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New Century, Same Genius: Ornette Coleman at JVC

It’s a testament to the strength and lasting influence of Frank Zappa that, while he died in 1992-at the far too-young age of 52-he left behind such a rich body of work that the Zappa legacy continues onward and upward. On some level, intrigue in the World of Zappa has increased, not only through the lingering nostalgic interests of his global fan base but also through the curiosity of young listeners. Imagine the gift of discovering Zappa’s music, so much more elaborate and sophisticated than any other “rock” music before, during or after him. The thrill increases exponentially when his complex tunes are experienced live.

Oddly enough, it took the band known as the Grande Mothers a few years to make their official debut in Zappa’s hometown of Los Angeles, with a special Zappa-meets-Stravinsky concert at the new experimental music nucleus of the REDCAT theater (downstairs from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A.). The band is centered around charter members of Zappa’s Mothers of Invention band–keyboardist Don Preston, one-of-a-kind vocalist (and saxophonist/flutist) Napoleon Murphy Brock and bassist Roy Estrada-and fleshed out by the anchoring force of Christopher Garcia on drums, and spidery-fingered new kid Miroslav Tadic on guitar. He soared this night, on his first gig with the group. (Tadic’s job description, re: the concert program, is playing “stunt guitar, snake guitar, loud guitar”).

Brought together for a special show in Germany in 2002, the band recognized the allure of carrying the project forward, touring through Europe and going through the re-learning curve, rehearsing up old Zappa tunes to a dazzling tightness. One strong impression left by the concert was the fact that Zappa’s music actually fares better live than on record, partly because of the deep pockets of theatricality in his writing and also because virtuosity-of rock, jazz, or whatever ilk-always makes a better impression in the light of live playing than in the hermetic confines of one’s living room.

Other Zappa-related acts have been surfacing recently, including the “Zappa plays Zappa” project, with Zappa’s sons Dweezil and Ahmet joined by famed “stunt guitarist” Steve Vai. The Grande Mothers, though, focus on a particular early era in Zappa’s development, with tunes from the late ’60s through the mid-70s. From the opening song, “Florentine Pogen,” it was clear that the audience was in good hands, in the presence of the classic Zappa magic–crisply played Dadaist progressive rock and roll, with gonzo theatrics in the mix. Also in the set list were “Duke of Prunes”-a love song with a prune metaphor and a satire of minor mode loitering-and “Idiot Bastard’s Son,” its melodic contours cleverly built from the title.

Instrumentals included the nutty march/waltz tune “Uncle Meat/T’mershi Dance” and the careening up-tempo tune “Pound for a Brown.” “Village of the Sun/Echidna’s Arf (of you),” originally from the Live at the Roxy album, typifies the Zappa balancing act: a funky, hooky first section yields to an intense instrumental workout at the end, exhilarating to witness live, and so taut.

A similar effect-brainy meets beefy-is also evident in one of Zappa’s greatest hits, “Montana” (“moving to Montana soon, gonna’ be a dental floss tycoon”), from one of Zappa’s masterpiece album, Overnight Sensation. Brock-the charismatic scene-stealer here–delivered the song’s earnest absurdity in its pop-like passages. But after one of Tadic’s slithering “snake guitar” solos, Brock navigated the zigzagging unison melodies in the middle, reminding us yet again that Zappa’s idea of rock is not for the faint-headed or musically simplistic.

This concert’s Stravinsky angle, with an opening performance of the composer’s L’Histoire du Soldat was less felicitous than the Zappa portion of the evening, and verged on sloppiness and pretension. A fine chamber ensemble of L.A. musicians, conducted by CalArts-based Marc Lowenstein, gave a smart, compelling reading of the score, each section of which elicited wild applause from an audience (one imagines that younger audience members here are now officially turned on to Stravinsky-a notion that would make Zappa grin in his crypt). Dramatically, though, the dubious thespian work of Brock, Estrada and Preston was of wavering quality and seriousness. Brock fared best, which is not surprising considering the inherent dramatic panache of his performing persona.

The idea of showing slides of Stravinsky’s iconic mug during much of the Zappa set was regrettable, symptomatic of the strange misguided desire of Zappa fans to place him in the context of great 20th century “concert music” composers. Although he adored and interacted with such master composers as Varese and Boulez and has had his music played by game, virtuosic classical musicians, Zappa created a place of his own in musical culture, within shouting and spitting distance of rock and roll, quasi-fusion, and the all-American experimentalist spirit.

He invented his own rules and wrote a few lifetimes’ worth of music in his truncated time on the planet. Catch it live, if and when you can.

Originally Published