Frank Zappa: Jazz From Hell

Imagine the dismay on Frank Zappa’s face when he concluded that not even the London Symphony Orchestra could help him realize his dreams of being a classical composer. With an entire philharmonic at his disposal, their three-day recording session in early 1983 was a complete mess. Members of the orchestra were skeptical of Zappa’s work, the sessions ran short on time, and the resulting albums, London Symphony Orchestra Vols. I & II, required laborious editing to correct all of the ensemble’s out-of-tune mistakes. After years of smashing his head against the wall trying to corral flakey rock musicians into pulling off his sky-high musical ambitions, the classical world turned out to be the biggest joke of all.

Though employing the LSO might come off as needlessly opulent for most rock musicians, for Zappa it was a logical next step. Growing up in suburban Southern California, he had begun notating sheet music at 14, obsessing over Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky records and forcing his friends to listen to them after school to test whether they got it or not. Varèse in particular enthralled a young Zappa, both in the French composer’s unbounded embrace of new electronics and the way he deconstructed his rhythms to question the very nature of what constitutes music. He embodied everything hilarious and futuristic that Zappa wanted to achieve.

Of course, for an aspiring young musician, forming a rock band in your friend’s garage is a lot easier than assembling a chamber orchestra. But as Zappa climbed through the ranks of L.A.’s fried, shaggy underground scene in the ’60s and ’70s alongside his Mothers of Invention, he never shook off the habit of handling his band as if he were a conductor. Lined with twinkling marimbas and woodwinds, his albums were feats of studio wizardry that constantly seemed as if they were ripping apart at the seams. Whether he was stitching together tape collages on surreal opuses like 1969’s Uncle Meat, giving the prog bands a run for their money with the ornate rock symphonies of 1970’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich, or stirring together jazz fusion with big band arrangements on Hot Rats, he continually found ways to incorporate new, popular sounds while never fitting neatly into one box.

The only thing that could outpace Zappa’s pen was his desire to blow raspberries at the hypocrisies of American culture, and in his classically Californian way, Zappa always let his own need for personal expression steer the ship. His juvenile sense of humor wasn’t for everyone—even if he saw his greatest commercial successes when he put it front and center on albums like Apostrophe (’) and Over-Nite Sensation—and his jokes often teetered between harmlessly eccentric and tastelessly bitter. He used his songs to make a stand against the mass-produced counterculture of the day, and to call out what he saw as corporate-approved rebellion being packaged and sold to the brainwashed masses. He came off as a crank, but for every cynical loogie spat at hippies, L.A. scenesters, and anybody else he deemed phony, there was a guitar solo so rippling with feeling that it was impossible to deny his freewheeling spirit.

By the ’80s, however, Zappa had majorly cleaned up his image, trimming his mane and donning suits to go to battle against the censorship hawks in the PMRC and secure late-night spots lambasting Ronald Reagan on Crossfire. Though his eloquence in interviews made him a trustworthy advocate against conservatism in music, artistically he had found himself at a crossroads. After his scathing suburban screed “Valley Girl” shockingly became his biggest radio hit ever (and ironically helped to popularize the very stereotype it lampooned), Zappa responded by plunging deeper than ever before into classical music, as if to cement his identity as a real-deal composer lest his reputation forever be that of a mere novelty act. Thus the London Symphony Orchestra fiasco, whose two ensuing albums hardly lived up to Zappa’s high standards. He found slightly more luck with smaller ensemble performances, but with little commercial recognition, Zappa’s composerly prospects seemed dimmer than ever—until he got his hands on a Synclavier.

One of the first MIDI composition tools, the Synclavier was a breakthrough in studio synthesis that allowed users to sample sounds, create them digitally, and edit their compositions endlessly via a computer interface. It was a bulky, prohibitively expensive piece of equipment—mostly reserved for high-end studios—that nevertheless paved the way for the DAWs of today. As state-of-the-art as it once was, its dinky textures might now seem laughably primitive in all their rubbery simplicity (just listen to the first 10 seconds of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”; that cartoonish clang is how the Synclavier reproduces the sound of a gong).

Luckily for Zappa, laughter at his music was never anything to be ashamed of, and with the Synclavier he had finally found a way to wield a pocket symphony capable of creating songs he believed no human performer could ever replicate in a thousand hours of rehearsal time. (In interviews he proclaimed that if he’d had a Synclavier as a teenager, he never would’ve bothered starting a rock band.) “Right now we have a president from hell, and a National Security Council from hell,” he explained in a promotional video for his new album on which he’d showcase everything he could do with the new instrument. “So we should have Jazz From Hell, also.”

