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Ben Watson writes about Frank Zappa's Everything Is Healing Nicely [Zappa Records UMRK 03] for Le Pengouin Ligoté, the organ of Les Fils de l'Invention, the Parisian Frank Zappa Organisation. For those who have not got hold of a copy, or cannot read French, here is the text before M. Didier Mervelet got his hands on it ...
Le Pengouin Ligoté was not kind about Everything Is Healing Nicely. The front page article in issue No 69+´4 (Tommy Mars, 2000) said that, compared to the final versions on The Yellow Shark, `None Of The Above' is too long, `Amnerika' is `slow and lame', while Hermann Kretzschmar's recitation of letters from a body-piercing magazine (`everything is healing nicely' was the touching conclusion) to improvised accompaniment by a Zappa-directed Ensemble quickly `loses its attraction'. As Ali Askin says in his the booklet which accompanies Healing: `if you are looking for polished music, this CD is not for you'. But is `polished music' the only thing Zappa fans look for in an album?
It is true that the album does not have the collage quality that characterises albums which Frank Zappa edited himself, or the surprise factor which was such an important componenet of each new release when he was alive. Back then, you'd just readjusted yourself to the raw power rock of Baby Snakes and - bang! - he releases London Symphony Orchestra Vol. II. Healing is a CD of rehearsal out-takes, and if you already know The Yellow Shark, it does not say much new. Maybe it should not be high on the list for someone just starting to buy Frank Zappa records. However, in the big bad world outside Zappology, there are a lot of worse albums than Everything Is Healing Nicely. If you are thinking about (a) how to record ensembles and (b) how to integrate composition and improvisation, then in many ways it is EXEMPLARY. The following is a text I wrote for Hi-Fi News, a British `audiophile' magazine (`It was September ... ', 2000).
Frank Zappa's death on 4 December 1993 did not stop his career in rock. His presence survives, a spectral reproach to white-bread normality, the lengthiest stretch of CDs under `WXYZ' on the racks. Before he died, Frank told his wife Gail to sell his catalogue to Rykodisc: 73 CDs-worth, the original masters retrieved from various labels and remixed for digital. Ryko keep every album in print. As with Hendrix, there are Zappa fans emerging who are too young to have seen him live (they come out to see cover bands instead, like the Grandmothers, the Muffin Men, André Cholmondeley's Project/Object, John Etheridge's Zapatistas or Ensemble Ambrosius). Once listeners learn to appreciate Zappa's satirical resistance to the pressures of peer-group approval (a syndrome the Marxist musicologist Theodor Adorno called `identity thinking'), completism can prove compulsive. Here is an oeuvre that never repeats its musical forms, is extravagant with internal and external reference, and engages in a ceaseless, playful-yet-inventive interrogation of the social relations of musical production: band dynamics, recording technology and commercial promotion (Zappa can also write a heart-rending MELODY, a skill conspicuously absent in his successor-eclectic, John Zorn).
Considering the fabulous quantity of music in the Zappa vaults - Frank was simultaneously the most active touring star in rock and the most obsessive documenter of his own activities - Gail Zappa's label has been extraordinarily inactive since 1993. Now she's released Everything Is Healing Nicely, and fans are complaining it's simply a CD of rehearsals with Frankfurt's Ensemble Modern for The Yellow Shark. Furthermore, Healing is not a `real' Frank album. It was edited and sequenced by Spencer Chrislu, one of Zappa's closest associates during his last years (Chrislu had the dubious honour of recording a projected 4CD spoken-word album of me reciting my Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play up at Zappa's Laurel Canyon home studio in October 1993, shortly before Zappa's death). Chrislu's editing is sensitive, but it doesn't include those transitions and contrasts that lead some critics to claim that Zappa-qua-producer is the finest collagiste to emerge since Kurt Schwitters (the great German dadaist). Healing lacks the changes of register (baroque to heavy metal, electro-acoustic to surf rock, intimate spoken-word to full-on orchestra) which make Zappa's albums so impressive and piquant to anyone with broad listening habits.
However, for those casting around in modern music for answers to the old quandaries - improvisation versus composition, how recording technology should approach acoustic instruments playing in real time - Everything Is Healing Nicely is exemplary. It should be required listening for anyone arranging for jazz improvisors or recording orchestral music. In other words, it deserves an audience outside the circle of obsessives who claim Zappa as their own (and read weird surrealist journals like Le Pingouin Ligoté!).
Boulez's Ensemble InterContemporain, the Asko Ensemble playing Ligeti, Reservoir playing Xenakis ... encounters between crack classical forces and genuinely innovative composers depend on a difficult balance between funding, careers and musical politics. The Ensemble Modern's committment to Zappa's music was very special. Some of the 24 musicians put up their own money to fly to Hollywood to rehearse. Some postponed their flights at their own expense to be able to enjoy a few extra days. Most of the Ensemble regularly turned up hours early every day to practise Zappa's fiendish requests (the 23/24 tuplets in `T'Mershi Duween' - named after a camel in a story by Zappa's daughter Moon Unit - were a particular favourite). Zappa decided to work with the Ensemble after hearing their performances of Kurt Weill and Helmut Lachenmann, composers who require performers to push beyond conservatory legitimacy. Unrepressed musical intonation works like the human voice: sincerity cannot be faked. From the first Richard Strauss-like cluster that opens EIHN, you can hear this committed quality.
Much of Healing was recorded by Marqueson Coy at Zappa's Los Angeles rehearsal studio Joe's Garage Act I, using a traditional cross-mic strung high in the air in front of the orchestra, supplemented by individual mics for each instrument, several for the piano, and mics left and right at the back. If improvisors are recorded with individual mics, there is a danger that they play to the mic - keen to sound good - rather than into the shared air that is the real space of musical occasion. This impairs the collective ésprit and flaws the total sound. Frank Zappa's legendary status and witty conducting made the musicians forget their individual mics: even during the most anarchic improvisations, there's a luscious collective resonance that really glows. Zappa and Chrislu's mix respects this quality, showing that multi-mic recordings mixed with musical ears can indeed sound hi-fi: and with greater detail and better balance than a solitary cross-mic.
To direct his musicians, Zappa was using techniques developed by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Sun Ra. Sure, there were scores - neither the acheing melody of `Amnerika', hocketed to different instruments, nor the atonal drama of `None Of The Above' could have been achieved any other way - but Zappa also set up `objects', `motifs', `vamps', `chord structures' and `gestures (musical or theatrical)' which could be cued spontaneously by hand signals, funny faces and even eyebrow twitches, events that could be triggered at any moment (the slogan at the time was: `anything anytime anywhere for no reason at all').
Fully-rounded sounds redolent of expensive musical educations are mixed with bleats and moos from children's toys, a didgeridoo burbling into a spitoon full of dark water, bizarre groans from the percussion and vocal ejaculations. But this is not some postmodernist exercise: because these sounds resonate in real time, they establish real musical relations with each other. At one point, Zappa picked up his guitar to play a duet with Indian violinist L. Shankar (`Strat Vindaloo', a crass title bestowed by Frank's son Dweezil), and you can hear the vamping back-up musicians think through the metres they're playing to.
Everything Is Healing Nicely may derive from improvisations and rehearsals, but the edge and vitality of the playing is palpable. It delivers what any true jazz fan craves: state-of-the-art instrumental skill challenged by the dizzying freedoms and multiple possibilities of the instant. So, after the orchestral triumph of The Yellow Shark, the late composer releases ... an album of superb jazz. It's also recorded in stunning hi-fi.
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