Tag Archives: zappa

Merry Go Round…

I have been home for a week from my trip to the Festival Moo Ah in Corby, England. I m almost all the way back in terms of gastrointestinal flora and my need for a constant supply of soft, delicious, cellar temperature ales.

There was a voice in my head, and also coming from a few friends: You went 3,000 miles to spend two nights listening to some geezers play Zappa music? Well, Yes. Of course I did. First of all, for several reasons, there is nothing like that going on in the USA. Europe has been a bit of a safe haven for people who include Zappa music in their repertoire. Firstly, the audience gets it. Secondly, there is much less interference and bullying from the Zappa family. The same event, held in Connecticut, would have received threats of legal action. Not might-have. Would-have.

Additionally, I get to see old friends that I have met at Zappanale, or putting faces with people I only know from their internet presence. That is a lot of fun. Having a chat and a pint with a new friend is a special event. I don’t take it for granted.

Lastly, the performances always have a side effect. That is usually a revelation, insight, or reference that leads to an “a ha” moment. This festival was full of those. Here is one….

One of the mysteries of the tribute-band world, and I will stay specifically on the subject of Zappa tributes, is that often the best shows to be at don’t hold up when you listen to the recording. The event often trumps the content. As a musician that has often left me puzzled. This festival cleared it up for me once and for all (for now).

I will start with a stark comparison:

In the red corner: Zappa Plays Zappa is a great band, well rehearsed, all the notes in the right place, excellent arrangements, and they bore me to death. I have stated before that Dweezil has the personality of a wet ball of yarn, but then I received several delightful videos from wet yarn balls. Point taken. I will repeat: Great Band. If you are looking to hear spot-on performances, they are the best of the best. Aside from their connection to She Who Shall Not Be Named, I wish them all the best (they are on tour as I type this).

In the other corner, Acton Zappa.

Acton Zappa

They opened the Moo Ah festival. A new band that worked their asses off to play power-trio versions of some Zappa compositions, and had a lot of fun doing it. I had met their guitarist, Mike Fox, before and it was great to see him taking a band onto a stage and “cranking some Frank”. I am in no hurry to hear the audio from that set. To be honest, no more than I am to hear the audio from the set my pickup band played on the Kamp in Bad Doberan in 2009. The idea was not stunning technical performances. The idea was to have fun. Fun, dear reader, is something that Frank Zappa himself exemplified. Whether it was his constantly evolving sense of humor, sense of indignation, glee at leading his amazing bands… Fun. M-F’in FUN. Acton Zappa had fun. Well done, boys!

The Referee: Ideally you would have both. A band like the Muffin Men (Liverpool boys, aka the “Flab Four”) pulls that off beautifully. They have the music under their fingers and can play with a power and fluidity that eludes many other groups. You wouldn’t know it to look at them but the boys can crush you with a Sabbath cover as easily as a tricky Zappa passage. When they mash up Faeries Wear Boots with Brown Shoes Don’t Make It they do both at once.

Muffin Men

OK, metaphor exhausted, the Big One in terms of epiphanies was that the best acts to see are not the bands trying to recreate a specific Zappa lineup, or record, or concert.. That is impossible. You will never get it right. There is no amount of rehearsal that will do it. You are not good enough. There is no Frank to lead you through it. You are doomed to fail. Turn back now. That goes for Zappa alumni, and Zappa progeny. Your best bet is to work very hard, learn the parts as a unit, and be yourself at the end of the process. Yes, if you play St. Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast you will have to play the marimba lick, and play it well. Or you just bend a string like… and let the notes fall where they may. But between those poles is certain failure.

In order to be fully smacked in the head by this concept I had to take one of my favorite observations, and then actually observe it: There are more Zappa alumni playing Zappa music at this moment than at any time since 1988. With a few exceptions they are not trying to recreate any specific era. They are skilled musicians who have had time to come to grips with their own skills, desires, emotions, and the music they worked so hard to perform. Banned From Utopia, Grand Mothers: Re-Invented, Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Denny Walley, Ed Mann… even Terry Bozzio still plays the Black Page at clinics and the occasional festival (erghhhhhhhhhh, sorry). I believe that it took time for Frank to be far enough away, in all senses, for the musicians he employed to break free from his shadow. It is enough to play the music, play it well, and play it with joy in your heart. There is a lot of that going on out there if you are interested. I think Z3 is kicking major ass at the moment, fwiw.

