Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Frank Zappa 42: Jazz From Hell

One of the things Frank liked about the Synclavier was its ability to perform whatever he programmed into it the way it was written. (Not having to deal with temperamental human musicians was probably just as key.) He and his tireless assistants painstakingly uploaded samples of a wide variety of sounds to make up the “instruments” throughout Jazz From Hell; indeed, none of these purely digital compositions were performed live by any of his bands, save one.
If the ultra-lush “Night School” sounds like a TV show theme, it could be because Frank had pitched an alternative news program to various disinterested networks around this time. It’s one of the more accessible pieces here, as the rest of the program follows the more “modern” compositions he’d been dabbling in on his own, such as in the furious rhythms in “The Beltway Bandits”. “While You Were Art II” is a transcription of a guitar solo, here punctuated by horn sounds that remind us of Uncle Meat and vibraphone effects that have us missing Ruth Underwood. The title track doesn’t seem any more hellish than the rest of the album, nor does it stand out much.
Despite being all instrumental, Jazz From Hell still received a parental advisory sticker in some markets, likely due to the title but not the harmless content of “G-Spot Tornado”. Despite its very dated atmosphere, it’s very mainstream-sounding, with a wiping effect akin to the scratching that was prevalent in rap and hip-hop. (This one would be re-arranged for an orchestra, conducted by Frank a year before his death.) The wiping continues at a much slower pace on “Damp Ankles”, which evokes a cartoon factory. A guitar solo from 1982, dubbed “St. Etienne” from a performance in that French city, breaks up the monotony somewhat. While it starts slow, the fretwork gets frenetic by the end for a smooth transition to “Massaggio Galore”, featuring processed samples of the voices of various Zappa offspring.
As with his other instrumental excursions of the ‘80s, one’s enjoyment of Jazz From Hell will depend on one’s tolerance of computerized music. Just to show how nutty the music biz was in those days, this album garnered Frank his first Grammy® award—for Best Rock Instrumental Performance—and the only one in his lifetime. (Naturally, he disdained the gesture.)

Frank Zappa Jazz From Hell (1986)—3

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