Jazz in Mexico today: a beginner's guide

Filulas Juz

Patrick McMahon offers a guide to the thriving jazz scene in Mexico, including a list of artists to listen out for. You can enjoy most of these tracks in our Apple Music playlist 'Mexican jazz today'

When thinking about jazz from Latin America, how often is it that Westerners will think of Mexico? In fact, the country sends a steady stream of talented musicians to the prestigious US music colleges and has produced a number of internationally successful players. Two immediate examples are Antonio Sánchez, who regularly plays drums for Pat Metheny and composed the acclaimed soundtrack for Birdman (2014), and Tino Contreras, who has been touring and recording around the world since the 1960s.

The capital Mexico City is fostering an active jazz scene that is increasingly popular and exciting, which, as one of Latin America's most important cities, benefits from hosting many international musicians both passing through and settling permanently. Venues such as Zinco Jazz Club, Parker & Lenox and Casa Franca ensure there are numerous options for seeing jazz pretty much every day of the week in the city. Having seen so much great jazz here, I have put together a playlist of 10 pieces for Jazzwise readers that shows off some of the interesting music groups currently based in Mexico, which range from straight-ahead jazz quartets to marimba ensembles and modern electronic jazz groups.

Filulas Juz – 'V.R.H.'

Probably one of the most exciting and original jazz groups in Mexico at the moment, Filulas Juz combine together an eclectic range of modern timbres, grooves and even sound objects in their music. The result is a unique sound that evades categorisation with just one genre label. 'V.R.H.' is from their most recent album 3773, a carefully crafted collection that smoothly flows between each singular piece through intricately produced interludes. The group come from Querétaro, a city not far from the capital in the centre of the country, and they are gradually building up a following of fans who are intrigued by the group's inventive compositions and captivating live performances.

Héctor Infanzón – 'La Chipita'

One of Mexico's highly renowned jazz pianists, Héctor Infanzón has enjoyed a successful international career as a composer and performer. Currently based in his home town Mexico City, Infanzón studied at Berklee College of Music in 1985 and has shared the stage with such jazz greats as Wynton Marsalis. His album Citadino (2007) features the piece 'La Chipita', which is based around a pulsating afro-Carribean groove that makes a great base for Infanzón's solos. The album is filled with interesting tunes centred around these syncopated Latin-Caribbean feels, and neatly exhibits Infanzón's tight arranging skills and his virtuosic playing.

Diego Franco Quartet - 'No Tiemblo, Vibro'

Diego Franco is a young and promising saxophonist and composer who is already renowned on the jazz circuit in Mexico City. Born to a musical family, Franco originally trained in the country's second city Guadalajara before moving to the capital in search of more opportunities to perform and develop. His quartet have formed a really fresh sound where straight-ahead grooves suddenly morph into hip hop beats and warm ballads pick up into energetic Latin feels. A great example of this is his piece 'No Tiemblo, Vibro', which translates as "I Do Not Tremble, I Vibrate", where after nearly six minutes of energetic racing the quartet slip back into a slick groove that is well worth the wait.

Le Monqué Spazzuah - 'Cherry Trees'

If you have been wondering what a group that describes itself as 'panic nu-jazz' sounds like, then look no further. La Monqué Spazzuah come from Toluca, the capital of Estado de México, and have been popping over the state border to unleash their music on Mexico City jazz clubs for the last several years. Although they move between all kinds of different feels and grooves, the tracks which really stand out are those that ferociously jolt through uneven time signatures, such as 'Cherry Tree' from the album T3RC3R MUNDO (2015). Largely based around a 5/8 rhythm, Le Monqué Spazzuah perform this piece with a relentless intensity that demands the listeners attention, ringing true with the band's bold self-labelled genre.

Tambuco - 'El Devenir de la Noche'

There is not exactly a surplus of pieces written by jazz composers for percussion quartets, but after hearing 'El Devenir de la Noche' you might start to wonder why it is not done more often. Tambuco are a GRAMMY nominated percussion ensemble from Mexico who have performed and recorded with such acclaimed groups as Kronos Quartet and The Michael Nyman Band. Héctor Infanzón wrote the piece 'El Devenir de la Noche' especially for this group, which was released on an eponymous album that included compositions for seven other ensembles. Tambuco's performance stands out as the most intriguing on the album because of its unusual instrumentation of four marimbas, which blend seamlessly in and out of one another as they hammer out Infanzón's fast interlocking rhythms and colourful harmonic changes.

Xuc Trio - 'Little Tikes'

Xuc Trio (pronounced 'suc') formed a few years ago in Mexico City, and have developed their own distinct sound that delicately balances between being technical and accessible. Led by guitarist Juanjo Gómez, the trio pools together some great musical talent from the city, who are inventive with the limitations presented by playing a mixture of funk, groove, jazz and rock with just three musicians. Their album Semillas de Copinol confidently crosses through lots of different genres without the listener ever forgetting who is playing, and also captures the exceptional communication between the players that is so evident when seen live.

Xinto - 'Tricoma Son'

Son jarocho is the folk music of Veracruz, one of Mexico's states that sits along the Gulf of Mexico. Xinto is a project that aims to place this traditional style within a jazz context to give it a new edge. Folk melodies are superimposed over odd time signatures and extensive solos are given to instruments like the jarocho requinto, resulting in a unique type of jazz that is saturated in Mexican identity. Different players are invited to each concert, and occasionally the third wall is broken by asking audience members to come up sing their favourite son jarocho tunes, making each of their performances a fresh experience.

Alex Mercado Trio ft. Scott Colley & Antonio Sánchez - 'Wise'

Alex Mercado has attained a tremendous reputation in the Mexican jazz scene for his impeccable technique and inventive soloing, making him one of Mexico City's jazz giants. Another Berklee trained musician, Mercado began playing on cruise ships and teaching music before establishing his international career. He can now be found on the lineup of such prestigious festivals as North Sea Jazz, although is still a regular on the Mexican jazz circuit too. 'Wise' was released on his album Symbiosis (2014) and features the renowned players Scott Colley and Antonio Sánchez as its rhythm section. Opening with a growling bass riff in 5/4, 'Wise' is a great demonstration of Mercado's remarkable creative talent and improvisation skill, which soars as the piece develops.

La Orquesta Vulgar – 'Mambo 38'

Although this lively group of young musicians have not been playing for long, La Orquesta Vulgar have already built up a strong following in Mexico City and a reputation for putting on a good show. Its members are alumni from various music schools in Mexico City, who combine all their different tastes and musical interests together to form their energetic jazz-influenced music. The spirited playing by the group's drummer, Luis Flores, is a real highlight of their shows, as can be seen in their live performance of 'Mambo 38' for Cicuta Records.