Whether you were in the band for one tour, twenty years, or never, that is the bar: “play the music, play it well, and play it with joy in your heart.”. To fail at that is to fail yourself and fail The Master.

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Electric Bass Baggage

Back in 2011 I had what I saw as an “apex moment” as a bassist. My weird little network of connections in the freak music, Zappa, and Beefheart world led to me getting asked to play at a festival in France. The primary motivator in this was the unavailability of former Zappa/Mothers bassist Roy Estrada, and my limited but real connection to former Zappa frontman Napoleon Murhpy Brock and his band The Grandmothers. Two weeks after being asked, I was preparing for Rochefort en Accords 2011 at a house outside Paris.

I have already blogged about the while experience, but this little post is about what I feel now that I have some time, distance, and perspective on the situation. The short of it is that I paid a price for not having strong reading and transcription skills. My forte of having a voice and an ear of my own was trumped by me not being very good at playing like someone else. My ability to play Zappa and Beefheart music is based on my ear, and at times it was clear that my ear was not true enough. The way I hear the part was not going to cut it, especially standing next to people like Napoleon, or Beefheart alums like Jeff Tepper and Eric Drew Feldman. Add in my somewhat odd take on blues standards, due to not having played that stuff in a while, or my inability to play note-for-note off Jeff Tepper’s solo efforts, and the reslt was some competent playing, some fun playing, and one train wreck that I could have avoided by saying my least-favorite word: “no”.

The eventual result was me taking a break from bass, and putting time into synth and electronics. One big reason was to let the bass “rest” for a bit. But the thing that became clear with some time away was that there is a huge amount of baggage that comes with an instrument. When you play bass there is a feeling among other musicians, and other bassists, that the “easy” stuff must be easy for you, when in fact the easy stuff is not easy. If I walked on stage at your typical blues/rock open mic, I couldn’t get through Angie, or Wild Horses, because I don’t practice it, never have, and the intervals and harmony are alien to me. OTOH, play enough Zappa and you learn certain things that keep you on track and make it look “easy”. If someone called “Bamboozled By Love” I might very well nail it. Like most things in life it isn’t easy, but practice is one way to reduce the appearance of effort.

I have taken a hiatus from my instrument of choice before. Variously to play guitar, mandolin, harmonica, synth, dulcimer… or to focus on recording and composition. This time it is the same , but different. I feel that I may have run afoul of the bass-gods by not holding up my end on the basics. The road back from that can be hard, as I know, and it will involve some work that I have avoided for a long time. I expect that I will come back stronger and more versatile, but even if I don’t, I will come back wiser and more willing to put my foot down for myself and my muse. Bass is a cruel mistress. People expect you to hold down the bottom and stay out of the way. The depths to which that offends me are considerable, and I realize that I have to abandon much of what I have done in the past to achieve a clean break from some of those expectations.

I wont go as far as calling my Rochefort gig “Pyrrhic” since I don’t consider the aftermath to be devastating. To the contrary. It was what I said it was: “apex”. It was the apex of a journey started more than 10 years earlier when I put my bass up for consignment and took off on a vacation to Italy with my wife. I have learned many times that you might have to divest of everything before getting a clean start. You might have to say “never again” to have the opportunity present itself, again.

The new journey began much like the last one: a project with my friend Peter Riccio, with a goofy band name and no particular expectations. I don’t expect this journey to be easier, harder, better, or more fruitious. But it will be a journey, and with any luck it generates something I can look back upon with pride, and maybe it has an apex on par with that week in France, and maybe I will have learned enough not to worry about apexes by then.

