In the latest of our series in which musicians write about their sources of inspiration, Adrien Pigeat, composer, guitarist, bandleader, producer and the instigator of Second Brain writes about his long-term admiration for, and association with, the music of Frank Zappa.
Frank Zappa (1940-1993) was American, a self-taught composer, musician, filmmaker, businessman and artist. Over three decades he released 62 albums, including many different genres like rock, jazz, disco, throat-singing, electronic music, orchestral, and more. But his main influences are 1950s rhythm and blues, and post-romantic modern and neoclassical music. He often referred to Edgar Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern as well as Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Howlin’ Wolf and Guitar Slim.
Frank started music as a drummer and this is crucial information to understand his music. He developed a unique rhythmic and harmonic language, complex in form but pretty simple in concept. The complexity is a result from the density of accumulations and additions of those concepts.
But more important to me, Zappa was an eclectic iconoclast, he loved music, he didn’t fit in a box of genre or style like present-day music industry minions and this is a great lesson. Diving into his art also taught me a sense of independence, control, vision and freedom. Of course you need a great team to succeed but he had a pretty strong philosophy about how to avoid or minimise time-wasting events, and this is crucial as an artist. I had myself been wasting time by listening to others’ bullshit, but the good news is that you learn from that and, for instance, Zappa was the kind of guy that learned and processed information really fast, and this is really inspiring.
I’ve been listening to Zappa’s music since I was 12 years old and from 17 to 19 I was only listening to Zappa or a related composer, like Stravinsky, Varèse or Gustav Holst, spending nights smoking pot, watching all the content YouTube has to offer about those gents. His art changed me forever and I wish I could have met him, but, f*#§ it, I was born a millennial.
- “The Black Page #1 (Piano Version) from Zappa in New York (1977,2019) 40th Anniversary Edition
There are many versions of this tune, but this minimal piano reduction is my all time favorite. This shines with the essence of the composition. As you might know, this was originally written as a drum solo and later on FZ added the notes. Listening to this version brings in me a feeling of intimacy with FZ’s profound melodic language that is sometimes perceived as mysterious and scary. But this gorgeous piece sits next to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” to me.
- “Road Ladies” from Chunga’s Revenge (1971)
This is the ultimate blues-rock masterclass for me, with a killing organ intro by George Duke, best lyrics ever sung by FZ, Flo and Eddie from the Turtles and Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson. The whole groove and vibe feels like freedom! The guitar solo is banging! For the anecdote is was FZ that first introduced Hendrix to the “wah-wah” effect pedal and the way he makes his guitar roar and growl using it… man that’s dirty, and the world needs scummy guitar playing.
- “Alien Orifice” from Make a Jazz Noise Here (1988)
We’re diving into serious arranging here; this starts with a jazzy opening, then goes to a rock guitar solo and ends with a crazy reggae re-harmonisation. The way FZ is surfing between genres blew my mind – no rules, just taste. The orchestration is mind-blowing, this ’88 Zappa band gave me the desire to write for a large group with horns. You should check out Tyler Bartram’s video analysis of the tune, he’s going really deep, comparing voicings and versions.
- “Rollo” from One Shot Deal (2008)
This version is from a Live recorded in 1975. I really like this tune, it has that big band brassy sound that I really enjoy. Harmonically and rhythmically it’s really free, fresh and entertaining to me. The melodies are really strong and sing-able. This helped me realise how important melody is, especially when it drives everything – the harmony became just the shadow of the leading parts.
- “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing” from The Persuasions sings Zappa (2000)
This is a great vocal cover from The Persuasions. By diving into Zappa’s art I’ve discovered doo-wop, and its simplicity seduced me, I’ve always loved blues, soul to gospel and funk. But doo-wop is really cheesy and it is a great ground for satire. Going deep into Zappa gave me more than music. It gave me a different philosophical, spiritual and conceptual point of view about life. For example, this song isn’t just a go on “jesus freaks”; it also carries an anti-dogma aroma with a libertarian cynicism.
- “Pedro’s Dowry” from London Symphony Orchestra Vol I (1983)
I think this piece really reflects Zappa’s musical core, it’s really percussion driven, it has some reggae, some Varèse voicings and some unexpected happy endings. But I do believe this is hard to listen to. I remember a time when I was 17, willing to “get into Zappa”, I spent almost a year only listening to dissonant music. This was a way to educate my ears, to accept without judgment any color or any sound really. And now I really enjoy listening to this, to me it sounds like a speech, it has questions, answers, doubts and even hardcore pornography.
The LSO Zappa Albums are masterpieces. Even if it was not performed exactly as FZ wanted, it is full of ugly and pretty music.
- “Mo’s Vacation” from an unreleased studio version (1982)
OK now we are getting into some serious “statistical densities”. This piece was for many years the drums audition to get into the Zappa Band. There are interviews of Vinnie Colaiuta or Steve Vai talking about “the scariest piece of music ever written”. This implies really interesting vocabulary and concepts like nested-tuplets. This rhythmical language is not really far from Indian classical music. When you understand that this was written and then played, limitation is an old concept.
- “Keep it Greasy” from Buffalo (2007)
I discovered Zappa with this live album, recorded in 1980. This is an outrageous adrenaline tornado. I really recommend listening to this live. There are not so many musicians in the band but it sounds huge, and the way the songs are going from one another is so smart. And there’s Vinnie on drums and I know that many of us can’t argue with that.
- “Be-Bop Tango” from The Roxy Performances (1974)
I love this tune! It’s weird, unexpected and the melody is (I’m sorry, folks) gorgeous! And the statements about jazz are so funny, there is George Duke and Bruce Fowler is that band. The audience participation is so cool, it really interesting to see how LA in the ’70s was ready for high quality stupidity.
- “Outrage at Valdez” from The Yellow Shark
This is the most beautiful piece of music ever written, period.
LINKS: Second Brain on Soundcloud
Categories: 10 Tracks I Can't Do Without