Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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"Waka-Jawaka" and "The grand wazoo" were recorded during the same sessions. For "Waka/Jawaka" the set-up of the band is mostly like a smaller jazz combo. That this album can occasionally sound as a big band nevertheless is due to the frequent overdubbing. Sal Marquez for instance gets credited for "many trumpets" during "Big swifty". "The grand wazoo" can be more truly using a big band, a band with which Zappa also made a short tour. In full the band ultimately involved twenty members. Both 1972 jazz albums have extended solos as well as large composed sections. Several blocks are relatively stable in their use of keys. More like "King Kong" than the modernistic "Uncle Meat main title" and the "It must be a camel" examples from the preceding sections. "For Calvin" on the other hand is very versatile. Despite of the quality of these albums, Zappa has not become well known as a jazz arranger.

1. For Calvin

"The grand wazoo" opens with "For Calvin", a gentle melody in 12/8. The same meter appears in "Your mouth" from the previous section. The element of improvisation is handled differently in both songs. "For Calvin" begins with the main theme, prescribed for all, returning at the end. In between there's an interesting experimental improvisation block and a modernistic second composed block. "Your mouth" has just the lead melody prescribed, lasting all through. There's no improvisation block in this song, but the instruments are playing freely around the lead melody.

For Calvin, opening (midi file).

For Calvin, opening (transcription).

"For Calvin" is versatile in its use of scales. The instrumental opening bars don't follow a regular scale at all, the last transcribed bar is in E. In between the key note floats and the scales keep changing. "Your mouth" is more stable in this aspect, staying in C Dorian.

For Calvin, opening (score).

I included this example in 2005, but later on I came across samples from the original score. First this shows that Zappa had notated this piece in 3/4 with one of my 12/8 bars coinciding with four bars in 3/4. Secondly the harmonies of my bar 1, played twice, were originally written as wider:
Audible on record:
- descant melody: C-B-G#-E. The last E is part of a chord with also a C# and B.
- lower melody: D-C-A-B.
- bass: G#-F#-E-A.
- harmonic fill in: B and E.
Present in the score, but not (fully) audible on record:
- trombone #3: Ab-E-C#-A.
- keyboard: arpeggio chords, each played for two bars, subsequently A-Ab-B-C-E and A-A-B-C#-E.
Such divergence between the written scores and the album recordings happens all the time. The Uncle Meat section gives an overview. I can't tell what the whole original score would be like, whether now audible parts replaced written parts or whether parts got skipped. It does make clear that the opening is harmonically complicated. The whole is chromatic, but there are fragments of diatonic material to be discerned in individual parts. It is clear that the keyboard part got largely skipped. Not only for the opening bars (reduced to B-E), but also when the first theme begins.

In the score the theme from above is referred to as part I. The screenshot above this line is from the trombone #3 part of the second composed part. It starts at 3:57. Also this theme is all in 3/4, and harmonically quite complex, mingling chromatic passages with diatonic material. This part II encompasses the return of part I as a variation upon it.

2. The Grand Wazoo - Think it over - Another whole melodic section

The "Waka/Jawaka" and "The Grand Wazoo" albums were recorded during the same sessions. About every song has a different group of people playing and/or overdubbing. The number of persons employed during various songs is less than you might expect from the sound, that can be like a big band, also when there are only five people credited. Apart from the overdubbing Zappa used his musicians efficiently in the sense he give each one a different instrument with its own part or - when he doubled a part - the instruments would have to be indivually audible rather than melt together. In the transcription of "The grand wazoo" section below it's mostly one note one instrument. This is his normal approach to rock bands. Many producers however choose to record the same part with the same vocalist/instrument more than once, and then overdub it, or use a group of players to do exactly the same. It makes the sound more voloptuous, like the Abba singers becoming something like a two member choir. There's no right or wrong here, it's more a matter of taste. Paul McCartney hated what "wall of sound" producer Phil Spector did to "Let it be", whereas John Lennon stated he made something out of nothing.
Novelties on "Joe's domage" are "The grand wazoo" with lyrics and a second theme Zappa had in mind for this title track. He introduces it as "Another whole melodic section" before playing it on guitar with Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and considers writing out a sketch for the next meeting. As it turned out, it went unused for "The Grand Wazoo" album. Exposed below is a part of this theme, containing the central riff in bars 9-10, an irregular syncopic figure. Also presented is a section from "The grand wazoo" that starts with the tail of Zappa's guitar solo over the main vamp in D Dorian, that precedes the main theme block. The central theme starts in bar 13 and lasts four bars; the corresponding lyrics on "Joe's domage" are "If something gets in your way, just think it over". The transcription depicts four different harmonisations of this theme, not indicating the instrumentation. Because it's led over various instrument combinations the actual sound of its performance on "The grand wazoo" is of the big band type. This was carefully planned for as you can see down below in the corresponding "Think it over" bars. Zappa notated this theme four times note by note for each instrument, indicated as blocks A-D. The lead melody is in A minor. The bass keeps moving, being part of the changing harmonies, rather than giving a pedal, except for bars 17-18 and bars 25-26. Here the bass plays parallel with the lead melody. In bar 29 the second theme begins. This one also lasts four bars and gets repeated once, also in a different setting. It's a little sequence of three bars, followed by one closing bar. During this sequence a motif gets varied beginning a second lower each time, whereas the bass does the opposite by moving upwards with seconds. The descant of the motif follows a third, but the intervals (minor or major seconds) differ. It doesn't follow a specific key. Bars 37-38 are the first two bars of the third theme.