RIP Dave Brubeck

brubeck_timeout

News just in that Dave Brubeck passed away at 91

My first exposure to the music I came to know as “jazz” was listening to my dad’s Dave Brubeck records.  I listened to them side-by-side with the soundtrack to South Pacific, Bill Cosby, Bluegrass, 60’s folkies, Bird with Strings, Jimmy Smith, etc… basically rummaging through my parent’s vinyl collection and taking it all in without much idea that it was all different.  And far from schlocky white-boy jazz, that Brubeck band with Joe Morello, Paul Desmond and Eugene Wright was fantastic.  Their work still holds up extremely well today.  I later learned that Dave Brubeck was pushing his idea that there was a frontier of modern music to be approached via rhythmic devices, as opposed to purely melodic/harmonic routes.  So you have all these Brubeck records with textbook examples of “odd meter” jazz, the most famous of which is Take Five.  Extra Credit: Most folks forget that Take Five has a killer drum sola in addition to that stunningly beautiful melody.  In a large way it was Dave Brubeck that set me up to be not the least bit disturbed by the rhythmic gymnastics of Frank Zappa, and his guiding light Edgard Varese, and Monk, and Cage, and Mingus, and Charles Ives, and a seemingly endless list of rhythmically interesting musicians and composers.  He truly did succeed at putting the time signature into the toolbox of modern 20th century music.  Listen to something as seemingly unrelated as Sting’s album “Mercury Falling” for a modern example.

Dave Brubeck continued to make new and interesting music, often with his sons, and for no less reason than his failure to engage in faddish behavior, was often disregarded by modern jazz listeners.  I could say that it wasn’t fair, but that isn’t true.  The important part is knowing who you are and what you want to do, and to my knowledge Brubeck never wavered in his direction.  He was nobody but Dave Brubeck, ever.  RIP, Man.  You Rocked The Place.

Brubeck-Def-Cov

Son of Bizarre Zappanale Rant!

Another Zappanale has come and gone… and I wasn’t there.  It seems fair to say that I knew Zappanale during its adolescence.  It had grown beyond its humble beginnings, but hadn’t become a mature stop on the European Festival Circuit, which it what it is becoming, or has become.  That is not a problem.  I think big is good, and if this year is any indication, the festival is still bringing in a great mix of alumni, top shelf professionals, and the regular FZ-loving local bands that always seem to crank out the Frank with gusto (if not flawless intonation).  The last Zappanale I attended was Z20 in 2009, and it was a great time, and I love my Zappateer buddies, and the beer is excellent, and yet I still have a lot of mixed feelings about it.  In ’09 Terry Bozzio was paid a lot of dough to basically avoid all human contact, clog up the main stage with his drumiverse for a full day of other band’s performances, and then put on the same fucking clinic he would run at the fucking Modern Drummer wankfest.  Thanks, Terry.  You used to be an OK musician before you decided you were a Musician and not a drummer.  At least you didn’t pull out an acoustic guitar and try to sing “Angie”.  Mad Props for that.

I hope to go back to Bad Doberan, enjoy Zappanale, and get tore up on Rostocker beer in the hot sun and then swin the the coldest damn water I have ever swam in.  But if I don’t, I can at least say that I did it already, multiple times, with elan.

The aftermath of the Zappanale holiday, alternately known as Zappadan, usually brings out the reflective side of the fans and the festival organizers.  Case in point: Recently Thomas Dippel, ARF Society honcho, and a guy I think of as a friend, wrote:

If you want to stage a festival honoring Frank Zappa – you might have to reckon with the Zappa Trust, headed up by Frank Zappa’s widow, Gail. His widow should finally stop putting hurdles in our path and help us further promote this fantastic music. Frank would probably agree. He was all about freedom of expression and was opposed to censorship. I’m not sure he would dig the way his legacy is being micromanaged.

I agree.  The ZFT should be able to tell the difference between sincere homage and scamming.  I don’t think that will happen, ever, and here is why: back in the early days after the tragic death of FZ, there was this official release called “Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa”, which despite the cute title and barely catchy packaging was really nothing more than an official bootleg released by Dweezil Zappa.  I get a vague sense of nausea every time I see the CD box.  Yes, it was a Zappa performance, and yes the sound quality was a cut above the audience-tape variety sound that hardcore enthusiasts were familiar with.  But there was no way in hell that it was a FZ project.  First, Frank would have done a load of editing because there is a lot of noodling on this particular gig.  He may have seen it as more than just a live recording, perhaps extracting a solo as a standalone composition, or done something asynchronous to add some texture to the otherwise uniform corduroy of the mobile truck recording.  Whatever it was to be, it would have had continuity with the FZ process.  None of that was in the cards.

