A Celebration of the Life and Music of Frank Zappa – The Yellow Shark

Various, arr. Mitchener
Wild Imaginings
The Yellow Shark

The Roundhouse Music Collective [Wild Imaginings]

London Contemporary Orchestra
Hugh Brunt

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 November, 2010
Venue: Roundhouse, Chalk Farm Road, London NW11

Frank Zappa (1940-93) performing in Ekeberghallen, Oslo, on 16 January 1977. Photograph: Helge ØveråsHis death 17 years ago robbed the musical world of a true original – a musician as visionary as he was provocative – and it was fitting that the Roundhouse, now reclaiming its status as a centre for the iconoclastic, hosted this three-day event to mark what would have been Frank Zappa’s 70th-birthday.

This programme got off to a distinctly equivocal start with Wild Imaginings – a 15-minute medley-cum-mêlée of “music that influenced Zappa” given by the Roundhouse Music Collective, a nine-piece band something between a would-be Spontaneous Music Ensemble and the Living Time Orchestra on helium. The panoply of Zappa predilections – Stravinsky, Webern and Varèse rubbing shoulders with free jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop – was touched on in its course, but the rather slipshod nature of Leon Mitchener’s arrangements made for listening instructive only insofar as it was unpredictable.

More worthwhile was a performance of Intégrales that followed Gail Zappa’s address from the stage. Varèse’s archetypal work, its often explosive interplay of woodwind, brass and percussion was heard to advantage in the Roundhouse acoustic, which did not pre-empt the often greater intimacy of the closing stages. Hugh Brunt directed a gripping account that, while not without its rough-edges and occasional imbalances of ensemble (and the brief but pungent boogie interpolations really needed to swing more), had the measure of the music’s uniquely visceral fusion of the archaic and the modern.

The London Contemporary Orchestra returned after the interval for The Yellow Shark – put together in 1991 by Zappa out of new and existing compositions for performance by Ensemble Modern, and which (save for the Civilization: Phase III epic) was the last major creative project he lived to realise. A project of this nature was always intended to be something of a moveable feast and while the LCO did not perform all 19 numbers featured on the album (in itself an incomplete ‘record’ of the overall project), the 12 that were heard here gave a convincing overview of its strengths and weaknesses.

The full forces were in action for the irony-tinged subtleties of ‘Dog Breath Variations’ that segued effectively into ‘Uncle Meat’, big-band music that savours the genre it simultaneously pillories, then the Boulez overtones of the string quintet ‘Times Beach III’ were underlined as deftly as were those of Stockhausen in the wind quintet ‘III Revisited’. A luminous rendering of the ensemble number ‘The Girl in the Magnesium Dress’ explained just why this was Boulez’s favourite Zappa piece, while ‘Be-Bop Tango’ had more than a nod towards George Russell. The study in maximal Minimalism ‘Ruth is Sleeping’ was elegantly rendered by pianist Antoine Françoise, prior to the bracing ensemble numbers ‘None of the Above’ and ‘Questi Cazzi di Piccione’, itself followed by the hectic rhythmic workout of the string quintet ‘Times Beach III’. An atmospheric study in translucent (not wholly white-note) harmonies and lambent textures, ‘Get Whitey’ is not perhaps the best but surely the most intriguing of these pieces in its indication of where Zappa the composer might have been headed. ‘G-Spot Tornado’ then rounded things off with its bracing rhythmic and ensemble pitfalls that Brunt and the LCO took in their stride.

In its sheer stylistic variety, The Yellow Shark is an ideal introduction to those classical-type projects that occupied Zappa’s later years, and fully warranted its inclusion here. The LCO dispatched it with visible enjoyment, as it did the encore of ‘Be-Bop Tango’ that garnered further enthusiastic applause.

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