Vladimir Alfonseca Trio - 'Modí'

You know that you are listening to Vladimir Alfonseca as soon as you hear his incredibly soft, warm tone enter. Some of his other pieces use a nylon-stringed classical guitar, and it is not hard to hear how his electric tone is a subtle imitation of that soft classical timbre. Having initially studied at Escuela Superior de Música, Alfonseca went on to further study composition and arrangement, and is now a regular performer in Mexico City. His piece 'Modi' sees his mellow timbre placed into an intricate, complex arrangement that sweeps in and out of different metres and time signatures, resulting in a unique sounding piece that is both driven and delicate.

Patrick McMahon completed his bachelor's degree in music at the University of Sheffield in 2016, and since August 2017 he has been living in Mexico City. As well as researching some of the traditional styles of music from Mexico, Patrick has been playing with local musicians and scoping out the best jazz that's being made there.

Jazz drumming and the vision of Jonathan Barber

Kay Shackelford introduces a bold new force on the jazz drumming scene: Jonathan Barber

When listening to Jonathan Barber, there’s an earful of innovative and thoughtful rhythmic execution that causes pause. Barber is technically well groomed, focused and a little fussy over what drum products will deliver the ‘right’ sonic landscapes from his drum set. In addition, Barber is far from self-limiting as it relates to contributing to the musical conversation between jazz and postmodern music. He’s delving into new trends in the realm of electronic drumming, and his open-mindedness is paying off. Recently Modern Drummer Magazine asked their readers this question: "Who is The Up and Coming drummer of 2018?" The results came in and Barber took home the celebrated award. 2018 also marks another milestone for Barber as he will release his debut album, Vision Ahead, which is also the name of his band. The album comes out May 11, 2018.

The 28-year-old drummer is performing a lot, and is often pegged by notable jazz musicians. Barber has provided time keeping for Marcus Strickland, JD Allen, Jeremy Pelt, Terrace Martin, Stanley Jordan, Erykah Badu and the list goes on. In between gigs, the very driven Barber is back in New York, hosting late night sessions at the prominent Small’s Jazz Club in Greenwich Village.

Recently, Barber was chosen to be an artist for Sunhouse, a company that specializes in sensory percussion. He is featured in multiple videos that showcase Sunhouse products, such as the Galactic Brine collection, an assortment of twenty kits with a total of over 2000 sounds. The videos featuring Barber have become viral on social media, and shows the greatness that millennial drummers have to offer. Creating new possibilities in artistic expression for today’s drummer, Sunhouse’s “modern take on electronic drums” has also been employed by many contemporary and inventive drummers such as Marcus Gilmore, Antonio Sanchez, Mark Guiliana, and others. Yet Barber’s recent success is far from superficial.

It was personal tragedy that forced Barber into a new dimension of life resulting in illuminative choices concerning his band, career, and also propelled him to write more. “Two years ago in November 2016, I lost my brother unexpectedly. I didn’t have a name for my band. And I really wanted a name – I didn’t want it to be just The Jonathan Barber Quintet. So I was searching for a sound and a brand if you will. So once that experience happened, I went through the obvious emotions of being devastated and hurt, but after I took some time away from the scene, the phrase Vision Ahead was like a light bulb that went off in my head.”

Barber’s band have navigated together through personal and professional changes during the years. This close relationship has resulted in a winning brew of musical synergy. “For about 6 years the band has been playing together. The group consists of myself, pianist Taber Gable, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, and bassist Matt Dwonsyzyk. We all went to The Jackie Mclean institute of Jazz at The University of Hartford. From that college experience, it really formulated a sound and chemistry. We watched each other develop, pushing and influencing each other musically. And we also moved to New York together.”

Looking to bring a new ‘colour’ and a person to challenge the band with their ability, Barber sought out saxophonist Godwin Louis about two years ago, who completed the talented group. Barber says the chemistry of the group is “undeniable.”

Vision Ahead’s collective musical dexterity shines through on the album’s first release, a cover of Eldar Djangirov’s “Airport” which also features Barber on vocals. The piece is a good start to get to know his work. “Airport” has lyrics that provide wisdom about living a successful life which I would say stems from Barber’s personal faith journey, and some tasty guitar work by Andrew Renfroe. While in New York, Barber met Djangirov, who is a jazz pianist and leader of The Eldar Trio, when both were a part of JD Allen’s album recording of Grace. From there, Barber and Djangirov kept in touch, and he even accompanied Djangirov on a Midwest tour.

However, it was while watching Djangirov’s trio perform “Airport” on YouTube that a deeper affinity for Djangirov’s work occurred. Djangirov’s technique and harmonic idiom on “Airport” entranced Barber. “I was like, “Wow, what is that.” I was a fan of his work already but ‘Airport’ really captured me. That style was different from most of the work he’s known for. When I first heard the song, I felt the vibe and pulse so strong and the melody was so singable. Eldar played 8th notes chords on his left hand while playing the melody on his right hand. It was rhythmic, and had elements like playing the drums. ‘Airport’ became one of my favourite songs and when I was on a plane, the lyrics came to me. I just kept writing, writing, and writing. After writing the lyrics and presenting it to the band, I asked who’s going to sing it? And my band was like – you!”

The album Vision Ahead features twelve songs with eight original compositions by Barber. You will also find the treat of sensory percussion on the tracks “Statement of Vision,” “Time Will Tell,” and “Carry On.” The album also features vocalists Denise Renee and Sasha Foster.

All aboard the Blue Note at Sea jazz cruise

Jon Newey experiences the unique musical possibilities of the Blue Note at Sea jazz cruise

It’s early Monday morning on 29 January and the day has dawned surprisingly clear. Overnight the grey, moderately choppy seas of the Windward Passage twixt Cuba and Haiti has calmed considerably to welcome a hazy blue sky, threaded by whispers of high cloud and cushioned by flat, tranquil waters. Time then to drop anchor at the Hispaniola Peninsula on Haiti’s north coast, the very spot where Christopher Columbus ran aground on Christmas Day 1492. Nowadays a palm fringed private tourist beach and coral reef known as Labadee, this was our initial port of call, after a day and a half at sea, for the musicians and passengers on the Blue Note at Sea 2018 cruise to hit dry land and soak up some warm Caribbean rays.

