Frank Zappa's musical language

Frank Zappa's musical language

A study of the music of Frank Zappa

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When hiring the players for the "Waka/Jawaka" and the "Grand wazoo" sessions they were informed that it was Zappa's intention to do a small tour afterwards. It proved to be difficult to find a suitable time schedule for everybody taking part. All players were session musicians who had to take their other contractual obligations into consideration as well. The only possibility for a big band tour proved to be eight venues in Europe and the U.S. in September 1972. Twenty musicians took part of it. The ZFT released the final Boston concert with this group in 2007 as a double CD, called "Wazoo". Just for its sound and composition of the band it's unique. At the time the audience got presented with music mostly unknown to them ("The grand wazoo" album was still upcoming). The majority of the material has become known in other versions afterwards. Today there are no unreleased compositions in the setlist; it's the different arrangements and settings that make it an interesting show.

Greggery Peccary mvt. I interlude - Variant I processional march

In the case of "Greggery peccary", the music got played in four movements of modern music. Most rock band parts, to be found on "Studio tan" (1978), aren't included here, though the booklet accompanying the CD makes clear that the story of "Greggery Peccary" was completely existent in 1972. See the Studio tan section for the correspondance between these two "Greggery Peccary" versions. The fact that the version here lasts 32 minutes, a lot longer than the "Studio tan" track, depends upon the two third component with improvisations. These improvisations are taking place in prearranged environments. Zappa himself describes the second half of the first movement as an interlude with 16th notes. It's made up of variations upon a theme given by Zappa, strictly in 4/4 and indeed with 16th notes. It starts softly with just two instruments playing around the theme and ends with the whole band all doing their own variations. The example below is taken from somewhere in the middle starting at 3:46. In the 4th printed edition of this study I identified this episode as E Dorian. By itself it can be called that way, but after relistening to it in a wider context, I think it can better be seen as in D. There's a descending bass line G-F#-E-D and at various point the accent lies on D.

Greggery Peccary mvt. I interlude, fragment (midi file).
Variant I processional march, opening (midi file).

Greggery Peccary mvt. I interlude, fragment (transcription)..
Variant I processional march, opening (transcription).

imaginary diseases In the second movement the climate for the improvisations is determined by an accelerated bolero type vamp, to be followed by a tango vamp. In the third movement the improvisations start off with something that gets called circular breathing: everybody playing slowly in the same key, thus forming coincidental harmonies, that keep shifting. Gradually a minor second movement moves in as a vamp, best known from the James Bond theme. Next this movement itself gets varied upon on guitar. The piece presented as "Variant I processional march" is an earlier version of "Regyption strut" from "Sleep dirt". This one begins with some 20 seconds of march music. Other than "The little march" from "Run home, slow", this march is a parody. It's in strict 4/4 with a stereotype accompanying figure. This figure implies that the key is C# or C# minor. No other part is playing in this key, or in any key, consistently. So you're getting some sort of a cacophony, that, as a short prelude, proves to be funny. The march wasn't a separate piece added as an intro to the main melody. It was literally composed this way, as the original trombone and guitar parts show, that I encountered on internet (samples are added to the transcription). The "Regyption strut" melody, as we know it from "Sleep dirt", starts in bar 9. More about "Regyption strut" in the Sleep dirt section.

Imaginary diseases

For the remainder of the fall of 1972 Zappa continued with a small tour with a selection of ten persons from the previous "Wazoo" band, visiting a dozen cities in Canada and the U.S. He selected and mixed the recorded material between 1972 and 1977. These pieces by what has become known as the "Petit Wazoo" band only recently got released by the Zappa Family Trust in 2006 as "Imaginary diseases", filling in a conspicuous gap in the Zappa history (CD cover to the right). Listening to it, it becomes peculiar why Zappa himself has released nothing of it. It was all new compositions at the time in 1972-1973, and partly still is today. There would have been enough on the tapes for editing a single album, and why not a single part of it got included in the YCDTOSA series from the eighties is even more inexplicable. Next are two sections from "Imaginary diseases", consisting of a two-minute theme for brass players and rhythm section followed by a five minute guitar solo before the theme gets repeated.

Imaginary diseases, section #1 (midi file).
Imaginary diseases, section #2 (midi file).

Imaginary diseases, section #1 (transcription).
Imaginary diseases, section #2 (transcription).

The first example contains the first two themes in A Mixolydian. The second example begins with a variation upon the first theme with the band playing it in full. It's followed by a gentle bass theme, that serves as a bridge between the opening block and the ensuing guitar solo. In bar 11 the band modulates to B Dorian. In bar 13-14 the bass plays just B pedal, for the remainder of the solo it follows the vamp from bar 15.


