TANGOS BY FRANK ZAPPA

The american composer Frank Zappa wrote two tangos during his career, the "Be-bop tango" and the "Sheik Yerbouti tango". Tangos have characteristic syncopic movements in a 4/4 or a 2/4 meter, as well as melody formations and instrumentations that can be associated to the tango style. The tango as a dance had some reputation for being erotic, over which Zappa dwells in his preambule on "Roxy and elsewhere". The "Sheik Yerbouti tango" is a guitar solo over a typical tango progression all through. It appeared on the commercially succesfull double album "Sheik Yerbouti" from 1979 (image to the right).

Sheik Yerbouti tango, opening (midi file).

Sheik Yerbouti tango, opening (transcription)

The "Be-bop tango" opens with specific tango bars, followed by the theme itself in bar 9. When this theme enters, the be-bop element starts to dominate, with untraditional harmonic progressions and irregular rhythmic groupings. The tango theme opens with the figure George Duke later on sings on the "Roxy" version with the text "This is be-bop, even though it doesn't sound like it". The "Be-bop tango" today exists in four versions. For the more complex songs for his rock band Zappa would normally write out a one or two staff lead sheet. There was no point in adding the instrumentation or further details, because the composition of the band was on a permanent change. Who specifically would play which notes would be determined during rehearsals and for each tour Zappa would add in extra bars or alter some bars. The main tango melody in all "Be-bop tango" versions is the same, the differences lie in the additions and the solos. On the first two occasions this tango was incorporated in a larger piece called "Farther O'blivion", the "r" in farther added by the ZFT to make a difference with the "Apostrophe (')" song of the same title. It is performed this way on "Imaginary diseases" and the "Piquantique" bootleg. On "Imaginary diseases" it's played relatively slowly by the 10-piece "petit wazoo" band. At the end of 1972 Zappa formed what would become known as the "Roxy" band. During the fall of 1973 this latter band hand been playing the tango for some months, so the tempo could be speeded up, most specifically on the "Roxy and elsewhere" live album from 1973 (image below). The "Farther O'blivion" tango had a straightforward 4/4 opening with a syncope during the 4th beat. The opening on the "Roxy" album however goes as:

The be-bop tango (Roxy, 1973), opening (midi file).

The be-bop tango (Roxy, 1973), opening (transcription)

On "Imaginary diseases" and "Roxy and elsewhere" the tango is followed by a trombone solo by Bruce Fowler, a normal jazz improvisation over a vamp of its own. The solos on "Piquantique" are more extensive and different in character in the sense that the solos remain more close to the tango idea. Not only the tango vamp keeps being played, the solos are as well using phrases that stem from the written theme. The sound - distorted clarinet, electric violin and guitar - is remarkable. It's a pity this version is only available with bootleg sound quality. This Stockholm concert was filmed for TV and I was quite surprised to see a copy on YouTube with a normal sound quality (bootlegged as well, I guess). The "Piquantique" version is of interest as well for the return of the theme in a different shape, played on marimba by Ruth Underwood (click here for a still from the YouTube copy). She was the only band member who wouldn't perform solos:

Farther O'blivion: the be-bop tango (Piquantique, 1973), section, 13:56 through 14:36 (midi file).

Farther O'blivion: the be-bop tango (Piquantique, 1973), section, (transcription)

This variation for marimba is made up of the same notes as the main theme, but various beats get played half speed, whereas most pauses get skipped. The "Roxy" version then continues with the be-bop tango dancing event, where people are invited to dance to the ultrafast be-bop notes sung by George Duke, instead of the ongoing pedestrian beat. For the 1992 version for The Ensemble Modern Zappa returned to the original opening bars as on "Imaginary diseases". Now all parts got fully scored out and instrumentated:

The be-bop tango (Ensemble modern, 1993), opening (midi file).

The be-bop tango (Ensemble modern, 1993), (notes)

The scores of the lead sheet (published in 1984) and the 1993 version have been analysed extensively and extremely detailed in a academic dissertation by William Morris Price called "An analysis of the evolution of Frank Zappa's Be-bop Tango". William describes this piece as a multi-scale composition, rather than atonal, pointing at many melodic cells that can be related to the use of scales and larger extended "be-bop" chords as augmented 11th chords. The construction of the tango is put under a magnifying glass, showing what order exists in something what at first hearing can seem chaotic. The study can be downloaded via http://etd.lsu.edu/docs/available/etd-12092003-121423/. It includes the complete (reduced) score, spread out over the various pages. The permission by Gail Zappa to do so is included. Though the 1993 be-bop tango version is on the verge of being atonal, the idea that this tango was composed as a multiscale composition gets corrobarated by the marimba variation in the "Piquantique" version. Here the accompaniment is performing a progression that more or less coerces a tonal climate upon the piece.


The Ensemble Modern plays Zappa (photo by Allegri film/VPRO)

First a quote from William Price's analysis of the 1993 tango (pg. 142): "The first sonority in bar 9, Ab-C-D-Eb (or an Ab major triad with a raised fourth), is the most important sonority in the Be-bop Tango; it is used as the home key area [...]. The raised fourth can be analyzed as a common tone held over from the previous Bb major triad with a raised fourth, Bb-D-E-F [...]. Additionally, when the Bb major triad, Ab major triad, and their respective raised fourths, E and D, are combined they form the Ab Lydian collection [...]."
William's dissertation is specific for the 1993 version. In the transcribed "Piquantique" bars it goes on differently and far more straightforward. In bars 7-8 the accompaniment plays the C7 chord. It's possible to combine the melody with this accompanying chord as an enlarged chord of C Myxolydian. A-G-A-Bb ("This is be-bop") with the root C in the bass can be seen as I 13th. The chord and the septuplet in bar 9 form the string C-(D)-E-F-G-Ab-B, something of a mix of C and C minor. Beats 2-4 of bar 9 are a normal I 5th chord. In bars 10 through 15, the harmony is making a parallel down and upward movement, the root note going from C to Bb to Ab etc. In bar 13-14 you can also see a variation upon the earlier "This is be-bop" phrase. One can go on almost indefinitely pointing at characteristics in Zappa's compositions this way and the William Price study actually does so for over a 100 pages for the Be-bop tango. Many people will find such material unreadable. The benefit from it is that, no matter how unorthodox a composition is, when it sounds coherent it's always possible to detect why.

External links for tangos in general:

Tango Afficionado
Ernesto's tango page

This page is part of a much larger study by Kasper Sloots about the music of Frank Zappa. Follow the links below for "Roxy and Elsewhere", the section that includes this tango page, or for the main menu of the study.