The night before, Blue Note records’ president and cruise co-host Don Was had introduced two stellar performances by the Chick Corea Trio featuring the remarkable Cuban bassist Carlitos Del Puerto and drummer Marcus Gilmore, the grandson of Roy Haynes. In relaxed but focused form Corea contrasted immaculate taste and bubbling tension on a taut repertoire, ranging from his own ‘500 Miles High’ and ‘Anna’s Tango’, to a homage to his key influences including Bill Evans, Bud Powell and Duke Ellington, pushed by this expansive and empathic rhythm section. The pianist had warmed up the night before guesting with bass giant Marcus Miller and his band, the centerpiece of which was a magnificent Miles Davis melody featuring trumpeter Russell Gunn, which ranged from ‘If I Were A Bell’ to ‘All Blues’ and ‘Jean Pierre’, and closed on a passionate duet of ‘When I Fall in Love’ with Miller on bass clarinet.

(Chick Corea: 'contrasted immaculate taste and bubbling tension on a taut repertoire')

But hey, this was just the opening 36 hours of Blue Note at Sea, which had already packed in standout performances from Dee Dee Bridgewater and her soulful Memphis Yes I’m Ready show as well as José James’ imaginative reworkings of Bill Withers’ songs, drummer Kendrick Scott’s impressive Oracle, featuring Lionel Loueke, Marcus Strickland and Aaron Parks, and intense sets from Ambrose Akinmusire and Russell Gunn as the Celebrity Summit liner sailed for seven days around the Caribbean islands of Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas’ Nassau and Cococay.

Now in its second year, Blue Note at Sea is run by Entertainment Cruise Productions, who’ve racked up two decades’ experience of producing jazz cruises. It’s a veritable jazz festival at sea where this vast cruise ship is given a jazz makeover, including the main stage and five performance venues, club spaces, bars and quality restaurants, with over 70 musicians, multiple sound crews and three piano tuners on board to entertain, excite and educate 2,000 jazz loving passengers. ECP produce this cruise in association with the Blue Note record label and Blue Note jazz clubs, and executive director Michael Lazaroff, who began the company with his mother, Anita Berry, a jazz cruise agent, is deeply immersed in providing a jazz experience like no other.

“We’ve done almost 80 full ship charter cruises, most of them jazz, starting with The Jazz Cruise in 2001,” says Lazaroff over coffee in the ship’s Café al Bacio. “This is the same straightahead Jazz Cruise that sails next week for the 19th consecutive year. We have a Smooth Jazz Cruise too, that started in 2004, but I’m a jazz fan and I wanted to do a cruise that is more contemporary. I couldn’t think of a name, then I met Don Was when his band, Was Not Was, played our 1980s-themed cruise. We started talking and Blue Note records encompasses a broader range of music and has wonderful credibility, so we came up with Blue Note at Sea, and Stephen Bensusan of Blue Note jazz clubs also came on board, so we had this kinda tri-partite production going on.”

(Ambrose Akinmusire delivered a tense set and also collaborated with Aaron Parks)

Marcus Miller has had a longtime involvement with the jazz cruises too, both as a performer and host. “Marcus has been the mainstay of our cruises for a long time,” says Lazaroff. “He has been the host of all our Smooth Jazz Cruises and now the Blue Note Cruises. Marcus has a credibility among all the musicians and has all the elements that are important in this particular event. We try to provide people with an immersive jazz experience. If all we did was present jazz concerts at sea then there would be no reason for people to spend the money because they can see these musicians elsewhere. But what they can’t do is see them in the intimate settings and many different collaborations over the cruise week. Our music director, [saxophonist] Eric Marienthal, takes these artists and sidemen and creates an additional programme of duos, trios and other new line-ups that gives us a lot more music.”

It’s this particular aspect that gives Blue Note at Sea its unique platform and atmosphere, with a genuine sense of community and shared values among both musicians and audience. At regular jazz festivals the musicians arrive, play the concert and split. Here they are on board all week, which gives a fertile opportunity for jams, one-off collaborations, Q&A sessions, workshops and a chance for passengers to chat with the musicians.

“I love these collaborations, and I heard Aaron Parks and Ambrose Akinmusire play together earlier and they just have to make a record,” Don Was tells me as we sit watching the waves after his captivating Q&A audience session. “There’s something about being on the water, the motion and looking at the water going by that has healing properties that are similar to meditation. Looking at the water is meditation, and it puts you in a conducive state for listening to music.”

The evening before, Charles Lloyd and the Marvels, featuring Bill Frisell, Reuban Rogers, Eric Harland and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, played two utterly hypnotic performances on the main stage. Opening up with an ominous interpretation of Dylan’s ‘Masters Of War’, an apt choice given the worldwide rise of bullying, authoritarian ‘strongman’ leaders, Lloyd’s forceful dark probings are given a spacey edge by Leisz’s soaring textures, while Frisell takes Lloyd’s flute-driven ‘Tagore On The Delta’ deep into the mystic. In his 80th year Lloyd is reaching new levels of spiritual beauty and Don Was, who produced the Marvels’ I Long To See You album, was equally blown away. “Charles loves the pedal steel and the Marvels draw on the textures and sounds he grew up with. When they segued from ‘Shenandoah’ into ‘Forest Flower’ it was unbelievable.”

Other highlights of Blue Note at Sea, and there were indeed many, included an expansive piano trio set from Robert Glasper; the fizzing urgency and imagination of the Blue Note All Stars with Glasper, Loueke, Strickland and Akinmusire; the David Sanborn band hosting the nightly Blue Note Club sessions with Geoff Keezer, Wycliffe Gordon, Billy Kilson and guests: Lalah Hathaway debuting tracks from her upcoming album, and Dr Lonnie Smith’s Trio hitting a sublime Hammond B3 groove where spiritual funk meets psychedelic jazz. But let’s leave the last word to Mr Was, whose feel-good presence, along with co-host Marcus Miller, permeated this unforgettable jazz at sea experience. “I find being here incredibly soothing and you add to that the jazz festival on board and I fucking love it. I don’t want to get off, and if I didn’t have a session in Miami with Lonnie Smith I’d stay on as a passenger for The Jazz Cruise which happens next week.”

To find out more about next year's Blue Note at Sea jazz cruise, please visit: www.bluenoteatsea.com

Classic interview with Hugh Masekela: “Hey, instead of rhythm and blues, how about ghetto and Bach?”

In 2010, Hugh Masekela, the great South African musician and an inspiration in the cultural and political struggle against apartheid, spoke candidly to Jazzwise's Marcus O'Dair about his continued to fight against the exploitation of the poor and the danger big business posed to the future of the planet. (photo by Tim Dickeson)

“To me,” says Hugh Masekela of the sporting spectacle that recently focused the eyes of the world upon his country’s football stadia, “the international perception, the media perception, is very Marie Antoinette. Let them eat football, and everything will be OK. But that’s not how life works, not after 400 years of turmoil and conflict in South Africa. The country cannot eat football. It was great: the mood was fantastic, it was the best time I think South Africans had ever been together. It’s over now and we’re back to square one.”

