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An International Perspective Of Frank Zappa



Norwegian jazz guitarist Staffan William-Olsson shares his appreciation of Frank Zappa, his bands and his music.

Above photo from the album: GO APE! THE LEGENDARY STOCKHOLM CONCERT, 1967

I’m a jazz guitarist living in Oslo, Norway. I grew up in Gothenburg, Sweden, and when I was twelve years old, my piano teacher borrowed me a copy of Frank Zappa’s “Hot Rats”. Albums were expensive and cassette copying was not yet a thing, so you listened to any new album until it grew on you. It did. I was addicted and started buying (or receiving as birthday/christmas gifts) the rest of the catalogue. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Turtles/cabaret era, but I loved drummer Aynsley Dunbar! Talking about drummers; Zappa also kick-started the careers of Chester Thompson, Terry Bozzio, Vinnie Colaiuta and Chad Wackerman, some of them unknown teenagers at the time of joining the band. All his drummers were stellar: Ralph Humphrey, John Guerin (Hot Rats album), Jimmy Carl Black from the early years.

Hot Rats’ is the second solo album by Frank Zappa, released in October 1969.

I started as a wannabe drummer myself and in retrospect I can see that my record collection reflects it: Hendrix (Mitch Mitchell), Zeppelin (John Bonham), Purple (Ian Paice), CCR (Doug Clifford – underrated!), and later fusion albums featuring Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Mike Clark, Harvey Mason, Narada Michael Walden, and of course the jazz greats like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. If drums weren’t great, I just wasn’t interested. Vocals could be out of tune and guitars sloppy, but I needed drums to be the very best. Zappa fit the bill.

A concert with Zappa had everything: some of the most well-rehearsed, complex, downright impossible music imaginable coupled with a lot of spontaneity. Zappa was a CONDUCTOR; with hand signs he directed the music and interacted with the audience. He knew how to entertain and keep the band on their toes. He was a compulsive composer who wrote specifically for the current band members. When Ruth Underwood was in the band (my favorite era!), the compositions contained bits and pieces of her warm-up/sound check marimba playing, so the music was sort of tailor-made for her. When Adrian Belew did a funny Bob Dylan imitation on the tour bus, it went on the record. There’s a great YouTube interview with George Duke confessing that he was a real jazz snob to begin with, who didn’t want to play doo-wop style piano, didn’t want to play the synthesizer and didn’t sing, and how Zappa gradually and friendly nudged him into it (”I’m buying a synth and put it on top of the Rhodes, and whenever you feel like it you can make a noise” or ”I just need you to sing ONE NOTE in this song”).

He might have missed the European tours above but Staffan William-Olsson (author) has seen Frank Zappa multiple times including four times in Gothenburg, Sweden: August 19, 1973 – September 25, 1974 – February 18, 1977 – March 6 1979

Adrian Belew, Steve Vai, Jean-Luc Ponty are other prominent musicians that Zappa discovered and brought to international fame. He was like Horace Silver or Art Blakey, a leader with a strong vision for whom you worked a couple of years and then moved on, learning a lot. Not an easy guy to work for, but he paid the bills and his main concern was always that the audience should get their money’s worth. Zappa’s guitar solos are an aquired taste (and sometimes he over-indulged), but I wouldn’t want him to sound any different. He loved the blues, especially Johnny ”Guitar” Watson. He wasn’t a fan of generic jazz guitar, but he expressed a lot of love for Wes Montgomery and Allan Holdsworth, his main point being that they sounded like themselves, and their virtuosity was not there to impress anyone. Coming from a humble background himself, I think he recognized their non-academic lack of pretense. Zappa wrote a lot of ”high-brow” orchestral music, but obviously for his own pleasure and he couldn’t care less what the critics or anyone else thought of it.

Frank Zappa was a great BRAND: the moustache, the unique lyrics, the mixture of blues, doo-wop, Stravinsky and Varése, even his name was perfect, sounding like an electric shock. He didn’t use drugs, but chose to live in Laurel Canyon. He was a one-man genre in every aspect. He recorded EVERYTHING and lots of his music started as loose jams, which he then overdubbed on. I don’t see the point in Zappa tribute bands because the genre died with him. It was so personal. The lessons you can learn from him are: Don’t be ashamed if you like both doo-wop and Varése, don’t bother what other people think, work hard and take care of business, and complex music still has to ENTERTAIN, which it does with the right presentation. Put on a show that you’d like to attend yourself.

I recommend any album with Ruth Underwood on it, the big band album ”The Grand Wazoo”, plus the multi-track pioneer work on ”Hot Rats” (Fun fact: the first track ”Peaches En Regalia” features a 15 year old Shuggie Otis on bass).

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