This recording brings together a set of mostly little-known talents that whale the tar out of every other informal “jam” album released in rock and roll for the past two years. If Hot Rats is any indication of where Zappa is headed on his own, we are in for some fiendish rides indeed.
In the past both Zappa’s high-flown “serious music” and his greasy Fifties routines grew heavy-handed, but this album suggests he may be off on a new and much more individual direction, inspired by Captain Beefheart, who is featured prominently on Hot Rats and whose Trout Mask Replica set him several frontiers beyond anything we’ve heard from Zappa. Beefheart is one of the true originals of our day, and his raffish dadaism is an excellent tonic for a Zappa too often pre-occupied with polemics — his influence shows clearly in much of this record, whether he’s actually performing or not.
The new Zappa has dumped both his Frankensteinian classicism and his pachuko-rock. He’s into the new jazz heavily; same as Beefheart. and applying all his technical savvy until the music sounds a far and purposely ragged cry from the self-indulgence of the current crop of young white John Coltranes. Ian Underwood’s reed work in particular is far more advanced than anything he did with the Mothers.
The album’s instrumental highlight comes on “The Gumbo Variations,” spotlighting the wildest, most advanced piece of Free-form electric violin playing I’ve ever heard (who is “Sugar Cane Harris”?), a slithery performance that sings with the rusty purity that only the most corrosive music can muster.
Zappa himself has an extremely long guitar solo on “Willie the “Pimp,” but as past numbers like “Invocation of the Young Pumpkin” have shown, he’s really not a jazz improvisor, and his repetitious and surprisingly simple patterns get boring before he’s half-way through. But those words! The wily Beefheart spirit strikes again: “I’m a little pimp with my hair gassed backÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â Man in a suit with a bow-tie neck/Wanna buy a grunt with a third-party check/Standin’ on the porch of the Lido hotel/Floozies in the lobby love the way I sellÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â “
If you’re eager for a first taste of Beefheart or interested in the new approaches to instrumental style and improvisational technique being developed these days, this is as good a place to start as any; a good stepping stone to folks like Ayler, Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor-the real titans these cats learned it from.