically absurd.
Indeed much of the performance seems composed and selected just to see if his backing band can play it. The twin instrumental interlude of “RDNZL” and “Echinda’s Arf (Of You)” feature some of most knotted, uncompromising lines played at breakneck speed with wicked rhythmic twists and turns, nearly all of which are flawlessly executed by the band despite the complexity. From there, the seamless transition into “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” with its Broadway-esque measure shifts and abrupt stops and starts, further illustrates the dexterity and instrumental proficiency of the band at this time. With its cartoonishly outlandish structure and Zappa’s asides, it’s clearly a performance meant for the visual effect just as much as the audio.
Here Zappa is backed by one of his most technically gifted groups, consisting of George Duke (keyboards, synthesizer, vocals), Bruce Fowler (trombone) Napoleon Murphy Brock (flute, tenor saxophone, vocals), Tom Fowler (bass), Ralph Humphrey (drums), Chester Thompson (drums), and Ruth Underwood (percussion). Throughout, each is given their chance to showcase their chops, perhaps most spectacularly on the aforementioned “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?” and “Cheepnis-Percussion”, each with a lengthy, technically demanding drum feature that finds both Thompson and Humphrey furiously going at it which Underwood expertly inserts herself within the minute spaces that occasionally appear throughout on a host of various percussion. Similarly, Duke is able to show off his scatting and keyboard chops during the amusing interlude on “Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzman’s Church)” as Zappa requests audience members to dance along with Duke’s improvisations rather than the much easier to follow simplified drum beat.
Ultimately, what’s perhaps most impressive about these recordings is not the guitar playing of Zappa, but rather the complexity of his compositions and the otherworldly skill with which each piece is executed by this iteration of the Mothers. In this, it’s Zappa’s show in name alone with the lion’s share of the credit going to the members of his band. When he asks in the intro to the monster movie-themed “Cheepnis”, “Can they play it right a second time?” the band delivers with a resounding yes.
Acknowledging the show belongs to his backing musicians, Zappa prefaces the epic “Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzman’s Church)” by plainly stating, “This is a hard one to play. That’s why I don’t play it,” before largely sitting out through the tracks more spaghetti-noted passages. Deftly navigating the track’s absurdist intricacies and wildly idiosyncratic structure, the band proves themselves up to the challenge of Zappa’s composition. While the album may be credited to Zappa alone, it seems almost more for the name recognition. In this, he serves more as composer and ringleader of this demented circus. Hearing it live and unedited is truly something to behold.