Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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Jazz played a bigger role in Zappa's next release "Hot Rats" (1969). It's an album sometimes referred to as jazzrock, not so much because it combines rock 'n roll with jazz, but because it uses electric as well as acoustic instruments. It's a carefully balanced album with six almost entirely instrumental pieces:
- "Peaches en regalia" and "Son of Mr. Green genes". Two relatively relaxed pieces.
- "Willie the pimp" and "The Gumbo variations". Tracks based upon a riff followed by extensive soloing.
- "Little umbrellas" and "It must be a camel". Complicated music with various interwoven melodic lines. Especially "It must be a camel" is harmonically versatile.
The album shows the synergy of the cooperation between Zappa and Ian Underwood. Ian Underwood made his first appearance on Uncle Meat and pleased Zappa by being able to play all kinds of complicated music, taking away some limitations Zappa had had to deal with earlier. Underwood got stimulated to reach the level he's demonstrating in his saxophone soloing in "The Gumbo variations". The majority of the parts of "Little umbrellas" and "It must be a camel" are played by Underwood, where Zappa is applying a lot of overdubbing.


1. Peaches en regalia

Hot Rats "Hot Rats" has two songs that have a scent of the classical sonata form for a single movement, namely "Peaches en regalia" and "Little umbrellas" (tracks 1 and 4). They both have repeated themes at the opening, which return at the end. In between is a block that has a more free variation set up, with new themes related in character to the opening themes (more on this subject in the "Orchestral favorites" section). "Peaches en regalia" main scale is B Dorian, but it's one of many examples with a multitude of modal scales passing by. For themes I and II Zappa is using 4/4 with standard rhythms. He continues in 4/4 for the third theme, but here the rhythm gets more complicated: an irregular form of a string of 16th notes with pauses in between them, followed by a syncopic bar. The set-up of the complete song can be followed in the Hot rats guitar book, using the block indications from their score:

0:00 Block A (bars 1-2 in the example below). Theme I in B Dorian.
0:21 Block B (bars 5-8 in the example below). Theme II in B minor. See also the Tinsel Town rebellion section for more details about this section, where it re-appears as "Peaches III".
0:41 Block C (bar 13 etc.). Third theme. This theme begins with a two bar motif in B Dorian. Hereafter this motif gets transposed twice, as D Dorian and F Dorian. Next you've got another motif in Db Mixolydian, followed by yet another motif in B Mixolydian.
Middle block
1:05 Block D. The song continues in an improvised manner. A melody is played over a I-II alternation in E, followed by a I-VII alternation in A Lydian.
1:34 Block F. A melody over a chord progression, using two different scales per bar and ending in G Mixolydian.
1:46 Block G. Chord progression in F, being I-V-IV.
2:05 Block H. Variation upon the material from block F, beginning with the first bar transposed down a minor third.
Return of the themes
2:16 Block I goes like block A.
2:35 Block J goes like block B.
3:37 End.

Peaches en regalia, themes A, B and the beginning of C (midi file).

Peaches en regalia, themes A, B and the beginning of C (transcription).

"Peaches en regalia" has become a Zappa classic in another sense as well. It's generally appreciated and Zappa recorded it three times. In 1971 Flo and Eddie did some of the parts vocally for the live version on "Fillmore East". Ten years later another live version appeared on "Tinsel town rebellion", called "Peaches III". To quote Zappa from the album liner notes: "It is called Peaches III because this is the third time I have released Peaches (En Regalia) on record...first on the Hot Rats album, then on Live At The Fillmore...but this version is so bizarre, I figure you wouldn't mind hearing it again". The bizarreness doesn't so much relate to the composed part as on "Hot rats", but more to the epilogue with the "Let's hear it for another great Italian" section followed by the concert ending lines. See the Tinsel town rebellion section for an outtake from this version. "Peaches III" has some extra counterpoint figures at the return of theme B, that also appear as pizzicato notes in the Ensemble Modern version on their "Greggery Peccary and other persuasions" CD from 2003 (see also the left menu). Image above to the right: Zappa during the recording of Hot rats (sample from the album cover).

2. Willie the Pimp

"Willy the pimp" is the only song on "Hot rats" with some lyrics, with Captain Beefheart singing during its opening. The larger part of this piece is taken up by Zappa soloing. In 1971 "Willie the Pimp" returned in a all-instrumental live version on "Fillmore East, June 1971", with Zappa playing another solo. The opening bars are included in this study.

3. Son of Mr. Green Genes

"Son of Mr. Green Genes" first appeared on "Uncle Meat" as just "Mr. Green Genes", at that point a song with lyrics. On "Hot rats" it's all instrumental. The theme and the soloing follow a chord progression all through:
- I-IV alternation in D Dorian.
- I-VI alternation in C, followed by IV-V-VI.
- Ending in Bb Mixolydian or Bb Dorian (both D natural and Db are getting used).
Ultimately, at the end of this piece, it's closing in D Mixolydian.