Compared to the warm analog Moogs and ARPs that dominated popular electronic music in the ’70s, Zappa’s MIDI tones on Jazz From Hell exist in a disembodied negative space. Live sampled instruments emerge from silence only to instantly vanish again, their tactile tone adding to the overall uncanniness. While some critics deemed this digital sound too cold and lifeless, the album’s half-rendered hooks and keyboard-locked rhythms now seem shockingly ahead of their time, predating much of the experimental electronic music that would come to define the 2010s. In its playful plasticity, Jazz From Hell prefigures the chintzy ideas of Oneohtrix Point Never, James Ferraro, Fire-Toolz, and even 100 gecs.

Throughout Jazz From Hell, Zappa becomes the brain-scrambling maestro he always wanted to be, calling back to the lush, snaking melodies of earlier instrumentals like “King Kong” and “Peaches en Regalia.” The album’s time signatures shift so rapidly that anything resembling a downbeat tends to catch you off guard. But that disorientation is precisely the point; “What are the physical limits of what a listener can comprehend in terms of rhythm?” he asked Sound on Sound in 1987, explaining how his songwriting process usually revolved around testing music theory concepts to see how far he could push them. “How big is the ‘data universe’ that people can take in and still perceive it as a musical composition?”

For all its complexity, Jazz From Hell is hardly a serious listen—it squiggles and dashes about like stock music that’s broken out of its cage, begging to find new ways to be played with. “Night School” launches the album with a pep rally whose bassline bounces as enthusiastically as workout music on the Wii Sports island. The song shares a name with an absurdist political talk show Zappa had been pitching around that time, and its punchy synths could easily make for a twisted version of a newsdesk’s “this just in!” theme.

Mischievous as it might be, there’s a surprising softness to Zappa’s songwriting that hints at the whimsical soul hiding underneath; you can hear it in the delightful keyboard that cruises up and down “Night School” before ending in a scattering of digitized pixie dust, and especially on the album’s central knockout “While You Were Art II.” As the track tumbles about in a cyclone of desktop tones, Zappa refuses to let any instrument settle into one place for even a second, yet amid the chaos its flutes and strings betray an almost sweet sense of curiosity. After a midsection that slows down to take a breath, the song roars back with a smorgasbord of ersatz slap bass and marimbas, swerving through a wondrous display of freeform silliness.

Save for the joyous “G-Spot Tornado,” the remainder of the album is more atonal, allowing Zappa to push his compositions into truly bizarre realms. On “The Beltway Bandits,” he slinks through a sinister jungle nightmare, while “Massaggio Galore” mutates vocal samples of Zappa and his children into something that sounds like a death metal band playing the Seinfeld theme. The title track represents some of the most esoteric music Zappa ever wrote, which is really saying something.

Jazz From Hell certainly doesn’t offer much to challenge the critics who accused Zappa of being too stiff. Committed though he may have been to expanding the possibilities of rock percussion, grooves were never really his thing. But he was overflowing with melody, and his love of live improvisation served to counterbalance all his tightly wound compositions. “St. Etienne,” the lone guitar track on Jazz From Hell, embodies this dichotomy: Taken from a concert recording of “Drowning Witch” from several years earlier, it floats in a jazzy, gaseous haze, clearing room for Zappa to fire off one fluttering lead after another. It encapsulates his approach to the guitar—virtuosic yet messy, a wild scribbler trying to make sense of his oceanic toolbox. In the song’s final minute, Zappa’s fingers begin to swirl around the upper neck of the guitar, blurring together into a golden shimmer of notes. In moments like these, you can see Zappa’s shroud of mockery dissipating away to let his fountainous ideas erupt forth all at once.

Against all odds, Jazz From Hell earned Zappa his first Grammy. Zappa responded by going on TV to question whether any of the voters had actually heard it. His congressional battles with Tipper Gore over censorship couldn’t prevent the album from being slapped with a Parental Advisory sticker in certain stores, though the music was entirely instrumental (the title of “G-Spot Tornado” turned some record store owners’ heads). In the following years he continued to work with the Synclavier, completing an entire other concept album that contained some of the darkest and most challenging music of his career. And he finally found an ensemble capable of bringing his classical compositions to life: The Yellow Shark, released in 1993, captured a concert by Zappa and the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern, in which Zappa conducted a program of selections from throughout his career with a group that respected and understood his craft. They even proved him wrong about humans being incapable of performing his Synclavier songs, closing out the setlist with a nimble performance of “G-Spot Tornado.”

A month after the release of The Yellow Shark, Zappa died from prostate cancer. Jazz From Hell was the last studio album he released in his lifetime, and in many ways, it is the culmination of his career: purposefully confrontational, proudly ridiculous, a winking ploy to force listeners to question their own boundaries and tastes. He had always been a composer trapped in the body of a rock star, and like the avant-gardists who inspired him, he didn’t always make music for regular rotation—his work lives just as much in the mind, assembling jungle gyms of logic, tugging at the limits of what constitutes rock, classical, comedy, sincerity, intelligence, stupidity. In diving headfirst into a new world of elastic artificial sound, Zappa found his calling, a concerto so willfully harebrained you can’t help but crack a grin.