Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Frank Zappa 19: Roxy & Elsewhere

By now Frank had assembled another crack band that was both versatile enough to handle the scores thrown at him, as well as shift gears in and out of improvisation. The band followed the usual formula—horn section, dual drummers and keyboards—but offered some new secret weapons. First, there was Ruth Underwood on percussion. While that might suggest she banged tambourines and shook maracas, her forte was mallets, which struck any number of vibraphones, marimbas and such. Then there was Napoleon Murphy Brock, proficient on sax and vocals. Both shine on Roxy & Elsewhere, a mostly live double album. (George Duke wasn’t such a secret weapon, but he’s key to the quality, as are drummers Ralph Humphrey and future Genesis go-to Chester Thompson.)
Of course, Frank’s in charge, so he’s the one setting up each new song. “Penguin In Bondage” gets a typically suggestive setup to slightly illuminate the arcane references within the lyrics. “Pygmy Twylyte” is a funky setup for the lengthy “Dummy Up” routine, featuring the return of Jeff Simmons, who’d notoriously quit amidst 200 Motels. In all, a long way to go to make fun of people who’d smoke anything for a kick. He gets downright nostalgic on “Village Of The Sun”, a look back at a dive he used to play in the early ‘60s, set to a “Hey Love” groove. “Echidna’s Arf (Of You)” is a wildly intricate instrumental piece, sliding right into “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?”, reminiscent of the big-band sound of the Waka/Jawaka and Grand Wazoo albums. The stops and starts seem designed for Frank’s introduction of Ruth’s amazing dexterity.
By now his affection for bad ‘50s monster movies was renowned, and it could be said that his two-minute setup for “Cheepnis” is more entertaining than the song itself, but it is one of the band’s better routines. (The brains behind Mystery Science Theater 3000 made it imperative to work as many Zappa references as possible into episodes through the entire series run.) It’s a good thematic bridge to “Son Of Orange County”, which slows down that theme to a crawl, and incorporates a then-current reference to Nixon. And just to show how things haven’t changed, “More Trouble Every Day” reprises the “riot song” from the first Mothers album.
For years now, the Zappa estate has been dangling the possibility of an expanded Roxy & Elsewhere, with even more music from the shows, and most excitedly for fans, a DVD with the visuals. This would undoubtedly help with one’s enjoyment of “Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzman’s Church)”. Another challenging instrumental, it took up side four of the original album. While not exactly reminiscent of what the layman might recognize as a tango, it presents more musical pyrotechnics until getting derailed by scatting and ridicule of jazz improv, which is to set up the audience participation portion of the show. Zappa concerts often thrived (throve?) on audience participation, but in this case audience members are invited to dance in accompaniment to the improvised music. You read that right—we’re supposed to listen to people dancing, and enjoy it.
With a little editing, Roxy & Elsewhere could be excellent; as it is, it’s merely good, but one of the better Zappa releases. Another good place for newbies to start. With the Estate currently attempting to crowd-source (and crowd-distribute) via fans with the ca$h to do so, it’s possible that we may get to hear the music in its original context. Which may or may not illuminate it.

Zappa/Mothers Roxy & Elsewhere (1974)—

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