Guitar transcriptions from most parts from Hot Rats have been published as the Hot rats guitar book. Transcriptions by Andy Aledort. Hal Leonard publ. comp., Milwaukee, 2001.

4. Little umbrellas

In the case of "Little umbrellas", the sonata-like construction goes as:
- 0:00 Theme A, played twice.
- 1:05 Theme B.
- 1:12 Middle block.
- 2:17 Theme B returns.
- 2:31 Theme A returns.

Ludwig's study has the main melody of "Little umbrellas", whereas about 2/3rd of "Hot rats" got transcribed in 2001 by Andy Aledort (the "It must be a camel" section from below was published just before this release). Andy also includes the main melody of "Little umbrellas", but skipped the middle block. Apart from Zappa's own solos he doesn't include the overdubbed and improvised parts, other than by chord indications. For a cover band that could be enough. This section is about overdubbing and the midi files are intended to approach the exact album versions, so more details are included.

Little umbrellas, 0:36 till 1:16 (midi file).

Little umbrellas, 0:36 till 1:16 (transcription).

This first example below contains the repetition of theme A plus the larger part of theme B. The first two bars are accompanied by a Dsus2 and Fm7 chord progression. Both Wolfgang Ludwig and Andy Aledort are notating "Little umbrellas" in D minor. If you want to relate this song to any key, then D minor or Dorian is indeed the only option. The D-F movement dominates. You've got a lot of altered notes that way though. In the 4th pdf edition of this study I'm suggesting that the scale over the Dsus2 chord could be interpreted as D major, but after relisting I would like to withdraw that. The D chord I first notated should be Dsus2 and the bass line plays a C right from the beginning. So, without an F#, there's insufficient ground for doing so, and the C# in the melody should be interpreted as a chromatic note. Bars 5-6 have varying pedal notes and incomplete scales, so the scales can't be identified positively (it's also hard to hear each individual note here). The piano plays the extended chords in improvised arpeggio forms (staffs 2-3). Bar 7-8 don't follow a specific key. Bars 9-10 are stable again, here in A minor. The main theme is played three times, each time sounding different. The basic notes of the melody are identical each time, but the overdubs create a different harmonic climate in every repetition of the theme. In bar 11 of theme B the overdubbed line is playing a counterpoint line. It's getting chromatic here with only scale sections being used.

The middle block of "Little umbrellas" is a strong example of overdubbing, because Ian Underwood is playing three keyboard parts with individual lines. The bass is setting a pedal note per bar. The result is dense harmonies and counterpoint, difficult to transcribe. Next is a section from this middle block, between 1:20 and 1:35.

Little umbrellas, 1:20 till 1:35 (midi file).

Little umbrellas, 1:20 till 1:35 (transcription).

This middle block is built over an eight bar progression with a chord per bar, repeated twice, as indicated in Andy's songbook. Included above are the first four of these bars with the progression E-F#-G-A. Over these chords two or three melodies are played, moving freely through the scales, that change per bar (E, F# and G Mixolydian, followed by A minor/Phrygian). Thus the whole becomes to sound as a series of harmonic fields, blending all notes of a scale in each bar.

5. The Gumbo variations

The "Gumbo variations" is the largest piece on the album, 16 minutes in total, including extensive soloing. Its central theme is a two-bar riff, that gets varied upon a couple of times (see bars 9-10 of the first example for its introduction).

The Gumbo variations, 0:13 till 0:46 (midi file).

The Gumbo variations, 0:13 till 0:46 (transcription).

Motifs taken from this theme turn up during the sax solo as well as forming a returning element in the guitar accompaniment. It gets preceded by one of the many bass riffs that you can find in this song. During bars 9-14 this bass riff keeps playing against the central theme. The opening contains the principal chord progression that accompanies the lead melody and the soloing: G7-C-G, a standard progression with the dominant 7th chord resolving. As you can read in the "Real FZ book", Zappa didn't particularly like the idea of resolving chords, but he didn't oppose it altogether neither. You can see the same progression at the beginning of "I was a teenage maltshop" and as part of the "Cheap thrills"/"No, no, no" accompanying chords. For examples of the use of the dominant 7th both resolving and non-resolving , see the Frank Zappa songbook vol. I, pages 22-23 and 70. At the other side of the spectrum you have for instance the chord alternation from "Black napkins", C#m7-Dmaj7. Here the two 7th chords not only don't resolve, but change scales as well.
Interesting to see is the simultaneous use of two scales. The "Gumbo variations" start in G Mixolydian. This basis continues when the central theme enters the picture, but both this theme and most of the soloing are using a Bb instead of a B. So Zappa is here blending G Mixolydian and G Dorian.