His words, delivered – from under a flat cap and over a cognac – on the verandah of an Islington hotel, come not even a month after the end of the World Cup. Yet while international visitors flew home the moment the vuvuzelas fell silent, life for South Africans continues as before. Masekela doesn’t even agree that his country will benefit from improvements in infrastructure brought about in anticipation of the tournament.

“Whose infrastructure?” he asks, rhetorically. “That’s the question. If you fix the highways and the urban centres, and you build a few stadiums, does it improve the quality of life for the other 30 million who are dirt-poor, who are not even reached by the mirth? I mean, they saw it on television, they listened to it on the radio. But it was cake. The only person that was absent was Marie Antoinette.”

Masekela, now just into his seventies, made his name in South Africa a full half century ago: first in the hit musical King Kong, then as a member of the truly seminal Jazz Epistles, the first jazz group in the country to record an album. Yet that act’s career was cruelly truncated by a massacre in the township of Sharpeville, in which the police killed 69 black protestors and injuring many more. Some were shot in the back. When the African National Congress and the Pan African Congress responded by declaring a new policy of armed struggle against the apartheid regime, the government, desperate to prevent a full-scale uprising, placed a ban on all public gatherings. The Jazz Epistles national tour had to be pulled.

Masekela left the country almost immediately, having bribed an official with a bottle of brandy in order to obtain a passport. From this point, he began to emerge on to the international stage. He performed at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, played with Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Miriam Makeba, and toured the world with Paul Simon’s Graceland project.

As well as releasing classics such as ‘Stimela’, inspired by the coal trains he heard as a child, he gave the world its most prominent anti-apartheid anthem in ‘Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)’. The tune was apparently written on the spot after receiving a birthday card from the ANC leader, smuggled out of prison, in 1985. Years earlier, Masekela even topped the American charts with the feelgood instrumental ‘Grazing In The Grass.’

‘No one group is privileged by nature to oppress another. And if anybody can’t see that, they are mentally deranged’

Yet as well as his virtuoso trumpet and flugelhorn playing and rich singing voice, Masekela’s reputation has long been based on his political views. His vocal opposition to the apartheid regime kept him out of South Africa for a full three decades; he believes he was under FBI surveillance during that time, even in the United States. During that period, family members who had remained at home were hassled by the authorities, while living in conditions he describes as “horrendous… not too far from Nazi Germany or Pinochet’s Chile.”

We all know of specific incidents of apartheid horror: the 1976 massacre in Soweto, for instance, in which perhaps 500 were killed. Journalist and film-maker John Pilger, in his 2006 book Freedom Next Time, details the everyday humiliations that did not make the headlines, including the case of a Robben Island prisoner buried up to his neck and urinated upon by a prison officer, before having his exposed head kicked and punched. Less violent but no less sinister, Pilger also witnessed attempts by the Race Classification Board to divide the population into strict racial categories by assessing hair, eyes, teeth and skull-shape. Such methodology could be described as Kafkaesque – except, as Masekela himself suggests, there is a horrific, real-life precedent in the quasi-scientific hunt for Jews in 1930s Germany.

Masekela was able to return to his homeland only following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990 – after 27 years in prison. To many outsiders, that momentous event, together with the advent of democratic elections four years later, effectively marked the end of South Africa’s troubles. Yet in a previous interview, conducted in the same hotel three months previously, Masekela told me that the emotions triggered by his homecoming were deeply complicated: “It was heartbreaking to see how much more damage had been done to the country, beyond what had been done when I left 30 years before. The population had quadrupled. Society had changed very much.”

“The borders opened, so everyone – from Eastern Europe, Asia, and all over Africa – came to South Africa. They all came to those neighbourhoods, along with the people from the South African hinterland. It was a whole new population that had nothing to do with how the social structure had been before. It was overrun. And the law, the government, didn’t seem to show interest at the time in that loss. It wasn’t a priority for them.”

In 1996, Masekela even had to close his own club, Hugh Masekela’s J&B Joint, “because they started mugging [the customers].” Anyone who has visited South Africa will know that, even today, fear of crime remains high – particularly outside the postcard-friendly centre of Cape Town. Such problems are inevitable, perhaps, in a country in which millions, as Masekela says, remain dirt-poor. What’s shocking, however, is the extent to which the distribution of wealth seems still to follow racial lines. Pilger goes as far as to suggest that apartheid has not died but instead simply manifests itself through economics.

Though vocal in pointing out the problems that continue to blight his country, however, Masekela is also passionately defensive of his homeland. He refuses, for instance, to compare it with post-independence Botswana, where he spent time in the 1980s.

“I don’t compare countries, because I live in a world of music that takes me all over the world. I don’t recognise borders. In fact, I despise the idea of borders because everybody in the world is an immigrant, historically. I think that comparing South Africa, which has only been free for 16 years, with other so-called territories is unfair. Hey, we’re sitting in a country here [England] that’s probably been free for a thousand years. And there are major problems, you know? I can talk about any other country. Let’s take the G8, those countries. Most of them have been free for over 500 years. There are [still] major problems. Why are people expecting South Africa in 16 years to be so miraculous?”

It’s an important point. The new government in South Africa may not have lived up to all its hopes, but the miracle, perhaps, is that it’s there at all. And it is still relatively early days. Yet Masekela is surprisingly reluctant to be cast as a spokesman for his home nation. He points out that he still spends a lot of time not only in the United States and Ghana but also – “strictly for the rain” – in England. “People always want to identify me with South Africa,” he protests, “but South Africa is a microcosm in my life perspective. I object to the abuse of human beings by human beings, in any area.”

“Let me tell you,” he goes on, “my biggest concern is the oppressed communities of the world and the poor communities of the world. And they far outstrip the population of happy people. All over the world, the underclass catches hell. And then the other thing, my other fucking gripe, is the disrespect for nature universally. Those two things for me are more important than the state of South Africa now, because it goes far deeper than that. It’s that the oppressed and poor remain oppressed and poor, and the disrespect for the ocean, for the skies, for the earth, for the water.”

He believes apartheid ended not because of ethics but due to simple economics: “South Africa during apartheid got to a stage where it couldn’t do business anywhere in the world. So the international industrial community, who were making business there, just said to the South African government, ‘Sorry, we can’t be your partners in racism any more, we’ve got to change. And hey, we’ll make more money’.”

Economic pressures, of course, do not always have such a positive outcome. The malignant influence of international big business crops up regularly in his conversation. Though positive about Obama as an individual – “I don’t think there’s ever been a greater potential president for America” – Masekela does not believe that he truly holds the reigns of power: “I don’t think [his race] makes a difference, because if an African American president would make a difference then the condition of African Americans would change overnight. A president in the western world doesn’t have power. It is the powers given to the president, [or] the prime minister, that call the shots.”

