Focus wasn’t Frank Zappa’s strong suit. When the early records by the Mothers of Invention hit in the mid-’60s, they deployed a parade of whimsically diverse ideas. Mock pop, percussion romps, R&B bubblegum, theatrical satire, musique concrète, oddball skronk—from Freak Out! to Uncle Meat, pastiche was paramount. So when Hot Rats arrived in the fall of ’69, months after the Mothers had folded, its five instrumental tunes and one vocal track were viewed as a balm to those bewildered by the renegade auteur’s sound spectrum. The music was enterprising, but comparatively unified. Celebrating the golden anniversary of Zappa’s revered solo debut, this six-CD boxed set of outtakes, rehearsals, and miscellany delivers more than seven hours’ worth of tangents the bandleader concocted while honing his 43-minute opus.
Getting a proper feel from the new musicians seems paramount in these sessions. Zappa is heard guiding drummer John Guerin and bassist Max Bennett on both groove and density during the blossoming of “It Must Be a Camel” (citing the attack of certain percussion fills, he urges Guerin to “destroy the mood completely, okay?”). At one point during a jazzy ballad called “Transition,” he nudges the squad to be a bit less “lumpy.” As zealots know from that work’s final form—“Twenty Small Cigars” from the Hot Rats followup Chunga’s Revenge—the sought-after grace is achieved.
Like most packages spotlighting rehearsals, a balance of revelation and tedium is in play as the refinements unfold. Zappa’s an inventive guitarist, so it’s thrilling to hear him unload a storm of ideas during extended solos. In cahoots with electric violinist Sugarcane Harris, and backed by a trio of ex-Mothers, “Another Waltz” reminds us of his interest in fierce expressionism. But there are moments during the half-hour romp of “Big Legs” where, funk frenzy or no funk frenzy, things seem extraneous. Happily, editing is a Zappa forte, and cut in half for its album appearance as “The Gumbo Variations,” the final track’s gnarled eloquence is nothing short of ferocious.
Speaking of ferocious, clocking the iterations of “Willie the Pimp” has its thrills. Tack piano, wah-wah fiddle, bump ’n’ grind vamps—even without Captain Beefheart’s nasty-ass growl slapped on, the music is greasy enough to ably suit its subject. But perhaps the most goosebumps come from witnessing “Peaches en Regalia” in development. A solo piano sketch by Ian Underwood underscores its charms, and morphing toward completion, the band twists things in numerous ways, from swaggering organ ditty to hopped-up gospel jam with Johnny Otis on piano and Shuggie Otis on bass. “Peaches” is a Zappa signature tune, and it’s fascinating to hear what he deemed a “rock ’n’ roll concerto” being sculpted by this crew.
The set’s remaining smorgasbord—Beefheart’s isolated “Pimp” vocals, ancient radio ads, guitar refractions of “Arabesque,” an ancient horn version of “Little Umbrellas,” and the interview bite where FZ ’splains how he came up with the album title (jazzers will need to search Archie Shepp’s Live at the Donaueschingen Music Festival for full appreciation)—compounds the contextual kicks. It’s overwhelming on a few levels, but as a ride through the maestro’s brain during one of his most fruitful phases, The Hot Rats Sessions is a hoot.
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