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Frank Zappa - Roxy & Elsewhere CD (album) cover

ROXY & ELSEWHERE

Frank Zappa

 

RIO/Avant-Prog

4.39 | 311 ratings

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SonomaComa1999
4 stars REVIEW #3 - "Roxy & Elsewhere" by Frank Zappa (1973). 5/20/2018

Continuing on the theme of the music of Frank Zappa, I felt it was necessary to review one of his live albums. Following my reviews of his 1974 album "Apostrophe" and his keyboardist George Duke's "The Aura Will Prevail", I decided to choose an album where both musicians were present. While Zappa has a myriad of live albums, and a never-ending sea of live bootlegs, his 1973 offering at the Roxy in Hollywood is considered to be his best. A compilation of songs played at the club over three concerts, fans consider this album to be an absolute masterpiece, containing the feel of Zappa's concerts at the time. It is important to realize that prior to the internet, live performances could only be heard two ways - by going to a performance or purchasing a live album. It was not as easy to hear a musician playing live material as it is today, so therefore it is always crucial that the atmosphere of a musician's live show can transition and be contained into a live album.

The lineup that plays behind Zappa is quite possibly the best of his career. Several names, including the saxophonist/vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock, trombonist Bruce Fowler, the aforementioned Duke on keyboards, and Zappa himself, appear on this double LP. Perhaps one of the best traits that this album has to offer is its intercalary monologues by Zappa, where he interacts with the crowd, introducing and explaining the songs to the crowd. Most of the music on "Roxy" is new material with the exception of one song. We begin with the humorously titled "Penguin in Bondage", which while having a sexually suggestive title, does not contain the crude sexual humor which Zappa is best-known for; we are not yet to the period where it is going to be right in our faces. While the opener is a rather average piece, we get our first taste of the jazz-fusion/prog tendencies of this lineup. As I mentioned, this is considered to be one of the best lineups backing Zappa in his discography, and you can see how tight this band is as a unit. We get everything from a guitar solo, to some cheeky humor all contained in a rather mellow and sometimes slow song. Things begin to get groovy as we segue into "Pygmy Twylyte", which is a shorter yet much more active piece where Jeff Simmons takes over on lead vocals. At just above two minutes long, I consider it almost as an interlude, but I am totally digging the rhythm on this one; it makes great use of harmonics and captures a very electric musical atmosphere. I tend to prefer the more conventional songs on this album as opposed to the longer improvised and more proggy instrumentals, but there is still value in those, especially for the hardcore prog listener. Side one is wrapped up quite poorly with the skit "Dummy Up", which is a humorous improv piece where Zappa can take jabs at higher education. It is well-known that Zappa had a strong dislike for college; he attended a two-year school in Rancho Cucamonga but left after only one semester, and refused to pay for his kids' college education. In this song, a seedy "dope pushing" Simmons tries to convince Murphy Brock to smoke his high school diploma with a dirty gym sock on the inside. Afterwards, Simmons has him smoke a college diploma "with nothing at all", referring to the perceived uselessness of a college degree. While this sentiment may be more true today thanks to degree inflation, Zappa obviously had very strong feelings about higher education. Unfortunately for the song, it really does not offer much beyond a humorous skit, and in many ways it breaks the barreling flow that "Pygmy" had built up.

On the flip side, we pick up with another introductory monologue by Zappa. This time, Zappa sets up the song "Village of the Sun", an infectiously good tune about the small town of Sun Village in Northern Los Angeles County, near Lancaster, where Zappa went to high school. This is much more of a tongue-in-cheek tune, poking fun at the desert climate's tendency to peel paint off cars and "wreck their windshields too." I absolutely love this tune; it is conventional and catchy, boosted by the strong vocals by Murphy Brock. I still prefer Ike Willis over him, but he is a very good vocalist in his own regard. While there is not much of a strong prog influence on this piece, we get an instrumental showcase in "Echidna's Arf (Of You)", which directly segues out of "Sun Village." While it is a rather short piece, the listener will almost certainly be blown away by the musical abilities of this band as they play at a breakneck and heavily choreographed pace that only the most talented groups can accomplish It is not catchy, but it makes up for that by being a very musically challenging piece. I came across a cover of this tune on Duke's "The Aura Will Prevail" but it omitted much of what made this version great - opting rather to be a synth showcase. Fortunately this rendition is much better, and culminates in an absolutely insane climax which leaves the listener's head spinning. Next up is the near ten-minute instrumental "Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?" which brings us towards a strictly jazz fusion perspective. It cruising along very succinctly, and covers a lot of bases in terms of musical themes and the use of a strong brass section which this lineup expresses. There are a little bit of vocals by Zappa somewhere in the middle of the song, but this piece still qualifies as an instrumental altogether. Every member of the lineup gets their opportunity to shine, from the brass to a dual drum solo near the tail end of the piece - a very strong statement by the band regarding musical virtuosity. Overall I am pretty exhausted by the time all is said and done with this one, and we are only halfway through the album! There is still one LP to go, and so far this is a very solid showing by Zappa.

