On this solo digital-synth excursion, the indefatigable Zappa takes a breather from R-rated satire and battling the PMRC dragons to cook up one of his periodic classical-jazz-boogie stews. There is nothing particularly hellish about the eight pieces on the album, though it may have been a bitch to program these densely packed parcels of subdivided rhythms and Chinese-checker themes. But while most of Jazz from Hell employs now-standard Zappa compositional devices — abrupt tempo changes, harmonic broad jumps and volcanic polyphonic clusters — there is a deviant playfulness and almost affable melodic resolution about these tracks that is unique in Zappa’s serious instrumental canon.
“The Beltway Bandits,” for example, is a nifty piece of electronic fun, an imaginary rush-hour auto chase enacted with agitated jungle noises and a synthetic muted car horn. Even more whimsical are “Night School,” a typically serpentine air underscored with rich lyric chording and lively street-corner finger popping, and the altered-states funk-up “Massaggio Galore,” which sounds like Zappa’s “Dancin’ Fool” on Planet Claire. Make no mistake: this album is not easy listening. The complexity of a score like the extended “While You Were Art II” would confound a stadiumful of Human Leagues. Yet its sly humor and lighter tonal palette make Jazz from Hell more easily digestible, if no less demanding, than the abrasive orchestral sawing on Zappa’s past concertos, like the classic Lumpy Gravy.
It would have been nice to hear Zappa tear up his digital soundscape here and there with a little more real-sound guitar. Jazz from Hell’s only fuzz ‘n’ fusion showcase is the slow, brooding alien blues “St. Etienne,” an in-concert Zappa-band recording of unspecified vintage. Nevertheless, Jazz from Hell is the Present Day Composer’s most engaging and accessible serving of his singular serio-pop vision since Hot Rats. Listeners who deserted Zappa after his hard turn into scatological social protest should have no trouble putting aside their prejudices for this thirty-five-minute trip down Avant-Classical Lane, while MTV teens will be surprised to learn there’s more to this old Mother than just being Dweezil’s dad.