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Jazz from Hell

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Album Review

While Frank Zappa had ostensibly been "on his own" since the dissolution of the Mothers of Invention in 1969, never before had he used the term "solo artist" as literally as he does on the Grammy Award winning (in the "Best Rock Instrumental Performance by an orchestra, group or soloist" category) Jazz from Hell (1986). After two decades of depending on the skills, virtuosity, and temperament of other musicians, Zappa all but abandoned the human element in favor of the flexibility of what he could produce with his Synclavier Digital Music System. With the exception of the stunning closer "St. Etienne" — which is a guitar solo taken from a live performance of "Drowning Witch" at the Palais des Sports in St. Etienne, France on May 28, 1982 — the remaining seven selections were composed, created, and executed by Zappa with help from his concurrent computer assistant Bob Rice and recording engineer Bob Stone. Far from being simply a synthesizer, the Synclavier combined the ability to sample and manipulate sounds before assigning them to the various notes on a piano-type keyboard. At the time of its release, many enthusiasts considered it a slick, emotionless effort. In retrospect, their conclusions seem to have been a gut reaction to the methodology, rather than the music itself. In fact, evidence to the contrary is apparent as it brims throughout the optimistic bounding melody and tricky time-signatures of "Night School." All the more affective is the frenetic sonic trajectory coursing through "G-Spot Tornado." Incidentally, Zappa would revisit the latter — during one of his final projects — when the Ensemble Modern worked up Ali N. Askin's arrangement for the Yellow Shark (1993). Another cut with a bit of history to it is "While You Were Art II," which is Zappa's Synclavier-rendered version of the Shut Up 'N Play Yer Guitar (1982) entry "While You Were Out." Speaking of guitar solos, as mentioned briefly above, "St. Etienne" is the only song on Jazz from Hell to feature a band and is a treat specifically for listeners craving a sampling of Zappa's inimitable fretwork. The six-plus minute instrumental also boats support from Steve Vai (rhythm guitar), Ray White (rhythm guitar), Tommy Mars (keyboards), Bobby Martin (keyboards), Ed Mann (percussion), as well as the prominent rhythm section of Scott Thunes (bass) and Chad Wackerman (drums). Zappa-philes should similarly note that excellent (albeit) amateur-shot footage of the number was included by Zappa on the companion Video from Hell (1987) home video.

Jazz from Hell, Frank Zappa
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