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Jon Larsen: Strange News From Mars

Norwegian guitarist Jon Larsen started out as an unlikely candidate to release a CD inspired by the work of Frank Zappa. Larsen was primarily a painter in the 1970s, after which he formed the successful Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli-themed Hot Club de Norvge band in 1979. But with the help of Zappa alums Tommy Mars (keyboards), Bruce Fowler (trombone), Arthur Barrow (bass, sound engineering) and Jimmy Carl Black (vocals, percussion), Larsen goes from Gypsy swing to classical fusion on Strange News From Mars.

Black, a member of Zappa’s original Mothers of Invention, functions primarily as a narrator. He introduces himself as “the first Indian on Mars” on “Goodbye to Earth,” the first of 19 intergalactic absurdities. Tracks range from Black’s 16-second monologue “Norwegisher Schweinhund” to the six-minute “Dachs Reduction,” featuring an inventive keyboard solo by Mars and thunderous drumming by Hakon Mjaset Johansen. Larsen’s other Norwegian cohorts include marimba player Rob Waring, guitarist Knut Reiersrud and bassist Ole Mortenvagan, all of whom capture the late Zappa’s spirit, intelligence, humor and complexity. The titles hint at which pieces are the closest in form. “Cinderella on the Event Horizon of a Black Hole” features Zappa’s neo-classical nuances through Larsen’s arrangements and Mars’ symphonic keyboards; the jazzy “Conceptual Continuity on the Red Planet” provides Waring’s marimba ample room, and “Capt. Zurcon’s Cranberry Cocktail” is a faux-reggae number that gives the unselfish Larsen’s guitar playing some of the spotlight.

The last two titles are direct Zappa quotes: “Tax the Churches” is 36 seconds of instrumental ambience; the closing “Music Is the Best” is a joyous four-minute romp featuring Mars and Fowler. There’s even a hidden bonus track, on which Black discusses humor in music with an alien. Strange news, indeed.

Originally Published