The grand wazoo, section (midi file).
Another whole melodic section, section (midi file).

The grand wazoo, section (transcription).
Another whole melodic section, section (transcription).

Samples from the original sheet music for "Think it over", as auctioned on internet in 2014.

Think it over, opening bars, #1 (midi file).
Think it over, opening bars, #2 (midi file).

Think it over, opening bars (transcription/score).

"Think it over" on "Joe's domage" is the predecessor of "The grand wazoo" title track, essentially the same song. As happens quite often in Zappa's output, the score and the CD versions differ in a number of ways. The midi file "Think it over, #1" represents the literal album version of "Think it over", while #2 corresponds with the album version combined with the keyboard score. The differences are:

- bars 1-4 of the score (bars 5-8 of the Grand wazoo example): the Grand wazoo vamp, later on used for soloing. It's a vamp of four bars in D Dorian. The first three bars are identical, the fourth is a minor variation. On "Joe's Domage" the chord progression is I-IV. The original score prescribes an improvised harmonic fill in, following Dm11. On "The grand wazoo" this song begins with soloing over the vamp for over a minute.
- bars 5-8 of the score (bars 9-12 of the Grand wazoo example): on "Joe's Domage" bars 1-4 repeat almost identically. The score prescribes a different progression, namely using the chords D-9 and Eb7. The second chords means that Zappa evades from the D Dorian scale to a scale with four flats, thus pretty different from the Dorian scale with all notes being natural. For the midi file #2 I'm assuming that the lead melody also plays a Db, or maybe an Eb, instead of a D, otherwise it would get dissonant. I only have page 1 of the keyboard part of the original score in a legible size, so I can't tell for sure how the entire score goes.
- bars 9-12 of the score (bars 13-16 of the Grand wazoo example): first theme. Other than on the 1972 album release, you're here having this song with lyrics. The bass line for the keyboard part goes a bit different from the bass guitar on "Joe's Domage", but the chords are pretty different. The score prescribes F2add3 - Em11 - Dm11 - G2add3 - Em9, followed by Eb7 - Gm9 for bar 12. On album none of these chords are played like that, it's a simple F - Em progression sounding in the background. Again the Eb7 chord is evasive and, for the midi file #2, again I'm assuming the lead melody plays along with this.
- bars 13-16 of the score (bars 17-20 of the Grand wazoo example): repetition of the first theme in a different set-up. Bars 13-14 of the score, as well as bars 17-18 and bars 25-26 of the Grand wazoo example, are the part of the first theme where you can say that it's in A minor. The melody has A as the central note and in these bars it gets supported by an A pedal by the bass. This does not happen in the "Think it over" version on "Joe's domage". That version can hardly by assigned to a specific scale.

Blocks A-D in the score are the four different set-ups of the first theme (bars 13-28 of the Grand wazoo example). Block E corresponds with bars 29-36 of the Grand wazoo example. Bars 37-38 of this example represent the beginning of block F. Block I is reservated for a guitar solo, lasting 16 bars. On "Joe's Domage" you're getting at:

Think it over, guitar solo section (midi file).

Think it over, guitar solo section (transcription).

For the live performances of 1972 the solo sections often got complemented with figures and chord progressions for the brass section. In this case an upgoing chord progression of triads during bars 4-8. See the "D.C. Boogie" example from the next section - bars 7-9, staff 3 - for an example of a figure. Such movements and figures were probably indicated on the spot during rehearsals, as well as the rhythm section vamps. Here it's simply D pedal. The scale is predominantly D Dorian, as at the beginning of this composition, but D Aeolian also gets touched upon. In bar 5, beat 2, bar 7 beat 4 and bar 11, beat three, a Bb is used. This is a recurrent feature in Zappa's music, happening too often to interpret this as incidentally altering notes. He frequently mingles closely related scales. See the Guitar section for an overview of the examples that you can find in this study.