Right or wrong, such an outlook can, in print, look unremittingly bleak. Face-to-face, however, Masekela gives a very different impression, sharing a funny mobile phone photo with his tour manager or gently teasing waiting staff. He asks me not to mention the precise details of his complaint, for fear of embarrassing the hotel – and then, eyes glinting mischievously, leans in close to my dictaphone and states the name of the hotel with exaggerated precision. Neither are journalists spared: he has no sooner recognized me from our previous interview than demanded, in a state of mock exhaustion, how much more I can want from him.

“The thing most people don’t know about me,” he announces at one point, “is that potentially, I’m really into comedy.” Then, with the perfect timing so fundamental to the art form, he adds, reassuringly: “I don’t plan to make a living from it.” His tone is utterly deadpan, as if rumours of a career change, even at an age when most contemporaries have long retired, must genuinely be quashed.

In fact, far from being depressed by the state of his country or the planet as a whole, Masekela claims to be “one of the most joyful-feeling people in the world right now.” At the root of this happiness, he explains, is his enthusiasm for his new band – one he is bringing to the UK for several dates this month – alongside the mbaqanga trio Mahotella Queens. “After more than 50 years as a professional, I feel like I’m playing in a dream band. I hope it never goes away.”

He says he hasn’t felt like this since “1959, with the Jazz Epistles”. It’s quite a claim, given that that band included in their ranks such greats as alto player Kippie Moeketsi, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand), but Masekela insists he is entirely serious: “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a band like the one I’m in. If you come to a show in November, you’ll see what I mean.”

This excitement is in part the result of a change in his band’s line-up last year. Alongside longstanding sidemen “Fana” Zulu (electric bass) and Francis Fuster (percussion), the band features three young players from Cape Town, keyboards player Randal Skippers; drummer Lee-Roy Sauls; and guitarist Cameron Ward. It’s a smaller line-up than he previously used, but Masekela insists the six-piece is capable of sounding like a big band. “Except for one or two new songs here and there, we’re playing the same material, but even we can’t recognise it. It’s much more relaxed. Everybody’s an outstanding player. I’ve been practising very hard for the last three years to keep up with these kind of guys. So it’s a completely new picture but it’s more joyous and the excellence is much higher. I think I can even dare to mention the word ‘excellence’ now [with] my band. I feel very privileged to be playing with the guys I’m playing with.”

The admission of a renewed vigour in his practice regime is interesting. Masekela, who actually grew up in an illicit shebeen, or drinking den, has been candid about his own struggles with drink and drugs. In Still Grazing, his book with D. Michael Cheers, Masekela states that he and his band “lived for music, women, and getting high” on Jack Daniels, marijuana and cocaine. On one occasion, the partying got out of hand that he arrived to meet the president of Zambia a full three days late.

Without wanting to play armchair psychologist, it would be possible to trace Masekela’s addictions right back to his childhood. Drinking culture was endemic among miners in his home of Witbank, and he regularly watched rowdy customers in his grandmother’s shebeen. Another explanation for his growing dependence on drink and drugs could be, just as for those miners, the pain of exile.

Yet if exile didn’t help Masekela’s addictions, then neither, in truth, did his sudden fame. His first gigs had taken place in venues so violent they were known, collectively, as the “blood and guts circuit”. Such an initiation could hardly have been further from his life in the States, where he rubbed shoulders with Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, The Grateful Dead, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Marlon Brando among many others. For a period, he apparently shared a dealer with David Crosby of The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash, actually taking his first acid trip at Crosby’s West Coast home.

Masekela admits in his book that rehab, which he began at the end of 1997, was the first time he had played his trumpet sober since the age of 16. He also admits that, at times, the drugs and booze turned him into “an ugly little asshole”. Today, however, he’s a changed man, his new calm signalled by his practice of tai chi – apparently the best thing that ever happened to him.

“Rehab helped me to realise the danger of self-destruction”, he says. Though he denies that it changed him directly as a player, he agrees that going clean has helped him find his mature voice. “I mean, there are great players who practised a lot but they died because of over-indulgence. So I would say that the secret of life is moderation and hard work. Evangelism and purism are a bore.”

Has he always lived by the principles of moderation and hard work? “You mean before? No! I was crazy, man. I was crazy and I was fathomless.”

Happily, the newly fathomable Masekela has lost none of the fire that has informed all his best music, explicitly political or not. In fact, he doesn’t like to refer to any of his material as political, preferring the term “songs of concern”. Besides, he says, the extra-musical influences are hardly even conscious. “My parents were community workers: my father was a health inspector, my mother a social worker. There were always destitute and stray children who slept in our home until they could be placed somewhere. So myself and my sisters hardly ever slept in our beds, but what out parents told us was they don’t know where they’re going to sleep after they leave here, ‘but you’ll always have a home’. I’ve grown up and lived my life from that perspective.”

He goes on: “You can’t come from a community that is under foot, or under boot, and have them as a source for your material, when they’re catching hell, and not say anything about them. And you can’t live in a society that’s oppressed and pretend like it’s not happening. I grew up in a society like that, we grew up in protests and rallies. No one group is privileged by nature to oppress another. And if anybody can’t see that, they are mentally deranged.”

This link to his national culture has always been fundamental to Masekela, though it hasn’t always won the approval of jazz purists. Certainly the genre remains a key thread through his career, going right back to his early love of Clifford Brown and the influence of the film Young Man With A Horn, in which Kirk Douglas portrays Bix Beiderbecke. As a teenager, thanks to the work of priest and anti-apartheid activist Trevor Huddleston, Masekela was even given Louis Armstrong’s old trumpet. Those heroes became real people when Masekela arrived in New York, where he soon met not only Armstrong but Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. And both Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter studied alongside him at the Manhattan School Of Music.

Yet although Masekela originally went to the United States with the aim of becoming a straight bop musician, he took the advice of Miles, Diz and Harry Belafonte not to turn his back on the music of his homeland. Yet jazz was mixed in with more than township dance styles such as mbaqanga, marabi and kwela. After all, Masekela has laudably open ears, and he was away from South Africa for 30 years. In that period, he absorbed everything from Motown and The Mamas And The Papas to the music from Brazil, Nigeria and the Caribbean.

Such an all-embracing approach can encourage lapses of judgment: Masekela’s rapping on 1984’s ‘Don’t Go Lose It Baby’, for instance, is distinctly ill-advised. Yet at its best, the results of such a broad musical outlook are superb. So how does he feel about being profiled in a jazz magazine? After all, he has a high-profile spot at this month’s London Jazz Festival. “My background comes from growing up in the townships,” he replies.

