Initially, I wasn't going to write about the news that the Zappa archives are now being handled by Universal Music as I didn't really think it was an especially significant development... These archive releases had been available via the official Zappa website for quite some time. Also, I thought, that... well... if I already had many of them in my collection, then all other Zappa fans must have them as well. Right?
The other day it hit me that not everyone in the universe is such a hardcore Zappa fan to want to keep tabs on and track every move made by the powers that be as they serve up tasty tidbits to satisfy our still-insatiable hunger for all things Frank related. Unless you were one of those aforementioned hardcore Zappa fans (like me!) you probably didn't even know about the existence of these releases! And there may well be many a budding Zappa fan who will be interest in checking these out. Perhaps there is a deep-yet-casual Zappa fan who is busy in life and didn't get the original memo about the "vault" releases. And for those of you audiophiles who may have felt burned by Zappa's pioneering -- but often crummy sounding -- Beat The Boots releases from the 80s, rest assured that these releases are made from the best available sources instead of recreating the crummy quality of most of the bootlegs that were out at the time.
So, I circled back and now deliver to you this biscuit of news: for the first time more people around the world will have easy access to many of the fine post-humous Zappa releases drawing from rare concerts and studio sessions stored for decades deep in the Zappa vaults. While the recordings here -- as with many archival releases -- are sometimes a warts 'n all situation, in general they sound real good, so you really should not be swayed as the performances are often exemplary.
With that in mind, here is a run down of some of these releases which have been reissued via Universal and are now available on Amazon (some may be on iTunes too and other places around the Interwebs and probably in some "brick and mortar" retail stores as well!)
This is a fine release if you are a fan of the short-lived Grand Wazoo-era albums which Frank worked on while he was recuperating after a crazed fan pushed him off the stage in England (nearly killing him!). The Grand Wazoo and Wakajawaka are two of my favorite Zappa albums but the tour for these "big band" releases happened only that year of 1972 and after that Zappa rarely broke out that material in a live setting. So it is a joy to hear the actual Grand Wazoo orchestra (if you will) in a live performance from September 24, 1972 at Boston Music Hall. This fabulous band includes Jim Gordon (Wrecking Crew, Derek & The Dominoes) on drums, future Roxy-era Mothers Ruth Underwood and Bruce Fowler as well as original Mother Ian Underwood. I have to note it also includes the great and under-rated Trumpet player Sal Marquez, who for me -- I played trumpet before I took up guitar -- steals the show on the studio recordings, with slide guitarist Tony Duran coming in a close second. Nothing slouch about these recordings and how they were handled in preparing CD issue. From the liner notes and the Zappa website we learn: "The medium was ¼" 2-track tape (Scotch), at 7 ½ ips. These stereo masters were digitally transferred from FZ's Ampex ATR 100 deck into Nuendo at 96 K 24 bit by Joe Travers using Euphonix AM 713 Converters - in April, 2007." A good pedigree, for sure.
This album may be seen as something of a prequel to the Wazoo release as it came out a year earlier (in 2006), featuring a smaller 10-piece incarnation of the band but no less powerful known by many as "The Petite Wazoo." Here you get to hear numerous unreleased compositions, some of which have taken on their own legacy in the Zappa cannon such as "Rollo" (which Dweezil Zappa has subsequently performed live) and "Farther O'Blivion" which includes (according to liner notes by Steve Vai) ".... elements and sketches from what ended up being parts of 'The Steno Pool,' and more of them that became parts of "Greggery Peccary," "Be-Bop Tango," "Cucamonga," as well as parts to possibly a number of other reconstructions that we may never discover. Although many of the mirrored reshapings of his audio delectables may never be identified, they none the less add to the "Conceptual Continuity" of Frank's musical universe." These performances are pulled from the Fall tour in 1972 from cities including Washington DC, Philadelphia, Montreal and Waterbury CT.
Of all the archive releases, this is one I have a bit of a love hate relationship with. I mean... I'll be honest, I really don't like the cover art especially since the original art for the album that this focuses on is so cool and near-iconic: Cruising With Ruben and the Jets! I know. That is a stupid thing and that you can't play the cover art (yada yada yada...).... But, the art on Greasy Love Songs is one of a handful of these archive releases which feels a bit far from Zappa's original aesthetic for the record. But... hey... its about the music and the stuff within this otherwise shiny package is indeed very cool. This was the first time that the original Stereo vinyl mix was released on CD (only the awful re-recorded versions existed digitally up until this time), so that right there is super great. The album is fleshed out with previously unreleased Mono mixes, alternate and single (45 RPM) versions and even an early version of "Love of My Life" dating back to Zappa's pre-Mothers of Invention studio in Cucamonga, California called Studio Z. Fun stuff if you are fans of Zappa's doo-wop flavored confections.
This is a straight ahead high quality, well mixed soundboard recording of a complete concert from 1978 in Chicago. Thus the inspired title. But seriously, its a good show capturing the band doing a lot of material which would eventually end up on the Sheik Yerbouti album ("Yo Mama," "Dancin' Fool") and on 80s releases like Tinseltown Rebellion ("Keep It Greasy," "Bamboozled By Love," "Easy Meat") and You Are What You Is ("The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing," "I'm A Beautiful Guy"). And you get some other new compositions such as "Twenty One" and songs that would appear on Joe's Garage ("Crew Slut"). Fun stuff, as always with Frank in concert, alive on stage performing without a net.
This is an interesting release from the last period of Zappa's life, when he was preparing work for what would be come his magnificent The Yellow Shark album. Thus these studio recordings from 1991 and 1992 feature rehearsals with The Ensemble Modern, the German group that would go on to perform The Yellow Shark live, music that would be the last Zappa released in his lifetime and which he would count among his most satisfying experiences as a composer. I could go into a lot of detail on this but I'm going to just point you to the Zappa website for a very thorough run down as to what is in this release. But in short if you are a fan of Frank's classical and Synclavier recordings, you may well enjoy these snapshots of the music as it was evolving.