3. Cletus awreetus-awrightus

As mentioned above, transcriptions of the lead melodies from most tracks from "Waka/Jawaka" and "The grand wazoo" can be found in the Ludwig study (see the references from the left menu). In case of "Cletus awreetus-awrightus" on pages 261-2. This lead melody suffices for exposing the structure and rhythm of the main themes. For identifying the keys, one has at least to listen to the harmonies too, sometimes also the improvised parts. I've supplemented these melodies to a complete score for bars 1-18.

Cletus awreetus-awrightus, opening (midi file).

Cletus awreetus-awrightus, main themes (transcription).

While "Cletus awreetus-awrightus" is stable in 4/4 without rhythmic complexities, the keys are changing a number of times. The structure is one with a multitude of themes:
- 0:00, bars 1-3. Theme one in A. Bars 1 and 3 are regularly in A, while bar 2 features quite some altered notes. The bass and brass players are following a chord sequence: A-Bm-C#m-Dm-C#dim5-Bdim5-A.
- 0:04, bars 4-9. Theme two, a sequence of motives, nominally in G Dorian. This time the bass and brass section are playing the same melody with parallel octaves. The harmony is formed by the keyboard parts (staves 1-2). Bar 9 is used to modulate to E Mixolydian.
- 0:12, bars 10-15. Theme three, made up of three phrases:
Bars 10-11: chord progression with the bass and descant moving in opposite directions and using different notes. The first chord, for instance, is the D chord by the descant with an E beneath it. Combined the total harmony is Dmaj9, without the 7th.
Bars 12-13: sustained Bm chord, letting the key move over to B Dorian by switching the pedal note.
Bars 14-15: abrupt modulation to Db. Zappa applied both smooth modulations between closely related chords, sometimes with a pivot chord, and sudden modulations like this one. It causes a surprise effect.
- 0:21, bars 16-18. Theme four, a figure of one bar in E, repeated twice.
- 0:25, bars 19-21. Theme one. The themes return, but harmonized differently.
- 0:30, bars 22-27. Theme two.
- 0:38, bars 28-31. Theme three.
- 0:44, bars 32-37. Theme five, played twice.
- 1:01: variation upon theme four.
- 1:07: playing around a chord progression, being C#-Bb-G. It's a parallel movement of three major triads, causing modulations per chord. The scales are Mixolydian each time, but with different bass notes as keys. See also my discussion of "The idiot bastard son" in the YCDTOSA Vol. II section for how such parallel movements can cause key changes.
- 1:29: improvisation over a I-VII alternation in E Mixolydian.
- 1:51: continuing with a I-VII alternation in C# Dorian.
- 2:02: another variation upon theme four.
- 2:07: themes 1-3 return, again in different harmonizations and with vocal parts (without words).
- 2:49: theme 4 is used as the coda for this piece. This time the final bar ends with a C# minor chord, as if theme four should now be re-interpreted as being in C# minor.
- 2:57: end.

4. Eat that question

"Eat that question" from "The grand wazoo" (1972) has a four bar riff in E Dorian as its basis. It introduces a keyboard solo, followed by Zappa on guitar, and it returns at the end of the song. Here this riff is represented with the brass harmony during the closing of this piece. This harmony blends the D and A chords, the combination being Dmaj9.

Eat that question, riff, end of the song (midi file).

Eat that question, riff, end of the song (transcription).

Before the riffs enters the picture, George Duke plays a keyboard intro without any accompaniment by others. At 0:34 the riff is to be heard first with refined harmonies, played on two keyboards and deliberately non-synchronous. At 0:44 the band joins in. In 1987 the band played this piece in a similar way, though without the solos, to be found on "Make a jazz noise here".

5. Blessed relief

In case of "Blessed relief" the modulation scheme goes as presented below. The lead melody and chords can be found in a lead sheet I encountered on the net. It stems from a collection of jazz examples from the seventies, including three pieces by Zappa (this one, "Peaches on Regalia" and "Son of Mr. Green Genes"). Possibly they were copied from a lead sheet by Zappa himself (it's very accurate).

Blessed relief, lead sheet.

Left above on the lead sheet this piece get labeled as a "Jazz waltz" (the whole composition is in 3/4).
- 0:00 Intro. Improvisation over a I/II alternation in Bb Lydian.
- 0:27 Theme A, F major. For the last bar the E of the melody and chords from the previous three bars becomes an Eb. This goes for both the bass pedal note and the chord. Thus an altered chord or a mingling of F major and F Mixolydian.
- 0:40 Theme B, Bb Lydian.
- 0:53 Theme C, Bb Lydian.
- 0:53 Theme D, four bars in A Dorian, followed by four other bars in G Dorian.
- 1:12 Block E. Solos. Every four bars the following scales alter in this following order:
F# Dorian - E major - F# Dorian - E major - A Dorian - G Dorian.
- 6:17 Themes A-D return.
- 7:10 Variations upon the intro, now used as outro.
- 8:01 End.

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