Monday, November 26, 2007

Tinkertoys

Had Frank allowed himself to cheat, cheatily-cheat like all the rest, he could have been merely a distinguished rock and roll icon, or master bluesman, or paragon of neoclassicism, or a Spike Jonesish musical comedian.

But no. Along with all that, he had to go and invent little ditties that the best conservatory-trained musicians struggled to play properly. This would be Frank's "Tinkertoy" music – the tunes with all those little notes that fly by at 8,200 mph, usually set against some impossible time signature.

"Drowning Witch/Envelopes," besides being hilariously imaginative and featuring truly evocative guitar expression, includes some completely bitchin' flurries of notes, including the Hawaiian Punch jingle. In the liner notes to YCDTOSA III, Frank notes that the 1984 band never played in correctly all the way through, and that the 1982 band only came close on one occasion. That's why the album version of the song had to be stitched together from 17 different performances.

There are Tinkertoy-dense songs, like "Moggio," "St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast," "Wild Love," and many others. And everyone (except possibly Sam Brownback) adores those two all-time top Tinkertoy tunes, "Peaches En Regalia" and "The Black Page." Of course, many other "routine" Zappa songs are punctuated by mind-blowing micro-note passages.

This tendency may be Frank's most defining characteristic. When you hear those amazing passages, you know right away that you're listening to Zappa music. But he didn't seem to see any musical difference between the impossible parts and the most guttural rock or blistering blues. They were all flavors on his musical pallet, ready for deployment at his whim.

So, for the Nov. 30, 2007 Zappa's Grubby Chamber, we'll play lots of highly challenging (for the players) Frank songs encrusted with jillions of tiny notes, those little quick ones that no one else really ever tried to play.

1 comment:

M-Chu said...

Kevin, I didn’t know that the Drowning Witch version was pieced together from 17 parts. I knew it was pieced, but 17 parts is absolute madness. It may boggle the mind of some to think that the ’82 band, Steve Vai, Tommy Mars, Ed Mann, etc… were unable to perform it correctly, but if you factor in Zappa composing in old school methodology; hearing the music in his head as a mathematical computation, drawing it onto musical score, and then hiring musicians to play it, one also begins to hear Zappa’s Synclavier warming up for a rendition of G-Spot Tornado.

Last May, while visiting in Arcata, I was chatting with a fairly well seasoned Jazz musician. It was brought to his attention that I was a huge Zappa fan. So he mentioned that his band used to perform Peaches En Regalia, to which I began humming the intro passage. He then added that it was a bit complicated to play. I’ve never attempted to play it myself, but that didn’t surprise me at all. I’m quite certain that Peaches En Regalia may sound like a playful and innocent little tune, but like most Zappa compositions it’s built from a complicated mathematical equation, not just your standard 4/4 or 6/8 tempo.

I’m not a schooled musician, so I don’t know if Music for Guitar and Low Budget Orchestra fits in to the tinkertoy classification, but I love the bridge in the middle, where the horn instruments couple with Frank’s plectoral extravaganza. And just to think of the musicianship required to imagine it, compose it, rehearse and record it. All I know is I just get a huge rush while listening to it.

I hope this is not misunderstood. There’s room in this world for players who learn from strumming instruments, tapping their feet, learning chord composition and understanding music from an on-site point of view. They write really nice sounding music. Their music can give you a visceral feeling, feelings of joy and sadness, and even give you a social backdrop for certain lifestyles and activities. Lord, how my life would be so freakin’ boring if it weren’t for Frank.

Kevin, thanks again for ZGC.