“So-called jazz was a small part of it. I asked Louis Armstrong when I met him, and Miles and Dizzy. I said, do you consider yourself as playing jazz, or bebop? And they said no, man, we play music. You know what I mean? We’re just a sum total of what we’ve heard. I’m the sum total of what I heard.” He says the same of his current band.

“The most basic thing in what we do comes from the townships of the rural areas of South Africa. But we’re also highly skilled musicians. We can play classical music: I went to conservatory, I played in the symphony orchestra. I can still spit out bebop themes and play with bebop players. I can play salsa, I can play Brazilian music, I can play traditional music. I can sing with rural people if I spend a couple of days with them. I’m a sponge. Know what I mean?

“I feel like the worst thing in music that people subject themselves to is to say well, I’m only into bebop, man – or I’m into rock, or I’m only into salsa or rap or house or garden or garage. When people ask me what kind of music I play, I say our music is a cross of impoverished village and criminal township. With a little ghetto in there, and Bach. Hey, instead of rhythm and blues, how about ghetto and Bach?”

Frank Zappa's jazz legacy

Frank Zappa left a huge legacy of pioneering music and outspoken opinions that has proved obliquely influential in shaping the style and attitudes of generations of rock and jazz musicians, while often upsetting their elders and certain establishment figures. Stuart Nicholson re-evaluates Zappa’s jazz-oriented work and looks at the ways inwhich he made his mark on improvised music

It’s easy to believe Frank Zappa hated jazz. If royalties were paid on quotes, then he would have been a rich man on the strength of his once witty, but now oh-so-overused jibe, ‘Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny’. Yet in his world of scatological humour, outspoken political criticism, crass satire, send ups, put downs and insider jokes, jazz was something for which he reserved considerable respect. Yet one thing he recognised, right from the beginning, was that jazz was seen by rock audiences as distinctly unhip and could be an impediment to album sales. Jazz was, he once joked, ‘the music of unemployment.'

Consequently he was always careful to position himself firmly in the rock camp, whatever stylistic bridge he had decided to cross, be it to the blues, jazz or classical music. Generic categories tend to be an after the fact rationalisation to define music in its market used by the music industry to organise the sales process and thus target potential consumers. Zappa knew musical genres were not determined by musical style but by the audience’s perception of that style. ‘It’s foolish,’ he once said, ‘every time you hear someone improvise [in my music] to assume it's jazz.’

He knew the music business was as much about organising audiences’ expectations as selling albums. So if you were a rock fan and heard improvisation and didn't immediately associate it with jazz, it brought more people into his music – a music where the listener could be confronted with a wide range of musical challenges under the generic safety net of ‘rock’.

Zappa Absolutely FreeCertainly a large chunk of Zappa's music contains plenty of improvisation, but it’s not all jazz improvisation by a long shot. Yet his music is amazingly rich for broad minded jazz fans, whether it’s jazz or non-jazz improvisation. Zappa admitted in an interview that even when dealing with parody he worked on harmony and melody in a manner which years later he considered musically valid. Thus one of his cleverest songs, ‘America Drinks and Goes Home’ turns out to be his protest at the banalisation of jazz. A parody of a lounge band playing watered down jazz. 'It was based on the same subconscious formula that all those pukers of Tin Pan Alley used: you know ii-V-l progressions modulating all the way round,' he said. It was used in the album Absolutely Free as a parody of a cocktail lounge love song with ringing tills, brawls and drunken revelry. Yet when pianist Alan Broadbent arranged the piece in 1974 for the Woody Herman Orchestra on the Grammy-winning album Thundering Herd, with Frank Tiberi on bassoon, it became an affecting, memorable ballad.

Jazz slotted into Zappa's musical vision, often in subtle ways. ‘Twenty Small Cigars' is a composition considered by many to be his jazz masterpiece, but his first official recording of it was on harpsichord on Chunga’s Revenge (it had made an earlier appearance in the late 60s with Bunk Gardner on flute as ‘Interlude’). And while the album Overnite Sensation might have been insolent and provocative, it was also a synthesis of lyrics and complex arrangements with jazz solos and accompaniment amid the dizzying rush of Zappa's ideas.

‘As a West Coast band the need for his music to be accessible to hippy audiences was a source of frustration to Zappa’

Zappa arrived at jazz through the blues, his first love. The kind of jazz he liked was made clear as early as 1966 on the inside cover of his debut album Freak Out with the Mothers of Invention, one of the first rock double albums, and one of the first concept albums that was an acknowledged influence on the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Included in a very long list of influences cited were Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown, Cecil Taylor, Roland Kirk. Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Bill Evans.

It’s hardly surprising in the light of his own highly distinctive music that the kind of jazz musician that appealed to him shied away from the cliches of conventional jazz. 'People like Eric Dolphy, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus and Archie Shepp are very important in the history of music, and not just jazz,’ he once asserted. And when asked by aspiring guitar players who to listen to, he would advise Wes Montgomery or tell up and coming keyboard players to check out Cecil Taylor. Both were musicians who had highly individual approaches to their instruments.

Certainly he was critical of jazz – what wasn’t he critical about? – but his criticisms were usually directed to the unthinking fan who adheres to the style without understanding its profound values or the sectarian attitude of those who thought themselves to be members of an exclusive musical elite. Yet he was inspired by jazz. As Ted Gioia notes in The History of Jazz: ‘Zappa’s groups, perhaps alone among the rock bands of the day, could match many major jazz combos in terms of breadth and depth of musicianship.'

Born in 1940, Zappa's peripatetic childhood followed his father’s search for employment, and his early interest in music came through playing his father’s acoustic guitar. When he heard Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s ‘Three Hours Past Midnight’ his interest in R&B was born. Zappa would blossom into an accomplished, gutsy, blues-based player, and Watson would graduate from early influence to occasional recording companion and life long friend. Zappa’s musical curiosity led him to Edgard Varese and classical studies, and he took to writing for the high school band, including one piece called ‘Visual Music for Jazz Ensemble and 16mm Projector' when he was 17.

Zappa's working musical career began as a rock ’n’ roll band guitarist, forming the Mothers of Invention in 1964, when he met a group of musicians who were willing to experiment with his original compositions. Fired from countless venues because of their refusal to perform cover versions of the then hits, Tom Wilson from MGM happened into the Whisky A Go Go in Los Angeles at the moment the band was playing a blues and, according to Zappa, signed them on the surmise he had discovered a white blues group.

