‘Jazz From Hell’: How Frank Zappa Delivered A Late Classic

Released in November 1986, the fully instrumental Jazz From Hell was technically the last studio album that Frank Zappa released in his lifetime, despite having finished two others – Civilization Phaze III and Dance Me This, that were both released posthumously in 1994 and 2015, respectively. Fittingly, Jazz From Hell was every bit as uncompromising and groundbreaking as the composer’s best work, giving a tantalizing glimpse of how Zappa might’ve continued to harness cutting-edge technology were it not for his untimely death.

Zappa had been an early adopter of the Synclavier Digital Music System – one of the first digital samplers and synthesizers – using it throughout the mid-’80s on Thing-Fish, Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger, Francesco Zappa, and Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention. But Jazz From Hell was the first time he’d used the technology to such an extent on an album of original material – all its songs, bar “St. Etienne,” were put together solely on the Synclavier.

The equipment opened up a world of possibilities for Zappa, allowing him to push the boundaries of his music beyond the capabilities of human players, as he told Keyboardist magazine in 1987, “The moment you get your hands on a piece of equipment like this, where you can modify known instruments in ways that human beings just never do, such as add notes to the top and bottom of the range, or allow a piano to perform pitch-bends or vibrato, even basic things like that will cause you to rethink the existing musical universe. The other thing you get to do is invent sounds from scratch. Of course, that opens up a wide range.”

The combination of the latest technology with Zappa’s quest for sonic perfection and his restless imagination resulted in music years ahead of its time. The hyperactive robo-funk of “G-Spot Tornado” hinted at the complex rhythmic math rock of Battles or the unhinged electro of Squarepusher. The mind boggles at what Zappa would have made with ProTools, particularly as he was anxious to keep up with the fast-moving world of technology. As he told Song Talk in 1987, “Since they have software updates every year, and since there’s new hardware available every year, every album that I’ve done on Synclavier has gotten more and more sophisticated. So compared to what I can do now, [previous work] sounds technically crude.”

If one track emphasized the potential of the Synclavier to radically alter the sound of Zappa’s music, it’s “While You Were Art II” – an arrangement of the guitar solo “While You Were Out,” released on 1981’s Shut Up ’N Play Yer Guitar. The solo had been transcribed by Steve Vai, and when Zappa was asked to compose a piece of music for the California EAR Unit ensemble, the transcription was entered into the Synclavier by David Ocker, Zappa’s assistant. Zappa then used the basic chords and melody to work up an arrangement on the Synclavier, with the intention that the ensemble would use his digital arrangement to learn the piece. The ensemble received the cassette of the arrangement too late to learn it in time for their concert at the Los Angeles County Museum on April 30, 1984, so – as mischievously suggested by Zappa – the tape of the wholly digital performance was played over the PA while the ensemble mimed. The crowd were oblivious. To Zappa, this was an artistic statement, a prank that exposed the phoniness of the “serious music” establishment. Most likely, the audience was too concerned with attempting to keep up with the music – a spellbinding and playful feat of experimentation – to question its providence.

The sole non-Synclavier piece, “St. Etienne,” is a live recording from a gig at the French city of the same name on May 28, 1982. Zappa solos with an extraordinary depth of emotion and melodic range over a languid groove, providing a salve to listeners who may have struggled to come to terms with the brave new world of Jazz From Hell. At the point of the album’s release, Zappa claimed to have not played his guitar for at least two years – “St. Etienne” may also have served as a reminder of his prowess. In retrospect, and especially considering that Jazz From Hell would be the last studio album released in Zappa’s lifetime, “St. Etienne” takes on an elegiac quality. Typically though, any sentimental thoughts are quickly brushed aside by the album’s final track, the wild “Massaggio Galore,” a dense electronic piece that features vocal samples of Zappa and his children – Ahmet, Dweezil, and Moon Unit – manipulated to sound like a malevolent goblin chorus, a reminder that humor most definitely does belong in music.

Jazz From Hell arrived at a time when Frank Zappa’s profile had rarely been higher, thanks to his ongoing battle against censorship in music and the Parent’s Music Resource Centre (PMRC) in particular. Hilariously, his efforts in advocating for free speech meant that Jazz From Hell – an instrumental album, lest we forget – was given a “Parental Advisory – Explicit Content” sticker on release, and it wasn’t stocked in over 100 outlets of the Fred Meyer Music Market chain of shops. Interviewed by Don Menn and Matt Groening for Guitar Player in 1992, Zappa remembered, “When Billboard questioned the guy about it, he said, ‘Well, if it’s not the lyrics, then it must be the cover.’ The cover was a picture of my face.”

Today, Jazz From Hell still sounds like music from the future. His envelope-pushing experiments with the Synclavier would be recognized with a Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the title track in 1988. Although Jazz From Hell would be his final studio album released in his lifetime, his next two albums, the posthumously released Civilization Phaze III, recorded mostly between 1991-92, and Dance Me This, recorded in 1993 shortly before he passed, would show the direction of where he was going in the studio with the Synclavier as well as the Ensemble Modern.

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