Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Frank Zappa 35: London Symphony Orchestra

In early 1983, Frank hooked up with young up-and-conducting conductor Kent Nagano to take another stab at recording his “classical” music, this time with the London Symphony Orchestra. According to Frank, the experience was excruciating, from the costs of transcribing all the parts for all the players to what he deemed a lack of respect from said players, who didn’t take the challenge seriously enough for his taste, even—horrors!—spending their breaks in the sessions at the local pub. Whatever the story (and there are several versions), three days of sessions resulted in 90 minutes of music, which may or may not have been edited before release to fix mistakes and whatnot.
Just as the execution of getting this stuff recorded in the first place was a logistical nightmare, its eventual appearance has been just as convoluted. First there was The London Symphony Orchestra Vol. I LP in 1983, credited to “Zappa”. In 1986, Rykodisc replaced two of those tracks with a 24-minute arrangement of “Bogus Pomp” on a CD credited to his full name, but with no article before or number after the title. A vinyl and cassette release a year later, called London Symphony Orchestra Vol. II (credited to full name again), included “Bogus Pomp” plus two more pieces. Not until 1995 did all of the pieces appear together in one place, in a new sequence as a two-CD set credited to his full name and appended as “Vol. 1 & 2”. The 2012 version approved by the family has it back to the surname and Roman numerals, and helpfully has both official release numbers on the spine.
This is exactly the type of minutiae that occupies and enrages Zappa collectors, and for the sake of this review we’re going to break tradition and assign the rating to the double-disc edition, out of its chronology, just because it’s easier.
Is it essential? No. Is it awful? No. Being modern classical music, influences from 20th century composers make the tunes difficult to hum. Titles like “Bob In Dacron” and “Mo ‘N Herb’s Vacation”, much like those on Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar, seem fairly arbitrary. Frank would often say the music was intended to accompany a ballet, and provided liner notes describing the alleged albeit outlandish plot. More often the effect is more like listening to a film score without dialogue, or a soundtrack from a Looney Tunes or Tom & Jerry short. “Envelopes” is transformed from its “rock” incarnation on Ship Arriving Too Late… Three selections are updates from Orchestral Favorites; as mentioned, “Bogus Pomp” is longer here and incorporates even more elements of the 200 Motels suite, as well as some charts going back to 1968. This version of “Strictly Genteel”, however, is a keeper.

Zappa The London Symphony Orchestra Vol. I & II (1995)—3

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