Zappa Freak OutIn 1966 came Zappa's dazzling debut Freak Out. It made Billboard's Top 200 album chart, establishing the Mothers as an 'underground' rock act and setting the tone for Zappa's early musical direction – musically eclectic and weighted towards political debate and satire with songs such as ‘Who Are the Brain Police?' A mixture of good melodies, blasted satire, political contempt, parody and experimentation with black and sometimes immature humour it established a somewhat confusing reputation for the band, who were sometimes reviewed as a comedy act rather than a musical one.

As a West Coast band the need for his music to be accessible to hippy audiences was a source of frustration to Zappa. Nevertheless, while maintaining high musical standards, he set about adding to the vocabulary of rock and contemporary music. In 1967, Zappa and the Mothers decamped to New York City to play a six month residency in the Garrick Theatre, above the Cafe Au Go Go. Performances would vary nightly. ‘I was playing with Jeremy and the Satyrs downstairs at the time,' said jazz vibist Mike Mainieri.

‘We were there on and off for almost a year. Zappa was upstairs with his band. A lot of people are not familiar with Zappa's classical work. He would have workshops and whoever showed up, showed up. He was exploring the more classical approach to composition, written structures. Zappa, myself, Don Preston who played piano for Zappa, and Joe Beck and a few others organised some small chamber ensembles and we would write some weird shit to perform for our own entertainment. That’s why there's a string group on my album Journey Thru an Electric Tube, which was recorded around then.' Mainieri says Zappa often sat-in with the jazz musicians and the Satyrs, sowing the seeds of what would subsequently produce a new colour in his music that would surface in termittently through his career. With his own band Zappa was developing a reputation as a hard musical task master, rehearsing his band during their New York stop-over for long periods as a way of achieving the more complex results he was after.

Two years later, Zappa had Roland Kirk come onstage to jam with the Mothers at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival, and again at the Newport Jazz Festival when the Mothers played between the Newport All Stars and Dave Brubeck. The result was ‘quite literally indescribable,' said Downbeat. As a result the Mothers were invited to tour as a George Wein package, an experience which influenced Zappa's view of jazz profoundly.

‘George Wein, impresario of the Newport Jazz festival put us in a package tour with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Duke Ellington and Gary Burton,' he said. ‘Before I went on I saw Duke Ellington begging – pleading – for a 10 dollar advance. It was really depressing. I told the guys: “That's it we're breaking the band up".' Zappa would later, not without irony, dub an Aynsley Dunbar drum solo the ‘George Wein Variations', which included a manic version of ‘Ain’t She Sweet.'

Zappa Hot RatsIn September 1969, Zappa was to be found sitting-in with Jean-Luc Ponty and George Duke trio at The Experience in San Francisco, a rock club. Duke and Ponty were playing an early version of jazz-rock, straightahead jazz improvisation over a rock beat. In the same year Zappa produced Burnt Weeny Sandwich, a proto-jazz-rock album and Uncle Meat which anticipated progressive rock. He also recorded Hot Rats, a mainly instrumental jazz-rock album of original compositions and arrangements that showcased his guitar playing. Hot Rats was accessible, sophisticated and unencumbered with disruptive parody, satire, and Zappa’s apparently insatiable need to sneer at and ridicule the establishment. Even the lyrics of ‘Willie the Pimp’, sung by Captain Beefheart, are in context with the gutsy low-down drive of the arrangement. On ‘The Gumbo Variations’ Ian Underwood manages to pay decent homage to Albert Ayler, although he was by no means a great saxophonist. The album highlights are 'Peaches en Regalia' and 'Son of Mr Green Genes’; 'Peaches' contains no soloing or improvisation as such, but related orchestrated variations of the theme. Such was the affection among jazz musicians for this track, it later inspired ‘A New Regalia', composed by Vince Mendoza, on Peter Erskine's 1988 album Motion Poet.

'Mr Green Genes' is a 16-bar tune consisting of two eight-bar melodies, and is shorn of the inane lyrics of the original version that had previously appeared on Uncle Meat. It gave full reign to Zappa's imagination, allowing him to score for highly unusual combinations of instruments. On the track 'It Must Be a Camel’, the jazz violin virtuoso Jean-Luc Ponty guested and would become a member of Zappa’s revolving cast of musicians.

In October 1969, Zappa collaborated with Ponty on King Kong, an album under the violinist's name subtitled ‘Jean-Luc Ponty plays the music of Frank Zappa'. A mixture of absorbing and not-so-absorbing fusion compositions, the title track in the Dorian mode was for years a Mothers jam session favourite. The 19-minute 'Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra' sustained interest and momentum through imaginative and resourceful writing from the opening bassoon passage to the demonic closing violin passages in 7/8 while 'Twenty Small Cigars' received its first recognition from a jazz musician. Also that year, Zappa was invited to MC the Actuel Festival in Amougles, and jammed with saxophonist Archie Shepp's group. Fifteen years later, he returned the honour, taking part in one of Zappa's concerts (You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 4).

Although Weasels Ripped My Flesh was released in 1970, it was essentially out-takes from the previous three years, albeit containing 'Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue’, the only tribute from the rock world to the gifted jazz saxophonist and the free-blowing 'Toads of the Short Forest’, complete with a spoken commentary on the jazz time signatures from the leader.

Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, both from 1972, together with Hot Rats, completed Zappa's famous ‘jazz-rock trilogy' (now a three album set). The line-up for both included George Duke on keyboards, Sal Marquez on trumpet, Mike Altschul on saxophones, Bill Byers on trombone and Aynsley Dunbar on both albums, who were augmented to big band proportions on The Grand Wazoo by an array of Hollywood studio musicians. The first track of Waka/Jawaka is the extended 'Big Swifty’. The emphasis is rhythmic, with the original, complex theme – incorporating several metre changes – fading into a modal, bluesy blowing section in 4/4 with solo space for George Duke, Sal Marquez and Tony Duran. Zappa sounds as if he’d been listening to John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu’s Inner Mounting Flame had just been released). Waka/Jawaka avoids repeating the original theme, the arrangement building through complex waves of overdubs and, during the final five minutes, introduces elaborate arranged variations of the main theme complete with tubular bells on the last chorus, displaying unique voicings paralleling the richness associated with Gil Evans. Indeed, Robert Christgau has suggested Zappa had been listening to a lot of Miles Davis, based on the presence of trumpeter Marquez.

Grand Wazoo had a distinctly jazzy feel throughout. The form is intro, theme, solos and theme. However, the theme is 87 bars in length with key, rhythm and theme shifts with a blowing section that has carefully marshalled background figures ebbing and flowing throughout against an intriguing rock-swing feel generated by the rhythm section, the sleeve notes credit the terse sax solo to Funky Emperor: it is, in fact, Ernie Watts. ‘Cleetus Awreetus’ starts with a jaunty light classical feel to it, moving into parody, while ‘Eat that Question’ is in a minor key, with a strident eight bar riff. The soloists build to a dramatic entry by Zappa and a beefed-up recapitulation of the theme to close and fade. How Blessed Relief has not become a jazz standard is a mystery. Performed here as a wistful ballad, Zappa gave full rein to the jazzy direction in which these sessions had been leaning, although Zappa’s music as a whole was too broad and diverse to be limited by conventional categorisation.