The Gumbo variations, 9:40 till 10:05 (midi file).

The Gumbo variations, 9:40 till 10:05 (transcription).

This second example is a section from this song with the band modulating. It's the part with Don "Sugarcane" Harris playing an electric violin solo. In bar 4 the guitar plays a progression using Bb, setting the key more clearly to G Dorian. Max Bennett on bass comes up with another syncopic riff. He immediately modulates to D minor from bar 5 onwards by changing the pedal note. In bar 12 we're back at G Dorian with simply G as bass pedal.

6. It must be a camel

The overdubbing reaches a climax by creating a modern orchestral atmosphere in the intriguing part between 1:45 and 2:25 on "It must be a camel". I've transcribed 11 bars below. Because of its harmonic density the transcription can only be an approximation of what's going on. These bars are also an example of Zappa's search for rhythmic diversity. Within a 3/4 framework several varieties are being used. Several bars have syncopic figures, some bars have a subdivision into two, while bar 8 is straight.

It must be a camel, section (midi file).

It must be a camel, section (transcription).

Bar 1: Most sections begin with a little arpeggio chord. This section starts in A (major or Lydian) and almost immediately falls into an 13th chord by extending the A chord with a B and an F#.
Bar 2: In the second bar the key changes to G# Dorian. The changing of scales and the use of enlarged chords continue except for bars 9 and 10, which are normal and form a short break. In both bar 1 and 2 the parts are playing via counterpoint and harmonic complementary lines.
Bar 3: G Phrygian. The descant moves on with parallel fourths on beats 2-3.
Bar 4: F Aeolian. On the left and right channel you can hear two different strings of fast notes played simultaneously.
Bar 5: G Aeolian or Dorian. The last string from bar 4 leads to another extended chord. Some more parallel fourths lead downwards to bar 6.
Bar 6: Two extended chords alternate in a syncopic manner. For the remainder of this example there are no clear pedal notes anymore.
Bar 7: The opening chord returns a 16th note behind the meter line. Two other chords lead to bar 8, again in a syncopic manner.
Bar 8: The descant holds a chord, while the bass plays six triads as a series of plain eight notes.
Bar 9-10: The 3/4 meter gets subdivided into two. Here the descant is briefly using single notes instead of chords.
Bar 11: Yet again an extended chord, here with a tremolo on top of it.


Hot Rats In the LP era the length of an album and its format could sometimes be a problem. A contractual side was expected to last between 15 and 20 minutes, some minutes over 20 being possible. Since the latter diminished the sound quality, Zappa avoided that. Then the next size step from a single album was a double album. An EP or a blank side as a way in between never got popular. You can see that for strongly conceptual albums as "Joe's garage" and "Thing-Fish" choices had to be made. In the case of "Joe's garage" the story ends with "Watermelon in eastern hay", leaving still half of a side remaining. It was solved by including the "Little green rosetta" jam. For "Thing-Fish" the quantity of the play got between a double and a triple album. It could fit on a double album, but then you would for instance be forced to cut "The torchum never stops" into two. In this case Zappa made no concessions and chose for six short sides, shorter than normal. With the entrance of the CD this problem belonged to the past. Above: Frank and Gail, around 1969.
In the case of "Hot rats" the recording sessions resulted in a lot more than what's on the original album. In this case we later on got to hear the overflow unaltered. Normally Zappa would record the unreleased material anew, so that it would fit better on later albums. The additional material from the 1969 "Hot rats" sessions is:
- Chunga's revenge: Twenty small cigars.
- The lost episodes: Lil' Clanton shuffle.
- Hot rats CD: extension of the Gumbo variations sax solo.
Zappa continued to record with the musicians from "Hot rats" in March 1970. Among these recordings are:
- The lost episodes: Sharleena.
- Quaudiophiliac: Chunga's basement.

Twenty small cigars

"Twenty small cigars" from "Chunga's revenge" comes into this album directly from the 1969 "Hot rats" sessions. Other than "Sharleena" it wasn't rerecorded with the new band formed in the summer of 1970.

Twenty small cigars, opening (midi file).

Twenty small cigars, opening (transcription).

It opens with a piano introduction. Just as the "It must be a camel" example from above it contains enlarged chords (bars 1, 3, 5-7), alternating with normal 5th chords (bars 2 and 4). It's in E Dorian most of the time. The chord in bar 1, staff 1, is V 11th if you take the B as root. Again rhythmic complexities enter the picture, as the syncopic triplets movement in bars 5 and 6, gliding over a 3/4 basis. In bar 9 the main melody starts with one of the few instances of Zappa playing keyboard and guitar. It's a peaceful entirely instrumental song.

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