In the past several weeks I have hopefully reintroduced some of you to the joys of a fine, frisky and at time phantasmagoric live concert album by Frank Zappa. His seminal 1976-era recordings — known as Zappa In New York — have just been reissued and offers many new found joys for fans. On the digital side, this new issue 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 material as presented at the series of New York concerts at the end of that year, in pretty the much pure form in which they were originally recorded.
To create the new version, this edition employed an all analog mastering process for bringing the original vinyl album mix back to long playing records, so the sound here is about as warm and inviting as purists might dream. And that is saying something because the 96 kHz / 24-bit transfers used to make the 44.1 kHz / 16-bit CD and digital streams sounds pretty wonderful in their own right! That said, if you missed the first two parts of this review which explored the deluxe edition five CD boxed set — and its three hours of previously unreleased performances — please click here for part one and here for part two to catch up.
For this review at hand, however, I’m mostly going to look at the new three LP Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary reissue from Zappa Records and Universal Music Group.
Getting the technical stuff out of the way: the dark black quiet 180-gram vinyl was pressed at Pallas in Germany and features all-analog mastering of the original album mix by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering, unavailable since first issued in 1977.
How much do I like this release? Well, the best complement I can give it as a Zappa completist and pretty much lifetime fan is that this reissue goes a long way toward making me seriously consider getting rid of my original (standard) edition. I mean, my old pressing was played a lot throughout college and is in pretty nice shape all things considered … but the vinyl quality wasn’t the best in the late 1970s… so all this quiet noise-floor on the new pressing that we don’t hear is a big improvement when it comes to sonic transparency!
Also, the mastering is much more supportive of the music. The sad reality of many rock records, especially in the 1970s, is that they don’t always sound all that great on higher end turntables like we have these days. There are a multitude of reasons but poor vinyl quality and “iffy” quality controls are top of my list of “no no’s…” And, especially given that this album was released by Warner Brothers while they were in a lawsuit with Zappa, its not exactly like this album was handled with much care back in the day (heck, they censored some of the songs on it!).
So the new version is a bit of a revelation. The instruments are big and full sounding. The high end is crisp but not annoying, feeling natural and real. If you want a great stereo “test record,” look no further than Side Two of the Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary edition and play “The Black Page Drum Solo” which is followed by “Black Page #1” and “Black Page #2,” each piece gaining intricacy and sonic detail as more instruments pile on to perform one of Zappa’s most dense and beloved compositions. Don’t be thrown by the challenging nature of the piece — regarded as one of Zappa’s most difficult pieces of music to play even by the best musicians in the world — there is a lot of incredible melody and invention there, so it is well worth taking the time to immerse yourself in that environment.
Going back to that earlier comment about the censorship, you may be wondering why the new edition replicates, essentially, the censored version of the album? I reached out to Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers and he confirmed my suspicion: since this was an “all analog mastering” process they did not want to add a digital stage to reconstruct Zappa’s original edit. As you will read in the liner notes, Zappa at that time was a master craftsman when it came to razor cut editing of tapes (that is how things were done back in the day, folks!). So the prospect of trying to reassemble all that was just not realistic. That said, you DO get to hear the missing song — “Punky’s Whips” — in all its glory on the bonus disc included in the LP version of the Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary edition — it is the unused version that ended up on some test pressings back in the day, so that makes this release even cooler!
If you are a vinyl fan, you should get the new three LP version but you’ll also want to hear some incarnation of the whole boxed set. Personally, I’d recommend buying the CD version, because I prefer the physical media experience. However, the Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary edition IS streaming now up on Tidal if you have a subscription to that service. The stream is standard CD quality– no MQA yet, folks — but that is OK. As streams go, it sounds really very good, pretty much a mirror of the CD set but without all the joys that come with buying the physical versions.
Actually, if you only decide to buy the 3 LP version, this stream is a good way to at least hear some of the joyous bonus tracks such as the nearly 29 minute long version of “Black Napkins” which I find increasingly mesmerizing every time I listen to it (if you want to know why it is so engaging, be sure to read to my prior review of the boxed set where I discuss it at some length…. click here to jump to it). If you have Tidal and want to check that out, click here.
Anyhow, there you have it. The Zappa In New York 40th Anniversary edition is a winner all around and if you are a Zappa fan, you know you need to own this fine and lovingly produced collection.