The now earliest available version of Rollo is also present on "Imaginary diseases". This composition had to wait for "YCDTOSA Vol. I" for its first release. By then it was already in its fifth shape. These are subsequently available on the following releases:
1) Imaginary diseases (recording year 1972).
Already known to the bootleg collectors, the Rollo track on this album is a shortened version. It started with a sung section, followed by "Rollo interior" (see 2) and a solo by Tony Duran. Only then the album version starts. This sung section did get officially released on the 2016 "Little dots" CD by the ZFT.
2) St. Alphonso's pancake breakfast (1973).
The second instrumental half of this piece is known as "Rollo interior", composed separately (see the next section for a block from this piece). It can be played as an independent song or in combination with "Rollo". The bootleg versions of 1) explain the word interior: it was intended to be played between the sung part and the instrumental block.
3) Quaudiophiliac & One shot deal (1975).
The opening below shows how "Rollo interior" relates to "Rollo". The first motif of "Rollo interior" is a variation upon the opening bars 1-3 of "Rollo". The second motif from "Rollo" (bar 5) returns slightly different at the end of "Rollo interior". The corresponding lyrics on "St. Alphonso" are "saint al-phon-so". "Rollo interior" can be considered a large through composed character variation upon the first motif, an ongoing string of 16th notes in 4/8 or 8th notes in 4/4, depending upon how you're notating things. "Rollo interior" itself isn't present on this version. This one has an opening block with Zappa playing a solo. It begins with a theme in Bb Lydian (bars 1-4 and 13-16). Bars 5-12 are in a different scale without a clear key note. The lead melody in staff 1 plays the progression D-Em-Em-G, while the others do D-C, thus playing against it and enlarging the total harmony. The solo is in E Dorian.

Rollo (Quaudiophiliac), opening (midi file).

Rollo (Quaudiophiliac), opening (transcription).

4) Saturday night live (1978).
A TV appearance by Zappa's band. This is the only version that contains "Rollo interior" and "Rollo" combined.
5) YCDTOSA Vol. I (1979).
Here "Rollo", without "Rollo interior" and a solo, is used as the finale of the so called Yellow Snow suite (tracks 1-4 from "Apostrophe (')"). It has lyrics added to the earlier material.

D.C. boogie

Both "D.C. boogie" and "Montreal" are guitar solos within a preset framework that incorporates the brass section at various points. The construction of the first half of "D.C. boogie" goes as:
0:00-0:23: introductory bars. The solo spreads out an eastern atmosphere by its strong pedal note scent. Both Tony Duran on second guitar and the bass guitar keep plucking on the D note.
0:23-3:43: solo in D Mixolydian.
3:43-4:35: Tony moves from D pedal to a two chord alternation. The transcription begins with the last two bars with both the second guitar and the bass playing D pedal. From bar three onwards Tony drops the pedal note and begins playing chords. This is a sign for the brass to join in gently with a figure (bars 7-9) and to fade out several bars later again. The bass guitar keeps playing D pedal with a lot of 16th notes.

D.C. Boogie, 3:37-4:04 (midi file).

D.C. Boogie, 3:37-4:04 (transcription).

4:35-5:27: The bass goes down an octave with longer notes. The drummer starts beating 16th notes consistently on the bass drum. For the brass this is a sign to come up with their second figure in the background. At 5:06 Zappa turns on a vibrato effect for his guitar for a while. Shortly hereafter the brass draws back.
5:27-6:53: Everybody calms down for the coda. Zappa starts playing around chords. At 5:53 he has reached his final chord. The brass is filling this chord in with various complemental harmonies, thus creating a series of extended chords. At 6:37 the bass and Zappa take the lead again when the brass is playing its final bar. At 6:53 the second half of the song starts, when the audience gets to vote about how to end this song. They go for boogie, but the band must have been prepared for other responses as well.

Farther O'blivion

In 1972 and much of 1973 the band played a medley of three songs with the title "Farther O'blivion". Zappa introduces it this way on "Imaginary diseases". The difference between pronouncing "Farther O'blivion" and "Father O'blivion" (without an r) is hardly audible. On the Beat the boots CD "Piquantique" it's titled "Father O'blivion" and at first I thought that the addition of the r was something the ZFT had come up with to make a difference with "Father O'blivion" from the "Apostrophe (')" album, an entirely different piece. But in 2013 I encountered a piano part of this piece in Zappa's handwriting with the title "Farther O'blivion" above it. So it was Zappa himself who wrote two different pieces with almost the same title. The medley consisted of three pieces with solos between them:
- The "swifties, such big swifties" part from "Greggery Peccary". The opening part of this section gets presented below.
- Tuba solo.
- "The be-bop tango". See the Roxy and elsewhere section for this piece.
- Trombone and drum solo.
- "Cucamonga". See the Bongo Fury section for this song (including an example taken from the 1972 "Farther O'blivion" version).

