CJO plays a lively, imperfect tribute to Frank Zappa

Howard Reich

11:12 AM CST, December 30, 2012


Frank Zappa probably would have been intrigued.

The Chicago Jazz Orchestra's brave, often brilliant, sometimes thrilling, somewhat flawed Zappa tribute at the Park West on Saturday night gave his music a spotlight it does not routinely receive in the big-band jazz repertory.

Certainly the CJO does not often perform with a wailing electric guitar, howling electric violin and plugged-in, souped-up, hyperactive rhythm section driving the ensemble through treacherously difficult scores of this sort.

This ensemble, after all, was built on a blues-swing aesthetic steeped in the methods of Count Basie and, to a slightly lesser extent, Duke Ellington. Here, however, artistic director Jeff Lindberg's organization took on strange, often unwieldy scores often driven by hard-rock backbeats rather than swing-based rhythm.

Individual compositions lurched from one weirdly declamatory theme to the next. Meters and tempos constantly changed without warning. Musical quotations from Tchaikovsky and Bizet erupted as if out of nowhere, only to vanish just as quickly.

That's pure Zappa, a fabulous eclectic who was blessed — or cursed? — with an insatiable musical appetite and a knack for piling his plate with wildly unrelated, seemingly clashing musical influences. The ghosts of Igor Stravinsky and Edgard Varese often are said to hover about Zappa's music, but this evening pointed out parallels to another iconoclast, Charles Ives, who similarly threw far-flung idioms into individual orchestral works and exulted at the barely controlled near-cacophony that resulted.

Lindberg and the CJO finessed the onerous rhythmic challenges of Zappa's music, as well as the asymmetrical give-and-take between soloists and orchestra, with seeming ease. But there was nothing easy about it.

The problem with this homage owed to periods of garish over-amplification and to the band's nearly opaque sound at these sustained fortissimo levels. With so much of the evening's repertoire leaning toward full-throated orchestral statements — and with heavily miked soloists heaped atop everything — the resultant din often denied listeners the chance to fully savor instrumental detail. When the CJO took on some of Zappa's more lyrical works, the concert finally seemed to breathe, and more such contrasting passages would have helped.

That said, the CJO coaxed from this music the lusty, rambunctious spirit that Zappa put into it. If the full ensemble often sounded repetitive in its relentless sonic blasts, the evening's soloists nearly made up for it with the ingenuity of their work.

Guest violinist Mark Wood drew sounds from his electric fiddle that no Stradivarius or del Gesu instrument could have produced, his whooping phrases, otherworldly sonic effects and astonishingly fleet, fast-running passages — delivered amid ever-shifting rhythmic backdrops — gave the proceedings a focal point. So did the blues-drenched solos of Chris Siebold, whose guitar-god flights jammed more notes, ideas and themes into a single cadenza than one might have thought possible.

Among the soloists, guest tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts (who recorded with Zappa) suffered the most from the overwrought sound, yet there was no mistaking the intensity of his playing, nor its unceasing creativity.

Fortunately, all the moving parts of this unusual enterprise came together beautifully in select works. "The Grand Wazoo," from Zappa's 1973 album of the same name, inspired Wood's blues-based solo and Watts' bebop-driven response, followed by John Wojciechowski's slashing lines on alto saxophone and Xavier Breaker's taut-but-shattering eruptions on drums. All the while, the CJO handled Zappa's ferociously complex, syncopated unison lines as if they were child's play. They were not.

On "Waka/Jawaka," the title track from Zappa's 1972 album, Steve Eisen's buoyant lines on tenor saxophone, Marquis Hill's melodically inventive solo on trumpet and the band's nimble playing en masse captured the jazz undertow of much of Zappa's work.

There were other pleasures, too, especially the smoldering lyricism of "Twenty Small Cigars"; the trippy, loopy, head-music mode of "Sinister Footwear"; the melodic poetry of "Blessed Relief" (also from "The Grand Wazoo" album).

All of this was made possible by guest bassist Dave Morgan's transcriptions and the voluminous musical imagination of the still impossible-to-categorize Frank Zappa.


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