This is the second of the “50 Albums to Christmas 2019” series.
It’s difficult to find a way in to Frank Zappa’s music. You find one of the easy-in compilations like Strictly Commercial, like it and then decide to try one of his actual albums. But which of the 112 stretching across 27 years of work to try next? Classic Jazz fusion? The later more satirical albums? Something more orchestral that shows his love of Berlioz? One of the sprawling live albums? What’s first on the menu? Why not try Hot Rats? Mmm tasty.
The second solo album after deep-sixing his band The Mothers of Invention, Hot Rats came out in 1969 and has the feel of a man creating pieces to audition the instruments at his disposal. And experimenting with a new style of music - the long-form jazz fusion jam. Oh, and trying out every new way to abuse a 16-track recording studio. It’s a brave new world of a record that has the added bonus of delivering actually good music. Established jazz standard Peaches en Regalia opens the record with a clean intro to a clean guitar and ensemble. Willie The Pimp doubles down Zappa’s dirty guitar with additional dirty vocals courtesy of Captain Beefheart. Son of Mr. Green Genes is clean guitar and keys, a rearrangement of Mr. Green Genes from an earlier Mothers album, and the piece de resistance is the near 17 minute Gumbo Variations, all squealing sax and violin. Coltrane mixed with a messy Stephane Grapelli courtesy of Ian Underwood and Don “Sugarcane” Harris. Truly the centerpiece of the LP.
I’d love to have been the bass player on Hot Rats. Not for the legendary all-in-one recording sessions that Zappa’s albums generally got made in, but because you could witness the energy, the playfulness and the genius in the music and its playing as it was being recorded. It’s plain to hear on the record, it must have been astonishing in the room. Hot Rats is 50 this year and it’s being toured and played in full by Frank’s son Dweezil to whom the album is dedicated. It’s the nearest thing to being there we’ll ever get.