Farther O'blivion, opening (midi file).
Farther O'blivion, piano part (midi file).

Farther O'blivion, opening (transcription/score).

This transcription of the opening follows the bar numbering as used in the piano part. Apparently the piano enters at bar 13. This piano part wasn't actually played on "Imaginary diseases", that has no keyboard player on it. It's something that happens quite often when you compare Zappa's written scores to album versions: he was always adapting or changing his material. The opening goes as:
- bars 13-19: 3/4 subdivided into two. The lower bass F alters with Bb, the key being F Dorian. Zappa prescribes the Fm9/11 chord or I 11th from F Dorian for the piano. On album you have VII in staff 2 and IV 7th in staff 1, combined creating VII 11th, if I'm hearing it correctly. Thus Zappa specifically wanted an enlarged chord here to sound through bars. Inclusion of the piano would lead to the whole scale sounding (I 13th).
- bar 20: 3/4 on beat. A couple of melodic notes lead to the central motif.
- bar 21: a 3/4 bar subdivided into two again. It contains the central motif: II-I in F Dorian for staff 1. In staff 2 from the piano part you have the I chord sounding all through this bar, thus Zappa is here mingling I and II. Almost the same happens in staff 2-3 from the album.
- bar 22: the meter changes to 4/4. The I chord keeps being held for most of this bar, while the bass plays a little melodic line.
- bar 23: a series of thirds gets played over the I 7th chord. The rhythm follows triplets.
- bar 24: the rhythm now becomes syncopic. The descant and bass alternate, with the bass using a Gb as an altered note (both the piano part and the album version include this Gb).
- bars 25-26: bars 21-22 return, only slightly different.
- bars 27-28: a series of 5th chords, with the rhythm stated predominantly via triplets. At the beginning of bar 27 the lead melody shortly continues in a lower register. The D alters to Db. There's no clear key note for these two bars. At the end a modulation to E Mixolydian gets prepared.
- bars 29-32: 3/4 again. The bass is playing the upwards movement again with a 7th as interval, as in bar 19, now starting with E. The key has become E Mixolydian. Zappa precribes the Bm11 chord or V 11th from this scale, the chord you also hear in staffs 1 and 3 combined in the transcription. The chord continues being held for these four bars, so obviously it gave space for the guitar (or someone else) to solo. Staff 2 represents this guitar line (pitch notation as it sounds).
- bars 33-35: switch to C Mixolydian. Once more you see the bass moving upwards a 7th, now starting with C. The guitar solo from staff 2 simply continues in this key. For the piano part Zappa notated Gm11. Unless I'm missing notes, on album it's more the plain C chord.
- bar 36: the first Fsus4 descant piano chord is not taken over at all by the other instruments on album. So bars 35-36 on album might just as well be notated as 4/4 followed by 2/4 instead of two times 3/4. The bass line from beats 2-3 leads us back to the main motif.
- bar 37: third instance of the main motif, now shortened to only one bar, thus without prolonging the I chord for another bar.
- bars 38-40: large sequence of chords for the lead melody, all in a triplet rhythm. It starts off in F Dorian, but soon becomes chromatic. The lead melody is using minor and major thirds, fourths, and - in the piano part - also fifths as intervals for the upper descant part of the chords, so in every aspect these bars are much irregular for their harmonies. In bar 40 the music lands in what might become F# Dorian.
- bars 41-44: The piano part indeed turns to F# Dorian, starting these bars with a lower F# for the bass staff, followed by an E played via syncopes. For the band version it's the other way round for these two notes. The F# appears only once as a higher starting note. Next the bass turns to a lower E and stays there (bars 41 and 42, beat 1, are included in the transcription). So here it's E pedal and the scale becomes E. Zappa didn't prescribe a lead melody for these bars, so here's another opportunity for the guitar to solo, as represented in staff 1 in the transcription.

