Alumni Of Invention

This post will be of absolutely no interest to at least 99% of the readers here – unless you’re far more interested in the music of Frank Zappa than is good for you, you might as well skip this post. I’m posting this because it’s one of those things that someone might stumble across in a year or two and be thankful for.

The death of Jimmy Carl Black, the original drummer with the Mothers of Invention, last month got me thinking about various gigs I’d seen him at over the years. I’d seen him as a guest vocalist with the Scouse band The Muffin Men on many occasions, but I particularly remembered him playing with The Grandmothers.

The Grand(e)mothers
is a name used by various line-ups of former members of The Mothers Of Invention. The current line-up has Don Preston, Roy Estrada and Napoleon Murphy Brock, but the line-up I saw in 1994 was Preston, Jimmy Carl Black and Bunk Gardner, along with guitarist/Zappa lookalike Sandra Oliva and bass player Ener Bladezipper (possibly not his real name). I decided to have a look on eMusic to see if there was anything by this band I could download as a belated souvenir. There was, but as so often happens I ended up downloading a ton of other stuff by ex-Zappa band members too, just because downloads on eMusic are so cheap. All the albums on this list probably cost me less than £10 in total.

So I’ve decided to provide a quick (and very non-exhaustive) guide to music by ex-Zappa-band-members available on eMusic.

The Grandmothers – Eating The Astoria
This is absolutely fantastic, surprisingly enough. This is a line-up of the Grandmothers similar to the one I saw live, except that by this point Jimmy Carl Black was only singing, no longer playing the drums, and Preston had left temporarily, leaving Bunk Gardner the only original instrumentalist on this.
Despite that, this is the album on this list it’s easiest for me to recommend. There are very few live recordings of the original Mothers Of Invention, and those there are are mostly very poor quality. By the time Zappa started recording his bands regularly, he was playing very different, slicker arrangements when he played these old 60s songs. So hearing these live performances of Peaches En Regalia, Oh No, Mr Green Genes and so on played in their original arrangements is about as close as we’ll ever come to a live album by the original Mothers with decent modern recording quality. Hearing this stuff with the excitement of a live performance but with very precise musicianship (and Bladezipper particularly is a wonderful bass player) is astounding.
There are a few originals on there, too. Oliva’s songs are Zappa-as-genre, and quite good of their type, while Jimmy Carl Black’s R&B numbers about the Trail Of Tears and the Great White Buffalo are worthy but unimpressive.

Don Preston is a more conflicted musician. Before joining the Mothers in 1966 he was a Proper Jazzman, playing with people like Elvin Jones and Al Jarreau, and since finally finishing with Zappa eight years later he’s been so associated with Zappa’s music that he’s never had the respect as a jazz musician he arguably deserves. As a result, he’s alternated between claiming that Zappa ripped his musicians off (a common claim of Zappa band alumni) and trying to make his own Zappaesque music, performing ‘tributes’ to Zappa, and trying to make his own unique music.

Vile Foamy Ectoplasm is a clear attempt to make a record that sounds a bit like Zappa. It’s a compilation of twenty years of Preston’s recordings, including duets with Bunk Gardner and performances with the Grandmothers, and it’s strictly Zappa-as-genre.

The bulk of the album is jazz fusion stuff with tons of semiquaver chromatic runs on the Moog, sounding like at any moment it’ll turn into either Inca Roads or Peaches En Regalia but never quite doing so, with a few percussion-and-electronic bits thrown in in the style of Varese. The whole thing’s clearly an attempt to say “I can make a Zappa album too”, but it never quite coheres properly. One can tell Preston’s exasperation at his old band’s legacy, from songs like The Eternal Question:

What was Zappa really like?
Did he fly into a rage?
I bet he smoked dope all the time
And did he really shit on the stage?

On the other hand, Transformation is startlingly good. A piano trio album, it contains an arrangement of The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue but is otherwise Preston’s own work, in a more traditional bop style. Reminiscent at times of Cecil Taylor, it also has more mellow, melodic patches that sound almost like Dave Brubeck, and it’s an album I keep coming back to. A really nice jazz album – not groundbreaking, but fun.

So Yuh Don’t Like Modern Art by Banned From Utopia
is pointless.
Banned From Utopia are an 11-piece band, nine of whom were in Zappa’s last touring band in 1988 (and several of them had been with him much longer – the Fowler brothers off and on since the early 70s). Arthur Barrow, the bass-player, was also a longtime Zappa band member (none of the rest of the band liked Scott Thunes, the 1988 bass player).
This band were Zappa’s slickest, most ‘musicianly’ band, as can be heard on the Zappa live albums Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life, Broadway The Hard Way and Make A Jazz Noise Here. In terms of pure musicianship and discipline, they couldn’t be beaten.
Unfortunately, that means that the Zappa covers on this album are so close to the versions we already have by this band as to make it pointless, while the originals, including such tasteful songs as “Jailbait Babysitter”, are soulless hackwork.

The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie/Flo & Eddie by Flo & Eddie is a collection of the first two ‘solo’ albums by the former Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan. The first album, featuring almost all the 1971 lineup of the Mothers (including Preston, ex-Turtle Jim Pons, and drummer Aynsley Dunbar) is a classic of hippie folk-pop, very reminiscent of the better, later Turtles records. You can tell from songs like Goodbye Surprise that these people were also the backing vocalists on T-Rex’s hits, too. It’s recommended to anyone who likes light, funny, melodic late-60s/early 70s stuff like Nilsson, and is an album I’ve loved for years. The second album is patchier, a mix of comedy routines that they used to perform on stage with Zappa (“It’s the next illusion, you guessed it… the horrible sodomy trick!”) that have dated about as badly as Cheech & Chong, cover versions of 60s songs (including quite good versions of Days by the Kinks and Afterglow (Of Your Love) by the Small Faces, both of which were very obscure in the US at the time), and a gorgeous seven-minute orchestrated epic remake of the Turtles song Marmendy Hill. Worth downloading, but more for the first album than the second, and only if you already own Turtle Soup, Volman and Kaylan’s finest hour by far.

Sandy’s Album Is Here At Last by Sandy Hurvitz
is an album by someone who was in the Mothers for a few month in the mid-60s, produced by Zappa and Ian Underwood. An uninspiring attempt at a Joni Mitchell sound by a singer-songwriter who later changed her name to Esra Mohawk, all you really need to know is that she wrote True Colors for Cyndi Lauper. Oh, and it sounds like it’s been mastered off an old vinyl copy. Avoid.

There are many more Zappa-alumnus albums on eMusic (several George Duke albums I might get at some point, tons of albums of Jimmy Carl Black doing old R&B songs, Napoleon Murphy Brock albums) but I think I now have more Zappa-bandmember music than any reasonable person needs…

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2 Responses to Alumni Of Invention

  1. Jason says:

    Esra Mohawk wrote Change Of Heart for Cyndi not True Colors

  2. You’re quite right. I got the info from an old MOJO magazine – they must have got it wrong…

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