And this motif continues to this day, with Joe Travers afraid/unable to emulate FZ, Dweezil unable to emulate FZ, the guys who actually worked for FZ sent off to exile on some mysterious island for wanting to actually get paid, and the public getting regular doses of legal bootlegs in professional packaging in exchange for princely sums of legal tender.

Anyhow, back to the friendly climes of northern “Yurrip”…

To many FZ fans it is a bit odd that there is an independent festival in the former East Germany that showcases a lot of interesting music and has the audacity to invoke Zappa’s name in any sort of way, while there is no such festival in the composer’s home country.  Odd, that.  In a land where every jagoff stoner jamband rodeo becomes its own little bong-a-palooza empire, and modernist groups like Bang On A Can manage to run multiple concert series and feature the music of people like Conlan Nancarrow… the Trust in charge of a composer with one of the deepest and most varied catalogs in the whole of the 20th century manages to endorse a coverband, reeking of nepotism and cheap cologne, and not a tremendously good one (IMO) at that.

Not exactly what I would call a harbinger of a bright future full of tolerance and creativity.

stupidity really is the most abundant element in the universe

…and the Zappa Family Trust appears to be at the center of a galactic stupidity-aggregation-nexus.

They want Gail Zappa, Dweezil Zappa, and Joe Travers to be the sole custodians of the legacy of Frank Zappa?  Really?  The “Three Stooges” are getting their way lately thanks to some witless co-conspirators.

There are real questions about what is and is not appropriate when it comes to performance rights.  We have seen the ZFT attempt to treat the FZ catalog as theater, so performing any piece would be like playing an excerpt from CATS.  They have also claimed to be unaffiliated with any of the performance-royalty agencies like BMI or ASCAP.  But missing is the fact that BMI and ASCAP are private enterprises and separate from actual copyright law.  They aren’t like the IRS, a government agency created to manage tax law enforcement.  Meaning: even if you are not under agreement with ASCAp or BMI you still have to play by the rules.  As I have said before, this means that you cannot say “no” to a performance.  Compulsory licensing and fair-use issues don’t evaporate because you claim to be self-published.  By the same token the ZFT can send cease-desist orders just like anyone else.  The band RUSH recently sent a letter asking walking-human-excrement Rush Limbaugh to cease using their music on his show.  That specific complaint involves the use of a RUSH recording, an actual published piece of recorded music.  If it was the use of a cover-version, or thematic material, they would be on shakier ground because there would be issues of substantiality, but if the version was clearly based on the original it would be a simple process to continue the C&D beyond the original injunction. The ZFT wants a level of control that goes beyond fair use, and into “no use”, which is monopolistic and not supported by US Copyright law.  They also will not engage in actual legal action because they don’t have the desire to lose in court again.  I’ll leave the details to the actual copyright lawyers, but I feel very strongly that the legal onus has to be on the ZFT at some point.  They have made many claims on a personal/subjective basis.  That is definitely not supported by the law.

I write this as I listen to Dutch guitarist Corrie van Binsbergen, who has never made any bones about being a student of Zappa.  Her music is strikingly original, but she also works within the Zappa oeuvre.  When she plays an homage like Zoot Suite, is it “good”? Is it “sincere”? Is it “disrespectful”? Is it legal?  …and the list of what it is or is not goes on to the horizon. When Terry Bozzio gets paid handsomely to perform a 45 minute drum clinic at a festival, and performs The Black Page as a *solo*, just as he did with Zappa Plays Zappa, is he breaking the law?  Was he breaking the law when he played it with ZPZ?  Is the ZFT breaking the law by allowing Dweezil to perform Zappa music for free, while preventing others from playing his music *at all*?

