Written by 5:30 am Audiophile, Audiophile Music, Audiophile News, News, Quadrophonic, SACD/DVD-Audio

Reconsidering A Zappa Tribute Covers Project In Surround Sound, SACD

Mark Smotroff breaks down why some tributes work better than others…

I don’t usually write about old things that are somewhat out of print but this one hold a curious position in space and time as one of the earliest tributes to Frank Zappa after he passed away, so I thought I’d share it with you folks. I was recently in Amoeba Music and I came across a surround sound recording by a Swedish group named The Omnibus Wind Ensemble called Music By Frank Zappa.

I have other recordings by groups interpreting Zappa’s music including The Ed Palermo Big Band and another one called Prophetic Attitude by Jean-Michel Bossini. Both of these projects are extremely different but also good because they do interesting things with Zappa’s music and yet somehow keep true to his spirit and essence.

Accordingly, I had fairly high expectations when I found Music By Frank Zappa on SACD — it was apparently issued in the mid 1990s on Compact Disc but was reissued in surround sound in the 00s to take advantage of the higher resolution format.  They recorded the album in a somewhat audiophile fashion, using the “Blumien” single-point stereo microphone technique  (so, in essence, ambient information from the room is fed to the rear channels, as I understand). 

There is no subwoofer or center channel information here, so effectively on could call this Quadrophonic even though the basic premise of the recording is stereo. That they used AKG C-24 microphones (and a Neuman U-89 for the Double Bass) run through a custom built vacuum tube mixer onto a Telefunken analog reel-to-reel tape recorder.  The Swedish label Opus 3 specializes in acoustic recordings using no post-production or sound manipulation. 

So all that audiophile DNA in this recording was appealing to me as much as the music they were performing.  

And while initially I was a little underwhelmed, I’ve come to appreciate Music By Frank Zappa for what it is and that is why I’m sharing this here with you today.

Music By Frank Zappa is very competently performed by obviously very talented professional trained musicians. With that behind that, in the liner notes they acknowledge the struggles wrapping their heads around Zappa’s legendarily complex music.  

And it is at this crossroads — a point where disappointment and elation intersect — that I began to appreciate this release as a noble effort.  Where Music By Frank Zappa fails from the perspective of a hardcore  fan of Zappa’s music is also where it excels — breaking down the composer’s idiosyncrasies to a point where a broader audience might be able to appreciate his melodic accomplishments. 

I played some of these tracks blindly for a friend who was not a Zappa fan and he thought it sounded like nice modern classical music. When I told him it was Zappa’s compositions he was surprised (and I think I may have scared him a bit when I was able to sing along with the tracks, knowing many of the lyrics from memory). 

The tracks that work the best are the often the simpler ones. “How Could I Be Such A Fool?” — a dramatic pop ballad originally on the 1966 album Freak Out — is transformed into a lovely near-waltz. When I sang along with “Let’s Make The Water Turn Black,” my friend commented that it reminded him of a Gilbert & Sullivan “patter song.” 

“Uncle Meat” and the “Dog Breath Variations” echo Zappa’s live arrangements quite well for the most part. 

Perhaps my biggest question is whether the group truly had enough time to internalize this music?  Zappa’s bands were required to learn all the music from memory and it is that internalization that — I think — helps the music flow and swing as effortlessly as it does. 

So undertakings like “Brown Shoes Don’t Make” lose some of that careening operatic sensibility which makes the song so special. Similarly, “Inca Roads” doesn’t lift off into the cosmos as it might. “Revised Music For Low Budget Orchestra” feels a bit on the stiff side. 

The Black Page #2” is considered to be one of Zappa’s most complex (and beautiful) compositions — titled as such due to the number of notes filling the musical pages. The melodies are there but this version seems to take liberties with the composition, which — again — may or may not be a good thing depending on your perspective. 

The question of course remains as to whether you should buy this album. If you like Zappa’s music  and are curious, and it is reasonably priced, I would say certainly grab it.  If you are not a particular fan of Zappa’s music but keep hearing about how great he is (from people like me!), perhaps this album will be a good introduction to his melodies without getting you thrown off by the “weird stuff.”

The recording quality is excellent and the gently immersive surround mix is pleasing to the ear, all things considered.

If you would like to hear how Zappa approaches his compositions from a more classical perspective, I would recommend checking out the recent expanded edition of his Orchestral Favorites album for starters. I have reviewed it recently (click here to read that) and have always found the album appealing in how it strikes a nice balance between his symphonic, jazz and even rock styles. There are other classically-oriented Zappa releases out there including one done with the London Symphony Orchestra.

While we are on this topic, another wonderful tribute album you might look for is called Prophetic Attitude by Le Concert Impromptu and Jean-Michel Bossini. These string and woodwind recordings are also a very nice way to introduce non-Zappa fans to Zappa’s music but this one swings a bit more and the performers feel quite inside the music despite presenting it in a very mannered approach. 

Following are some samples to check out:

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