As per the album, the second LP opens up with another humorous monologue by Zappa. This time the theme is monster movies, preferably cheap and poorly written ones. He makes a reference to the corny 50's horror film "It Conquered the World" and its theme as inspiration to the upcoming piece "Cheepnis." This is another one of the more catchy tunes off the album, with frequent references to B-movies which precedes the main story, which concerns a giant poodle named Frunobulax that is wreaking havoc across the countryside. The military shows up to bring up the recurring "Here Fido!" theme which is found on numerous Zappa tunes, including the song "Stink-Foot" which I reviewed on the Apostrophe album. I would not say that this tune is particularly impressive, but I do enjoy the humor and the unique theme of the music. Next up is the slow and bluesy "Son of Orange County" which returns to a mellow tempo. There really is not much more to be said about this one except that there is a strong brass section and a nice chorus. At this point in the album it is a bit of a push-over, but fortunately we get a reprieve with a fiery reprisal of Zappa's "More Trouble Every Day", which was featured on the Mothers of Invention debut album "Freak Out" in 1966. This is one of more serious songs in Zappa's canon, dealing with the Watts Riots and segregation - however the political references have been castrated in this version, leaving a much more ambiguous theme. We know that Zappa looked back upon the sexual revolution which he supported at the time with disdain, but could his emotions regarding the civil rights struggles of the late-60's have tapered down over half a decade? Likely not, considering the subject matter of 1974's "Uncle Remus" on the Apostrophe album, but maybe there was some sort of retrospective decision which caused Zappa to alter the lyrics on this rendition. Nevertheless, this is one of the highlights of the album; it is an extremely brutal variant of this piece, and it comes off very good to wrap up the third side. Interestingly enough this is the ONLY song on the album that is old material, with the rest of the songs being newly released at the time, which is something you do not normally see with live concerts. Zappa never refrained from being a prolific songwriter, with it being the guitarist's personal hobby while on tour.

At this point I am more than exhausted, and we still have the fourth side, which is made up of just one sixteen- minute extended improv piece titled "Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen's Church)". Going back to the concept of capturing a live atmosphere in an album, this tune captures just that, as Zappa personally invites some of the audience on stage to dance to the scat vocals of George Duke. The entire concept of this piece revolves around dance, and Zappa is not hesitant to allow some ladies and gentlemen to enhance the live experience as the concert comes to a close. Musically there is a lot going here, and there is not necessarily a structure which the band goes along except when Zappa wants to have the guests dance their hearts out to some real abstract passages. Bruce Fowler improvises a trombone solo which mimics the rhythm of a tempo. While the music will not blow your socks off, this song definitely shines a light into the atmosphere and electricity of a Zappa live show, something which a live album should most certainly do.

I have not listened to enough of Zappa's live albums to truly and definitively name "Roxy" as his best, but I was impressed by the musicianship on this album. The Mothers tow a fine line between conventional catchy music and expanded improvisational and jazzy journeys, giving the listener the best of both worlds. I am extremely hesitant to hand out a 5-star rating, and unfortunately this album just has a little bit too many uninspiring tunes such as "Dummy Up" or "Son of Orange County" which will cause it to barely miss that rating. Nevertheless, it made it very close - my biggest takeaways from the album are "More Trouble", "Village", and "Pygmy", all of which are great tunes that have received multiple listens from myself. I recommend that you at least give this album a try - maybe you'll like it more than I do! I give it 4-stars (88% - B+), which makes it my highest rated album to date! Great for Zappa and jazz fans!

"Jazz is not dead, it just smells funny..." -Frank Zappa

SonomaComa1999 | 4/5 |

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