Frank Zappa

In a career spanning only three decades, Frank Zappa wrote, performed and released music at a prodigious pace and has, to date, well over 100 releases under his name. He dabbled a little in both rock and jazz, and his bands often featured top-flight talent. But, as he’d be sure to tell you, he’d prefer to be remembered primarily as a composer: throughout his life his music featured nods to his classical idols (Stravinsky, Varese) and he wrote scores for groups like the London Symphony Orchestra, the Ensemble Modern and Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM. 

Frank Zappa was born in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, but early in his childhood his family moved to southern California, where Zappa would remain for most of the rest of his life. As a teenager he drummed in local bands, but eventually switched to guitar. Simultaneously, Zappa soaked up music from sources as varied as Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Edgard Varese. After spending time as a freelance musician and working as a hired hand in Paul Buff’s studio in Cucamonga, Zappa opened his own studio and started pumping out music, only to be arrested in 1965 in a sting operation (he’d serve 10 days in jail). A tone was set: Zappa would work long hours in the studio splicing tape and tinkering with music, and he’d also cast a suspicious glance at authority figures. 

Zappa quickly rebounded, taking over a local group and re-christening them The Mothers. By the end of 1965, they’d relocated to Los Angeles and made a name for themselves, gigging around town at venues like the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. By year’s end, they’d signed on to Verve/MGM Records and in 1966, they released their debut: the double LP Freak Out!. The Mothers would spend the next few years working at a prodigious pace, releasing new records every year and spending a lot of time on the road. In 1969, Zappa broke up the band and released his solo record Hot Rats

Throughout the early 70s, Zappa continued touring and recording. Even two accidents in late 1971 — first, a fire at a venue causing the loss of all his equipment, then an attack at a show in London that would crush his larynx and leave him in a wheelchair for months — didn’t slow him down. He worked with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on 200 Motels, jammed with Yoko Ono and John Lennon at the Fillmore East and toured with a 20-piece big band. Eventually, he settled down with a smaller group featuring Ruth Underwood, George Duke, Chester Thompson and a few other musicians: this lineup would eventually be featured on over a dozen records. 

By the mid-70s, Zappa was regularly touring Europe and North America with ever-shifting bands, often completely retooling them for each tour. His music grew more complex and orchestrated, with songs opening up into vamps around which he’d play lengthy guitar solos. It also started taking more pointed shots at elements of society he disapproved of. Disco fans, gay culture, Republicans, born-again Christians or women’s liberation, few escaped his jibes. Even a nasty split with Warner Brothers did little to slow the pace of his records: he simply started releasing them though his own label.

1983 marked the first time in almost two decades that Zappa didn’t tour. His interests had started to shift, and he began to write music for the London Symphony Orchestra, IRCAM and Kronos Quartet. He was also active politically, testifying to a Senate committee in 1985 about censorship and content warning labels on records. His final tour, in 1988, was an interesting mix of politically charged music — often taking potshots at televangelists and right-wing politicians — and horn-heavy new arrangements of older songs. However, the tour fell apart, with Zappa firing the band. He would never tour again, instead focusing his energy on writing scores, either for classical ensembles or for his Synclavier, and delving into his archives: the six-volume You Can’t Do This On Stage Anymore is a deep dive into his live performances over the past two decades. After a battle with prostate cancer, Zappa died in 1993.

Dying hasn’t slowed down the number of releases. In the almost 30 years since his passing, there’s been roughly one new Zappa release a year. Everything from Dance Me This’s avant-garde ballet to live concerts (Wazoo, Buffalo) to deluxe box sets has come out of his vaults in recent years. If nothing else, this steady stream shows how creative, hard-working and talented Zappa was during a relatively short professional career.

The Grand Wazoo cover

On this, the jazziest of his records, Zappa assembled a huge band - six woodwinds, five brass players and more - for several extended pieces of orchestrated jazz. Musicians are layered on top of each other, often doubling their lines, giving Zappa’s music a bombastic, big band feel, even in its trickier passages. But the key to this one comes in the second half, when George Duke delivers solos on “Eat That Question” and “Blessed Relief” that shine even on repeated listens. Zappa’s playing, meanwhile, is restrained and tasteful here, settling into a nice, laid back groove.

Weasels Ripped My Flesh cover

The Mothers may never have been the tightest band in the world, but when they broke up in 1969, they were definitely one of the most interesting, as this collection of odds and ends show. From the live improvisations of “Didja Get Any Onya?” or “Get A Little” to the greasy R&B of “Directly From My Heart To You,” and the stab at mainstream rock on “My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama,” this one shows Zappa and the Mothers at their most creative and interesting.

We're Only In It For the Money cover

In 1968’s We’re Only In It For the Money, Zappa and the Mothers take on naive hippies, corrupt cops and the fab four. Songs end suddenly, noise and classical music burst out of weird corners and, throughout, Zappa’s grinning sarcastically to listeners. Its cut-and-paste style was decades ahead of its time, and one can hear its echoes in Madlib’s productions. But although the album is decidedly experimental, it also has some of Zappa’s most memorable tunes: “Idiot Bastard Son,” “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” and “Concentration Moon” would all be in his sets for years afterwards. 

Sleep Dirt cover

Originally released as a contractual obligation, Sleep Dirt is one of Zappa’s overlooked gems. Bookended by lengthy guitar workouts, it’s a nice showcase for his development as a soloist. But the real meat’s inside: on a handful of songs featuring his 1974 group (“Time Is Money,” “Regyption Strut”) Zappa’s band shines. Songs are fully composed and layered with overdubs, but loose enough for the band to breathe and take short solos. And don’t sleep on the title track, a rare Zappa excursion on acoustic guitar. If you can, track down either the original vinyl or the 2012 CD: a re-release in the 1990s added unnecessary vocals and other effects.

Make A Jazz Noise Here cover

In 1988, Zappa set out on his final tour. With a band that included a whole horn section and several old hands, Zappa’s group confidently tears through the songbook. From the improvisations of “When Yuppies Go To Hell” to a blast through several old Mothers tunes or run-throughs of Stravinsky and Bartok,  Zappa’s music rarely sounded so polished. And unlike most of his later records, this one goes easy on the mean vibes and dated political posturing, instead focusing on this group’s talented and exciting playing.

Roxy & Elsewhere cover

In late 1973, Zappa brought Napoleon Murphy Brock into his group and almost immediately the entire vibe of Zappa’s music changed. Between his sax playing, improvised comedy bits and singing, he’s all over Roxy. But this group was also very tight: just listen to them tackling the tricky figures on “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing,” which climaxes with a tasty Duke solo and percussion duet. Zappa, meanwhile, gets to stretch out with a solo of his own on “Son of Orange County.” And everyone, even the audience, gets to party with the dance contest on “Be-Bop Tango.”

Hot Rats cover

In summer 1969, shortly after the final Mothers gigs, Zappa holed up in the studio with Ian Underwood and a cast of top-flight studio musicians (Max Bennett, Shuggie Otis, and John Guerin, among others) to make his first proper solo record. In a mix of tightly orchestrated compositions and loose jams, Zappa leaned into jazz-rock, making a “movie for your ears.” From the dense layers of overdubs on “Peaches En Regalia” to the lengthy solos on “The Gumbo Variations,” this is Zappa in full flight, showing both guitar heroics and a knack for melody. It’s an album both structured and spontaneous.