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Straight No Chaser - A Jazz Show

Welcome to Straight No Chaser, the Award-winning Podcast hosted by Jeffrey Siegel

Dec 21, 2010

Enough of this cloying Christmas stuff – let’s get some Zappa at ya! The Grand Wazoo would have been 70 yras old today, so it seems appropriate to consider his music in this space from a jazz perspective.


Was Frank Zappa as much of a jazz musician as he was a rock or classical artist? Let’s let Ed Palermo, the noted trombonist, answer the question. Here’s a quote from his essay on FZ’s music:

Frank Zappa wasn't what you would call a "jazz musician." In fact, he made fun of jazz and jazz musicians throughout his whole career. But that was Zappa. He derided EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY. You can tell, however, by listening to so much of his music that he really loved jazz. Since I never met him, everything I write about him is conjecture, but listening to a modal masterpiece like "King Kong" proves, at least to my ears, that he had listened to and digested a lot of Miles and Trane.


One thing is certain – Zappa hired the best and most versatile musicians to assist him in executing his demanding compositions, and many of them WERE in fact jazz greats. So, without further ado, let’s get to Podcast 200, a review of some Zappa recordings featuring jazz musicians as sidemen, including:


George Duke on “Big Swifty” from Waka-Jawaka. One of Zappa’s most frequent collaborators, I count more than fifteen releases that included the keyboard player. Here he joins Zappa and Tony Duran on guitars, Sal Marquez on trumpet and chimes, Erroneous (?) on bass and Aynsley Dunbar on drums on a 1972 track.

Ernie Watts on “Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus” from The Grand Wazoo. The sax player who starred as a member of Charlie Haden’s Quartet West played woodwinds with Mike Altschul in sessions recorded in 1972. Marquez is joined by Ken Shrover on brass, and the rhythm section remains the same. That’s George Duke on electric piano and vocals.


Jean-Luc Ponty on “It Must Be a Camel” from Hot Rats. The jazz violinist may be best known for his work in the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin, but he was a key member of the group that recorded Hot Rats in 1969, making it one of the first jazz-rock albums ever made. The rest of the band was Ian Underwood on keyboards, Zappa on guitar, bass and percussion, John Guerin (who played with Tom Scott in the LA Express) on drums, and Max Bennett on bass. Zappa would work with Ponty further that year, contributing songs, production and backup for the highly regarded King King: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa.


Vinnie Colaiuta on “Watermelon in Easter Hay” from Joe’s Garage.  The drummer of choice for fusion musicians like Jeff Beck these days, Colaiuta anchored the rhythm section on Zappa’s three album opus. The rest of the band was Zappa, Denny Walley and Warren Cucurullo on guitars, Ike Willis on lead vocals, Peter Wolf on keyboards, Arthur Barro on bass and Ed Mann on percussion.

Michael and Randy Brecker on “The Purple Lagoon/Approximate” from Zappa in New York (re-packaged as a portion of Lather). Recorded live at the Palladium in New York during Christmas week 1976, the band had a heavy jazz slant, including the Brecker Brothers, Dave Samuels (vibes), Ronnie Cuber (baritone sax and clarinet), and Terry Bozzio (drums).