Most artists avoid this quagmire by just acknowledging that their music was performed and broadcast to a huge number of humans over a period of decades, and other people learned to play those songs and might play them in live performance.  Nobody is out there claiming to have written Zappa’s music… claiming his compositions as their own.  Similarly, Zappa did not claim to have written Whipping Post, or Stairway to Heaven, etc… which he performed with his band in 1988. Subjective as well is the possible decision by an artist that the world is better off with the music in the public eye, and if the cover version is horrible then it just makes the original that much more valuable/desirable.

YouTube presents a very interesting case in “fair use”, because they don’t stop anyone from posting anything up front.  You want to put up a video of a still image of a goat with a rip of an album cut playing in the background?  Go for it.  Prove that it isn’t a post modern artistic commentary on the vapid nature of popular music and the media. Unless someone complains… which is kinda weird, really.  YouTube bears no burden in this process?  Where they facilitating the infraction?  That would require a legal decision, and legal costs.  As it stands they operate in a gray area.  What makes them any different than thepiratebay?

Notice here that we aren’t talking about using original recordings as backgrounds in a beer commercial.  Rarely does a corporation appropriate content without the consent of the owner.  That may seem like an issue of scale, but it really is an issue of intent and fair-use.  Mos of the ZFT issue revolves around musicians who have performed music which is based on a Zappa composition, or purports to be derived from a Zappa recording.  Since nobody can replicate the recording exactly, it is an artistic interpretation.  Is it substantially derived from the original?  Again, that is for lawyers to decide.  And to date the ZFT has received zero legal judgements in their favor on this issue.

If I am on stage in mid performance and quote a Lennon/McCartney composition, was I supposed to corral the instinct, even though it was rooted in a memory of hearing it in 1968?

This could go on ad-infinitum, but I believe that the overarching issue is not purely legal, or purely objective.  The issue at hand is one of an emotional turf-war.  After a career that began over 45 years ago, involving about 80 official audio releases, many video releases, public speaking appearances, collaborations with other artists, and thousands upon thousands of live performances, is the public supposed to sit on its collective hands and let one person decide how they will be influenced by that legacy?  Is one person allowed to dictate the actions of others to that degree?  As I stated in the previous post, this is the kind of control that was attempted under some of the most oppressive political regimes the world has ever known.  These regimes hoped to exact a level of social control so absolute that only their words were allowed to be considered “truth”.  All those who disagreed were punished, silenced, and worse.  Right now we are seeing a silencing of those with the audacity to perform this forbidden music.  Look ahead, if you can, into a future where this approach has been completely successful, and think about that landscape.

we know who the brain police are…

Earlier today I received notice that a video of my band “DOOT” received a takedown notice on YouTube.  The requester was Zappa Family Trust.  I don’t even remember if the video had any Zappa content, but it was a performance at the Zappanale festival, and Andre Cholmondeley was part of the band for that gig.  Andre is the guy behind the band project/object, and his “project” has been a consistent “object” of scorn from Gail Zappa.  Gail is of the opinion that nobody gets to perform, interpret, or reference any of Frank Zappa’s compositions without her express authorization.  I have expressed my opinion on this subject before… it’s archived here somewhere.  I believe that while the Zappa Family Trust can protect Zappa’s actual works, and the products that they have released since Zappa’s death, they can not enforce a selective moratorium on his influence on contemporary music.  Zappa himself “cut his teeth” covering popular popular music, orchestral music, experimental music… all written by someone else… and specifically rubbed the music industry’s nose in it by pointing out that by changing one note in “Louie Louie” it was now an original composition (Plastic People, YCDTOSA 1).

