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by Justin Farrar

January 23, 2013

Artist Spotlight: Frank Zappa Solo

by Justin Farrar  |  January 23, 2013

Frank Zappa's sprawling discography can be split into two camps: those albums featuring backing band The Mothers of Invention (later called just The Mothers) and his solo works. Yet as any hardcore fan can tell you, the line dividing them is often blurry at best.

After all, many of Zappa's earliest solo titles were recorded with select members of The Mothers. This overlap in personnel was, more than anything, a matter of necessity. He was so intensely demanding that the list of musicians who could actually meet his expectations was, all throughout his career, exceptionally short. In the case of 1967's Lumpy Gravy (Zappa's first foray into composing for a large ensemble), this meant using musicians who were also current members of The Mothers. The album, in fact, emerged from the same sessions as the group's landmark We're Only in It for the Money.

Chunga's Revenge, on the other hand, features hired-gun musicians who would eventually go on to join The Mothers' ranks full-time, most notably keyboardist George Duke and the tandem of Flo & Eddie (aka vocalists Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of The Turtles). Consequently, Duke would appear on several more of Zappa's solo works (Waka / Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo among them) before anchoring the mid-'70s incarnation of The Mothers, which unleashed the classics Roxy & Elsewhere and Apostrophe (').

This blurriness started to fade after Zappa dissolved The Mothers for good in 1975. In fact, nearly everything he recorded between the late '70s and his untimely demise in 1993 seemed to be about him consciously moving beyond the myriad sounds and styles he had achieved with his former group. Titles such as Zoot Allures and Sheik Yerbouti, released in 1976 and '79, respectively, feature him creating the most streamlined music of his career up to that point. Further establishing his solo identity were the influential sets Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar and Guitar, both of which cemented his status as guitar god and ground-zero inspiration for next-generation virtuosos Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Eric Johnson.

But where Zappa the solo artiste most forcefully forged his own personality is on his orchestral pieces. Though the aforementioned Lumpy Gravy, Waka / Jawaka and Grand Wazoo all reflect his ambitions as a composer of 20th-century classical music, his most fully realized symphonic explorations didn't arrive until the 1980s and early '90s, via the albums London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I and London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. II (reissued jointly as Zappa Vol I & II). And then there's The Yellow Shark, released a month before his death; as Rhapsody's Classical Editor Seth Colter Walls says of the album, "Zappa may have begun his career name-checking composer Edgard Varèse in the liner notes to a Mothers album, but he ended it by actually making an album of contemporary classical music worthy of that inspiration."

And now, on to the solo(-ish) works of Frank Zappa ...

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