Little dots

With "Little dots" the ZFT released a third selection with the jazz band playing live. It's a sequel to "Imaginary diseases" with a whole lot of improvisations around vamps, pedal notes and the blues scheme. The composed parts are "Cosmic debris", "Rollo" and the opening of "Little dots", one page of unreleased music. The CD centers around an episode in Columbia, S.C., when the drummer and a horn player got arrested just before the show for taking drugs. Instead of cancelling the concert, Zappa asked Maury Baker to take the place of the drummer. Maury played with Tim Buckley's band, the opening act for Zappa's "Petit Wazoo" tour. Now more than ever the band had to rely upon the improvisations, coming out pretty well on the "Columbia, S.C." track. Part I of this title was entirely improvised on the spot with only some brief indications by Zappa. Part II is using one of the vamps. It shows how easy Zappa could adapt to circumstances during the first half of his career. Something similar happened during the shooting of "200 Motels" with the bass player leaving. The "200 Motels" section from this study shows that scores could be changed on the spot to facilitate the recording if there wasn't enough rehearsing time. In the eighties this policy changed to almost the opposite. In 1984 the production of "Sinister footwear" had become costly, going way over budget (see the Them or us section). Still Zappa didn't find its recording good enough to put it on CD. Many would find the performance acceptable. Instead of finding a new player and reducing the program, in 1988 a whole leg of a tour was cancelled when the bass player was forced to leave.

Little dots

The CD has one page from "Little dots" printed on the inner sleeve. It's for trumpet #1, addressed to as section "D". In total it comprises 28 bars, of which the image from above is an outtake with bars 13-20. Here you can see that Zappa is experimenting with the rhythm as a musical parameter. The pitches of the smaller notes, the "little dots", are fixed, but their durations aren't made precise. By looking at their position within a bar, the musicians could approach the rhythm. This idea is similar to "Approximate", where Zappa did the same regarding another musical parameter, namely the pitches (see the YCDTOSA II section for examples). In case of "Approximate" the rhythm was fixed and the pitches could be approximated.

Little dots #1, bars 13-19 (midi file).
Little dots #2, bars 13-19 (midi file).

Little dots #1, bars 13-19 (transcription).
Little dots #2, bars 13-19 (transcription).

This interpretation applies to this sheet music version only however. It's more a rule than exceptional that Zappa's scores differ from their album releases. On the CD this composition appears in two different versions, not only among themselves, but also compared to the score. First at the beginning of part 1 and secondly at the end of part 2. It's partially undoing the rhythm experiment as described above. This is sometimes puzzling, complicating the analysis of Zappa's music. It's not only the conclusion of this study that it's virtually impossible to form theories about Zappa. Even if you would come to an in-depth analysis of only one piece, you have to take into account that this analysis might apply to one specific version only. Some other tapes or scores could turn up, necessitating a differentiation of your analysis. The two CD executions, next to the score example, make it possible to say more about "Little dots". I've limited myself to describing bars 13-19 only.

Common denominators
- All meters in any version are 4/4 with the drummer leading with beating standard 4/4 (and/or possibly Zappa directing).
- The tempo on CD is fast (the score has no tempo indication). I'd guess as fast as possible, which is the cause of why it sounds erratic in a positive sense. The bars from above last twelve seconds.
- During bars 14 and 17-19 the players are playing prescribed notes (or pausing), though with some freedom, being sustained notes and a 10-tuplet. Zappa also carefully notated the changing dynamics of the sustained notes, something you can hear happening on CD.
- Bars 13 and 15-16 are irregular.
- During the second half of bar 15 most players pause.
- Everything is atonal.

- Apart from the D flat, the written trumpet part is not recognizable on CD. Neither the pitches or the durations of the little dots from the score are played like that on album. With only one sheet, it's not possible for me to construct a midi file of the score version of "Little dots".
- Other than the score with its little dots suggests, the players are following the 4/4 meter during bars 13 and 15. Even their rhythm can go synchronous. The notes and rhythms from version #1 and #2 are completely different. It's not possible for me to say to what degree these parts are prescribed.
- In bar 16 you can see all these differences as well, but the rhythm is pretty irregular. The players aren't following 4/4, nor are they playing their rhythms synchronous. It's all just irregularly positioned on top of each other. So here the idea of the little dots, with their durations to be approached, comes out the best.

Houtrusthallen concertLeft: advertisement by the "Muziek Expres" magazine for Zappa's big band concert at the Houtrusthallen, The Hague, The Netherlands. It's the September 17th venue from 1972, the same concert as the ticket stub in the Wazoo booklet stems from. Source: flyer for the Doelenensemble Zappa concert (2011).

Link for various documentation about the Wazoo bands, collected by Charles Ulrich: Zappa's big band projects from 1972. Charles apparently lobbied for releasing live material from 1972, getting thanked for his effort by the ZFT on both "Imaginary diseases" and "Little dots".

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