Last week I (hopefully) reintroduced some of you to the joys of a fine fun album by Frank Zappa which has just been reissued and offers up some new found digital joys for fans. This release marks the first time we get to hear Zappa’s original 1977 vinyl mix of this album in the digital domain. It also the first time we are hearing a lot of the three hours of bonus music here as the set includes numerous previously unreleased performances.
If you missed part one of this review, please click here to jump to it to catch up. Assuming you have read my introductory portion, lets chew down to the crux of these tasty biscuits and explore some of the finer finds here on the Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary collection.
First off, one of the things I really loved hearing on this set opens up Disc 2, where Don Pardo introduces the show as “the most important musical event of 1976,” which in many ways it was. The original Zappa in New York album pretty much just pushes the listener into the froth of the performance without introduction, so much so that you might initially think it was a studio recording (and as many of you know, for Frank, the live stage was more or less synonymous with the album making process, but that is a point of discussion for another time and place) That said, this intro delivers a much greater sense that you are in fact listening to a concert recording. Don reappears at multipled points during the concerts for always entertaining interludes.
Disc Three opens up with a fun “deluxe” instrumental version of “America Drinks” from Zappa’s second album, Absolutely Free. This arrangement is just terrific, taking full advantage of the expanded horn section in Zappa’s band for these shows which includes The Brecker Brothers and Saturday Night Live saxophonists Lou Marini and Ronnie Cuber as well as Trombonist/Arranger Tom Malone (SNL Band leader 1981-’85). Both Malone and Marini were also in The Blues Brothers Band.
The version of “Black Napkins” on Disc Four is quite epic at nearly 29 minutes in length. It especially shines a lot of light on the grand band assembled for these concerts, which is wonderful and unusual given that this is usually a guitar-driven piece.
So, expect to hear some spectacular Trumpet, Violin and Saxophone solos in the finest jazz tradition where one player spurs the next to higher grounds. You get all this for the price of admission in addition to Zappa’s always-inspiring and beautiful guitar work. Seriously, this version of the song should have been issued back in the day…
Disc Three gives us much needed context in fully appreciating the complexity of a track like “The Purple Lagoon,” where the players are soloing around different song melodies on top of sections of the song (“Jazz Buffs and Jazz Buff-etts”). Like a fine opera or jazz recording, sometimes doing a little homework on Zappa’s music gives you greater appreciation for all that was accomplished there.
In case you are wondering, at one point beyond Patrick O’Hearn’s “punk rock-type avant garde” bass solo, Percussionist/Keyboardist Ruth Underwood plays the melody from Zappa’s “Be Bop Tango”(which first appeared on Roxy & Elsewhere) over a vamp from yet another song, “A Pound For A Brown” (originally from Uncle Meat). So there’s a whole lotta lotta (as they say) going on here!
But for me the versions of “Cruising For Burgers” (Disc 3, Disc 5) proved especially revelatory. Simply epic jams over a remarkably pulsating and a still modern sounding rhythm base — one that sort of twists around a rhythm bed I first heard on The Grateful Dead’s “Cryptical Envelopment” (from Anthem of the Sun) — this nine minute opus swirls, swings and soars in a way that the original on Uncle Meat barely hinted at… Really, it is that different and quite mesmerizing at times! There was a version of this on the 1991 CD release but these new versions sound so much better, I found myself connecting much more directly to the music (less reverb added, etc.).
There is a cool version of “The Purple Lagoon” with an early instrumental version of the chorus to Zappa’s then unreleased and unfinished song “Any Kind Of Pain” tucked away within (click here to check that out). Recorded on the first night of the four night run of shows, “Any Kind Of Pain” was not finished and released until 1988 on the album Broadway The Hard Way, underscoring just how long it can take for new songs to gestate.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the two elegant solo piano versions of “The Black Page” which bookend Disc 5. “The Black Page #1” was recorded in 1978 by then keyboardist Tommy Mars and is appropriately haunting and beautiful. Remarkably, Ruth Underwood contributes a newly recorded Piano arrangement of “The Black Page #2” to close out the set which she had worked up back in the day (and apparently recorded for Frank but which has not yet been released). There is a lovely story behind this version which Ruth tells in her liner notes to the set (so I won’t spoil it and preserve that joy for you to read when you get the set). It is a beautiful and loving tribute to Zappa and one of his most complex, compelling compositions.
So, there you have it. Five CDs. Four epic concerts… Studio-grade live recordings… Experiments and reinventions… All performed on stage in front of thousands of adoring fans, without a net. Zappa In New York still sounds fresh and exciting forty years on. Paraphrasing a line from The Kinks’ Ray Davies, indeed this album is further proof that magnetic tape heroes never really die.
I’m very looking forward to hearing the new vinyl pressing of the Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary reissue series which we’ll cover in Part Three of this series along with the just-posted Tidal stream. Much more fun to come kids, so stay tuned!