Zappa RoxyIn 1973, Zappa reformed the Mothers with a strong line-up that included Tom and Bruce Fowler, Ian and Ruth Underwood, George Duke and Jean-Luc Ponty and Overnight Sensation, a synthesis of unusual lyrics and highly articulate, complex arrangements contributed several future concert favourites to his repertoire. Roxy & Elsewhere, a live set from 1974, captured the impressive elan of the group with strong jazz solos and 'little-big band’ attack including the track ‘Be-Bop Tango’ satirically represented as the anthem of the chimerical ‘Old Jazzmen’s Church’. The tricky 'Echidna’s Arf' would be recorded by George Duke at an even more frantic tempo the following year on his album The Aura Will Prevail. The following year Zappa again sounded decidedly jazz-rock-ish on One Size Fits All amid vocals that ‘gave up on mere scatology and extended Zappa's private mythology to new extremes of obscurity.'

Zappa always employed a number of jazz musicians. His explanation was: 'For me it was always more interesting to encounter a musician who had a unique ability. Find a way to showcase that, and build that unusual skill into the composition... so [it] would be stamped with the personality of the person who was there when the composition was created,' a Duke Ellington-like remark if ever there was one.

His later bands always employed excellent drummers and percussionists who possessed an admirable ability to play and read in a wide breadth of styles. Chad Wackerman later spoke of the challenges of working with Zappa. ‘He pushed everyone who worked for him. He'd ask me to play something incredibly complex. When I couldn't do it, he'd get more specific and ask me to play something even more difficult. I couldn't do that either, but as I would try, then I'd realise I was playing what he had originally asked me to play'. Saxophonist Mike Brecker, who played on 1978's Zappa In New York, then playing highly complex ‘electric bebop' arrangements as a co-leader of the Brecker Brothers, has said he was amazed at the detail and rehearsal that went into a Zappa performance. His performances with the guitarist soared.

In the 1970s Zappa-as-composer started to broaden the musical contexts in which he worked, and the true extent of his imagination started to unfold. As well as the live band, and his more popular rock albums, he recorded in a diverse range of contexts. The orchestral Zappa – inspired greatly by Edgard Varese, Krzysztof Penderecki, Pierre Boulez and Elliot Carter – emerged in 1971 with 200 Motels, the atonal soundtrack music for film of the same name, and continued up to The Yellow Shark, the release of which preceded his death by just a short while. Later in life he was delighted to be asked by orchestras and chamber groups to perform his many orchestral works.

Zappa Jazz From HellThe jazz connection continued, however, the Grammy winning Jazz From Hell (1988), was an album of original compositions for the synclavier, the computer-to-digital interface used among others by Miles Davis on Tutu. On release it contained a warning against offensive lyrics even though it was an instrumental album.

Zappa gave up running road bands in 1988 after recording Make A Jazz Noise Here, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life and Broadway The Hard Way. His band, augmented by an agile horn section, acquitted themselves with precision, and showed what a fertile musical imagination could achieve using the 'horns plus rock' formula that was quickly exhausted by bands operating in the Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago nexus. While not jazz-rock, these albums frequently darted in and out of its shadows and were impressive documents of his final performing band. After sinking a good deal of money into the group, Zappa finally called it quits in the middle of his final tour.

His ability to claim both the musical low ground as well as scaling the heights meant that he was easy meat for critics, who were unable to pigeonhole his music. Hereby lies the conundrum, and the need to dig into his recorded repertoire to discover the gems, aided by the judicious use of the fast forward button. As one reviewer noted: 'The constant temptation is to say that Zappa is a genius (which he is) and consequently to rank highly all his offerings.'

An ideal guide to some of Zappa's finest compositions appeared in 1997 from the New Jersey-based band leader Ed Palermo. Ed Palermo Big Band Plays the Music of Frank Zappa includes pieces such as 'Twenty Small Cigars', 'Peaches En Regalia’, ‘King Kong’ and 'Waka/Jawaka' that successfully realised the potential of these compositions from a purely jazz perspective. Palermo first appeared with his big band at New York's Bitter End playing Zappa arrangements, but the audience reaction was such that he moved to the larger Bottom Line club. 'It took several months of staying up to five in the morning transcribing and arranging this gorgeous music,' he said, ‘and the audience reaction was incredibly enthusiastic.’

The only real constant in Zappa's diverse musical output was his guitar playing, and all his work is littered with good examples of this. From early solos such as 'The Duke of Prunes' (on Absolutely Free), ‘Willie The Pimp' (on Hot Rats) to later examples such as ‘Fire and Chain’ (on Make a Jazz Noise Here) and the sensuous 'Watermelon In Easter Hay’ (on Guitar), Zappa showed a preference for minor moods, spinning sensuously intense lines within his own unique context and musical vocabulary. Shut Up ’n ' Play Yer Guitar (recorded from 1977-80) was a collection of guitar solos while another collection, Guitar (1978-84) contained powerful playing with Chad Wackerman on drums and Scott Thunes on bass. Zappa was not the only guitarist to be heard on his sessions, guitar monster Steve Vai was on his later work, such as his mind-boggling vocalised-melodic guitar solo on 'The Jazz Discharge Party Hats’ from The Man From Utopia.

Zappa continued composing and conducting up to his death from cancer in December 1993. Nominated for at least seven Grammy awards, he became only the second rock musician (Jimi Hendrix was the first) to enter the Downbeat Critics’ Hall of Fame in September 1994 and was inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in January 1995. But he disdained success, opting instead for 'bad taste' and its attendant lack of air play, although Apostrophe (') was eventually certified gold, reaching number 10 on the Billboard chart and the single from it, ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow’ was Zappa's first in Billboard's Hot 100.

Zappa matched the criteria for a genuinely creative artist concerned with exploring and extending the boundaries of rock, which inevitably brought him into contact with jazz as a means to this end since both have common roots in the blues. Yet while he combined jazz and rock in a particularly individual way producing a classic jazz-rock trilogy and several albums of great interest in the genre, jazz-rock per se was never central to Zappa's musical thinking, more a musical challenge to be confronted and surmounted among many – another musical flavour in a miscellany of musical genres that comprised his remarkable music.

This article originally appeared in the December 2003 issue of Jazzwise. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: http://www.jazzwisemagazine.com/subscribe

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