Musical polymath unleashes a mother load of jazz-rock invention
In 1969, Zappa temporarily disbanded The Mothers of Invention in order to record his first solo album, and what an exceptional album it was too. Notorious for his penchant for musical satire, Zappa instead employed it as a platform to reveal his talents as a guitarist. Apart from “Willie The Pimp,” featuring a guest vocal by fellow rival Captain Beefheart, the rest of the LP consists entirely of instrumentals. Key players included multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood (the only member of the Mothers to appear), Max Bennett (bass), Don ‘Sugercane’ Harris (violin) and the renowned Jean-Luc Ponty (also violin). Lowell George allegedly played rhythm guitar, but to this day remains officially uncredited.
On Hot Rats, gone was much of the self-indulgent irreverence that appeared on his previous work with the Mothers. Zappa instead opted for a more jazz-rock oriented approach, one with long solos, and a serious, though playful, nod to the likes of Coltrane, Coleman, and Don Cherry, making Rats Zappa’s most accessible and yet experimental album up to that point.
Opening with the ultra-smooth and sophisticated “Peaches en Regalia,” Zappa’s Octave bass and Underwood’s piano and horns are in perfect simpatico, following an arrangement that is deceptively simple, while the song’s sumptuous melody shines through like a form of elevator music for students of musical string theory. “Willie The Pimp” (featuring Beefheart’s Howlin’ Wolf snarl) is the first commercial release to feature an extended guitar solo by Zappa, where Zappa blows like he’d never blown before. Also worth mentioning is Sugar Cane Harris’ blistering violin work, proving himself to be a worthy equal to Zappa’s formidable instrumental prowess.
“Son of Mr. Green Genes” begins on the Burt Bacharach side of things, arrangement-wise, before getting down to business, namely in the form of an extended and inspired guitar workout, which is just the way we like it. Zappa doesn’t quite fly like Hendrix (in fact he’s a bit repetitious), but there is much to be admired in his playing all the same. His virtuosic abilities as an arranger continue on “Little Umbrellas,” where the Arabesque clarinet, tinkling piano and jazz-fusion undertones might have given even the likes of Miles Davis something to pause over during the same year as the futuristic trumpeter was working on Britches Brew.
“The Gumbo Variations” has some more than memorable moments, where the cerebral aspects of free-form jazz combine with the gritty edge of blues-rock. Along the way, Don Harris plays a wild violin, as Zappa channels Hendrix via some of the most intense soloing of his career. And what he lacks in emotion, he most definitely makes up for in terms of technique.
The Jazz-fusion explorations reach their apogee on final number “It Must Be A Camel,” an articulate if idiosyncratic way to end what is overall an extremely satisfying listen.
As far as Zappa’s early period is concerned, Hot Rats is perhaps as good a place to start as any for those interested in investigating his music. God knows there’s no lack of entry points. But fans of jazz-rock will be in safe hands on this release. Zappa was certainly no slouch when it came to the guitar; it’s just that his warped sense of humour frequently got in the way of him playing it more often.