Sunday, April 26, 2009

Imaginary Diseases

Why the Zappa Family Trust hasn’t been more energetic in re-mastering and releasing the plethora of live material it undoubtedly has is beyond me. There have been a few posthumous releases, but not nearly as many, in my opinion, that could be potentially released. One that allegedly was pressed into a limited CD release (I question the “limited” designation because it can be readily ordered from online retailers) is “Imaginary Diseases,” a musical quilt of outstanding live performances that included some of the musicians from a “big band” Zappa had assembled, composed of players primarily associated with the “Grand Wazoo” through “Apostrophe(‘)” era. If you don’t have this one in your Zappa collection, you’re really missing out.

Some interesting background on this recording in light of the fact it was dubbed the Petit Wazoo tour, a 10-piece band that Zappa toured with that was a smaller version of the 20-piece Grand Wazoo band that had also briefly toured.

That era of recordings and the sound it produced is primarily exemplified by the albums “Waka/Jawaka” and “The Grand Wazoo.” However, the Petit Wazoo tour really only had a few of the musicians from either album. Slide guitarist Tony Duran shows up in the credits on “Waka/Jawaka,” “The Grand Wazoo,” and “Apostrophe(‘),” but not “Over-nite Sensation.” Jim Gordon (more on him in a moment) shows up only on “Apostrophe(‘)”, while horn player Malcolm McNabb appears on “The Grand Wazoo.” Bruce Fowler’s trombone debuts on “Over-nite Sensation,” and appears as well on “Apostrophe(‘).” Many of the other musicians that appeared on these recordings, particularly the jazz-fusion albums, don’t show up at all on “Imaginary Diseases.”

What did show up consistently is the sound that had its genesis on “Waka/Jawaka,” and which fully flowered on “The Grand Wazoo.” The latter album was released at the time “Imaginary Diseases” was recorded. This sound had in many ways influenced almost every composition Zappa did from then on.

The recording opens with the curious “Oddients,” a bit of avant-garde inviting Zappa’s signature audience participation. But the curiosity quickly vanishes with “Rollo,” an instrumental that also appears on some bootlegs with vocals.

“Been to Kansas City in A Minor,” is classic 12-bar blues with some ripping great guitar work by Zappa. This is also when Jim Gordon’s drumming becomes very noticeable. His beat keeping is outstanding, sounding very basic and yet filled with a soaring personality that gives his drumming a character I have heard very few times from others. Why then, with such skill, does Gordon not play on more recordings with Zappa? His background as a session drummer is vast, having played with Delaney & Bonnie, which then led to a gig on Eric Clapton’s first solo album. He’s banged skins with Traffic, Joe Cocker, Buddy Guy, Joan Baez, George Harrison … the list goes on and on.

But alas, Jim Gordon had a dark side that included battles with mental illness, some think schizophrenia, that eventually rendered him incapable of sticking in the music business and which led to him murdering his mother in 1983. Gordon already had reportedly established a somewhat erratic pattern within the music business, and with Zappa’s low tolerance for musicians who require too much management, Zappa probably saw a glimpse of Gordon’s demons and likely decided he didn’t want anything to do with them.

While the next track’s title somewhat resembles the song from “Apostrophe(‘),” the song “Farther O’Blivion” has very little to do with the suite that ends with “Father O’Blivion.” But this little gem, which Zappa announces at its start has a tango in the middle of it, is an excellent jazz smoothie that features, of all things, a tuba solo! And an outstanding one at that. This song also contain musical themes and set pieces that Zappa later incorporated into future items, such as “Gregerry Peccary.” Gary Barone’s trumpet work during the tango section is excellent. The frenzied horn section as well during the latter part of the second third of the song is again excellently accentuated by Gordon’s flawless drumming. Gordon’s drum solo is equal parts fascinating and thrilling; it’s almost as though he is telling Ginger Baker, through his drumming, to take a break. You can hear people in the background cheering him on, as he is seemingly possessed – yet he doesn’t forget himself. He finishes right on cue for the rest of the band to come in and complete the song.

Things return to a meatier audio treat with “D.C. Boogie,” which starts out in a very soporific (and by that I mean morphine-like rather than sleep inducing) bluesy style that reminds me of something that The Velvet Underground wished it could have done, or something that Can would likely have done, except that Can would recognize Zappa’s genius and brilliant playing and just sit back and enjoy the damn thing. This groove is good, and it contains some guitar work by Zappa that truly is something different. He ventures into a musical and tonal realm in this song that I, frankly, haven’t heard out of him that often. The Muse captured Frank that night, and thankfully wouldn’t let go for 13 minutes. Again, Gordon’s drumming is beautifully subdued, yet right on target. The song is called a boogie largely because of its second half, when Frank calls upon the crowd to offer its input as to how the song ought to end. The crowd’s choice was a boogie, although one has to wonder if Frank had already had his mind made up. But when the song resumes after this brief respite, a freaking awesome boogie it is. And again, I cannot comment enough about Gordon’s drumming here, because it sounds like two drummers, in the style, for example, of The Grateful Dead. The final guitar solo in this would make Duane Allman weep.

The title track is full-blown Wazoo-ness. And, I’m sorry to keep repeating myself, but when Zappa takes off in his searing guitar solo, Gordon is right there keeping tempo perfectly. The guitar solo is very “Apostrophe(‘)” as well. While Zappa supposedly never played this jam live that he recorded with Jack Bruce, this track comes closest to what I think it might have sounded like. And incidentally, Gordon was on “Apostrophe(‘),” so he would have been keenly familiar with Zappa’s style on that song.

The CD closes with “Montreal”, which probably has my favorite guitar solo on the entire album. My favorite, again, because of Gordon’s drumming. It’s almost like Zappa and Gordon are sharing musical brains. It’s a very basic rhythm, but soooo effectively delivered you can hear the crowd getting into the jam. I really think that Zappa and Gordon connected musically on this tour in a way Zappa hasn’t been able to do with a drummer very often. He mentions in his autobiography that it was difficult to find a drummer that would keep up with what he was doing on the guitar. But somehow, I feel that Gordon does more than keep up with Zappa on this set. Listen closely. I think Gordon anticipates Zappa.

I rate this recording with five out of five stars. Leave your rating below.

Recorded at various live gigs Oct. 27, 1972 to Dec. 15, 1972; Released Jan. 13, 2006 on Zappa Records (limited release).

All tracks by Frank Zappa.

"Oddients" – 1:13
"Rollo" – 3:21
"Been to Kansas City in A Minor" – 10:15
"Farther O'Blivion" – 16:02
"D.C. Boogie" – 13:27
"Imaginary Diseases" – 9:45
"Montreal" – 9:11


Frank Zappa – Conductor, Guitar, Vocals
Malcolm McNabb – Trumpet
Gary Barone – Trumpet, Flugelhorn
Tom Malone – Tuba, Saxes, Piccolo Trumpet, Trumpet
Earl Dumler – Woodwinds
Glenn Ferris – Trombone
Bruce Fowler – Trombone
Tony Duran – Slide Guitar
Dave Parlato – Bass
Jim Gordon – Drums
Composed/Produced/Performed/Edited/Mixed/Tweaked by Frank Zappa

Vaultmeistered by Joe Travers/Mastered by Doug Sax & Robert

Hadley/Liner notes by Steve Vai.

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