Zappa could jam and rock out with the best of them.
Though some of this material has been released before, The Roxy Performances represents the first official disc to fully showcase Frank Zappa’s celebrated 1973 mini-residency at the Roxy in Los Angeles, where he played two sets per night for two nights in December. In addition to these shows, the disc also features rehearsals, sound checks and sessions from Ike and Tina Turner’s “Bolic Sound” studio, where Zappa and the Mothers recorded much of Over-Nite Sensation, which was released in September of 1973, as well as songs that would be released in 1974 on his “solo” album Apostrophe (with many of the same musicians).
Some of the material—“The Idiot Bastard Son,” “The Dog Breath Variations,” “Uncle Meat,” “King Kong” and “Chunga’s Revenge,” for example—had by that time already appeared on Zappa records, as had “Big Swifty” from Waka/Jawaka and, of course, “Montana” and “I’m the Slime” from Over-Nite Sensation. Zappa signature tune “Cosmik Debris” would appear on Apostrophe and “Inca Roads” would appear on One Size Fits All, his last studio album with the Mothers.
This is to say that the Roxy performances, beyond the extraordinary and inventive quality of the music being played, not to mention the breathtaking technical ability of Zappa and his band, are also important as a document of the beginning of the end of an important stage in his career—a nexus of parody rock, jazz fusion, performance art and musique concrète. At this point, Zappa still has a foot in the idiom of ‘60s/‘70s rock, however much he is in the process of revolutionizing it, before departing in even more alienating and groundbreaking experimentation just a few years later, starting with Zoot Allures, having wiped the slate clean and left most of his former band behind.
Most interesting about this Roxy material, as Zappa fans know, is that many of the songs are ones for which there aren’t proper studio recordings. In other words, what we hear in these sets are songs that were honed, over a few years, for and through performance before live audiences, which gives the compositions a special energy. Many of these were featured previously on Roxy & Elsewhere, but the completeness and the cohesion of this box set is sure to make it the definitive document from this era.
The band, at this point, is stellar—drummers Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson, bassist Tom Fowler, keyboardist George Duke, percussionist Ruth Underwood, Bruce Fowler (Tom’s brother) on trombone and Napoleon Murphy Brock on saxophone and additional vocals—and seemingly capable of following Zappa anywhere, leaving an uncountable trail of notes in their wake.
The best of this material shows Zappa blurring the line between “song” and “composition.” Tracks like “Pygmy Twylyte,” “Penguin in Bondage” and “Erchidna’s Arf (Of You)” are exercises in self-interrupting groove, genre-less inventions bursting hither and thither with flights of fancy, running up and down the most unexpected scales, featuring an endless call-and-response between brass, percussion, guitar and keyboard. After a while, you forget who is supposed to be answering whom—the music itself begins to feel like a single self-interrogating consciousness.
Other marvels are the long, meandering “Dupree’s Paradise,” later recorded by Boulez, and the one-of-a-kind marvel that is “RDNZL,” which later found its way onto Studio Tan in 1978.
This box set reveals, beyond any reasonable doubt (as if there could be any doubt) that Zappa and his band, at one and the same time, and especially in this period, could jam and rock out with the best of them, while also sounding like a free-jazz marching band and writing music that even high modernism would accept into its ranks. And it is a reminder that, from him, the exceptional was the very least you could expect.