The past week or so has seen an uptick in the ZFT’s takedown notice activity.  To be clear, the media in question were not Zappa recordings, videos or performances.  They were live performances that involved thematic material from the Zappa catalog, references to the composer, homages to the composer, and lyrics based on Zappa’s lyrical concepts.  Gutless organizations like YouTube know it is far less expensive and less involved to take down videos at the drop of a hat and let the account owner and the takedown notifier deal with the particulars in a court of law.  So the ZFT gets what they want up front.  Gail couldn’t ask for more.  I have been witness to a decade where the ZFT went from non-participant in the Zappa legacy, to employing anti-democratic tactics that would make Goerbels blush.  The ZFT’s hypothesis that they can stuff Frank Zappa’s music legacy back into the bottle and dispense it on an ad-hoc basis MUST be challenged in a court of law, and challenged successfully.  Until then the musical world will be a poorer place, and the freedom of expression that Zappa himself enjoyed will be denied to generation after generation of artists and the public at large.

This is my immediate reaction to the recent events:

nobody can take away the importance that the man and his music have had on my life, but equally, i can not be compelled to participate in what his legacy has become. everything that has been done in his name since december of 1993 has been less than what the man himself did. no musician or composer has effectively enhanced the legacy that zappa created during his life. homage has been paid, some fine music has been made, souls have been stirred…. but none of it has moved the needle in comparison to the actual works that zappa oversaw during his lifetime. nothing that the zft ever does will enhance his legacy. nothing that his lox of a son tries to do with his cute little cover band. and frankly, nothing that *any* of the people playing zappa’s music since his death will *ever* do will matter one iota in comparison to the actual legacy of zappa’s own work. i’m content with that, and content with taking the odds that there is a chance that i might live to see zappa’s music set free to inspire the world in an active way. but ironically, in the 21st century, his widow has forced musicians around the world into the same situation endured by those living under the communist regimes of the soviet union, china, czechoslovakia, east germany, and other oppressive regimes where zappa’s music was spoken of in hushed tones and played out of earshot in secret locations. it is officially ILLEGAL to perform certain music without a dispensation from the authorities.

Rochefort Festival Wrap Up – Finale

I will be looking over the previous posts and inserting images, and cleaning up text, fixing typos and misspelled names, and maybe editing some dupe info and omissions.  Otherwise, that is the story from beautiful Rochefort, France.  Some really amazing and dedicated people run a very ambitious festival, the artists are treated very well, and the results are very enjoyable for both the audience and the artists.

What I have tried to relate is my experience, my reality, and my observations during a week where I made a point to stay open and positive at every moment.  That is probably the thing I am proudest of.  Many bass players could have done a better job with the music, would have had an easier time, and been able to contribute more.  I am what I am: a person in love with music and the bass, who has had the good fortune to be able to express that in some very interesting venues.  Whether that is the intimate “Never Open Books” of New Haven, or Cafe Nine, or an outdoor festival stage in France, I try to bring the same ethic.  I owe my friends from New Haven Improvisors Collective a huge debt of gratitude, and maybe none more than drummer Steve Zieminski.  Playing bass alongside him for the past two years has allowed me to grow as a bassist, and trust my instincts more than ever.  As I approach 50 years old, that is not an easy thing to do.

From the beginning of this trip I have focused on the concept of being open, in the way that one opens their heart to the opportunity and does not try to mold the experience to their will.  My work with NHIC, or DOOT!, or the Sawtelles, or Lys Guillorn…. and others has been a fantastic training ground for that approach.  An experience like the one I just had at Rochefort is a type of validation.  Likewise, it was dependent on encountering other with the same generosity of spirit, the same patience, and the same willingness to set out on a journey and trust that you will work as hard as they will to reach the destination.  I was fortunate to encounter those people at every step of the way, in circumstances where it would have been easy to cop an attitude or cede to some negative element.  It simply never happened.

I would be remiss to not mention, again, what a pleasure it was to work with Napoleon Murphy Brock.  The timing of this event was very opportune, as the time that has elapsed since Zappanale 20 in 2009 has allowed me to make some observations and allow my cynical voice to recede.  Napoleon is a world class performer, educator, musician and person.  He does that on his terms, and I can’t say that I would want to be tied to those terms, but in an instance like this it was his stability and patience and focus that created a safe haven when other situations were spiraling into disarray.  And hell… I held down a flimsy canopy in a driving storm on an electrified stage in hopes of him not being speared through the neck with a broken piece of aluminum!  So there is always that 🙂

With hopes for continued musical adventure,

Bon Journee’