In review: The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra Plays Zappa. Featuring Bill Eddins as “The Central Scrutinizer”, and Ike Willis and Ed Mann as “guys who actually played with The Maestro”.
Purists demand what often amounts to the impossible; true fans appreciate the effort no matter how many “transgressions” the purists can point out.
I’ll get the purist thing out of the way first.
Zappa’s artistic vision is too big to be reduced to a handy catchphrase; his catalogue is too rich and varied to pick a single concert’s worth of material and call it definitive. Under Zappa’s Big Note philosophy every song, guitar riff, leitmotif and melodic passage becomes an integrated reference to every other piece.
When the Bill Eddins, the ESO’s musical director (and my newest hero), set out to present a night of Zappa’s material he set himself a truly daunting task: present a well-rounded representation of Zappa’s musical intentions within the scope of a limited budget, limited rehearsal time, and limited Zappa knowledge on the part of the audience (and probably a solid minority of the classical musicians). He had to present a symphony concert to rock fans, and a rock concert to symphony subscribers. He had to present music that can be viewed as bawdy to the point of obscenity with as much good taste as one might expect at a classy joint like The Winspear Centre. He had to pick about twenty tunes that were accessible to both the ensemble and audience, from over 1200 pieces recorded in a distinctive style that was only ever truly understood by a man who died in 1993.
He had to deal with the technical difficulties of combining a fully amplified rock band with a fully acoustic orchestra. The drum kit had the best sound I’ve ever heard – I could have happily sat and listened to the drummer (who was excellent of course) play for ours, savoring every hit. The problem is, the drums absolutely crushed the orchestra, from where I was listening in the gallery. The more delicate passages almost completely disappeared. Ike Willis’ singing disappeared too.
So the biggest problem I had was too much rock band. Too heavy in the mix, and too central to too many songs. Zappa’s catalogue includes an admittedly obscure album called Orchestral Favourites – none of that material was touched. Same with large-band offerings like The Grand Wazoo and Studio Tan that would have benefitted from orchestration. But they played almost the entire One Size Fits All album, which was recorded with just a regular rock group. An orchestra’s worth of top class musical talent sat idle for long segments of the performance.
A less important quibble to go along with this: Ike Willis’ first album was Joe’s Garage, and he played with Zappa on every tour and album (except 1982-1983) until the end. The only music that was played from Ike’s own tenure were Watermelon in Easter Hay (from Joe’s Garage), G-Spot Tornado (which Zappa originally recorded using only Synclavier on his solo project Jazz From Hell) and some selections from The Yellow Shark; all instrumentals where Ike’s fronting skills weren’t required. Instead it was back to 1978 for Ike, singing songs made popular by his predecessor, Napolean Murphy Brock.
Finally, a number of jokes fell flat for me, because Frank’s ironic take on the world is easy to superficially absorb but very difficult to replicate. Some of the ad libbing went on a little bit too long; somehow Frank always knew how to interrupt the proceedings with something entertaining, while maintaing the energy of the music and knowing when to cut it off and go to the next tune. He was a unique guy and his uniqueness is part of why we still celebrate his music; it’s clearly not an easy task to make a show built around his music flow the way he did.
Criticism aside, as a fan I was delighted with the evenings proceedings, and I urge Bill Eddins and the ESO board to consider a return to Zappa’s music every once in a while. I will definitely be back and paying more money for better seats. Every song had sparks of brilliance. Efforts to be zany were transcendant: an orchestra dressed in silly hats and angle/devil costumes and hockey jerseys seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Most importantly the audience had a rollicking good time and exploded with applause at every opportunity. Everyone I saw in the lobby afterwards was chattering excitedly about what they’d seen, sharing stories about past concerts some had been lucky enough to see, and how the music has become a cherished part of their collections to be pulled out and savored.
Zappa might have taken a different tack at a couple of points in the production, but I believe he’d be pleased and amused that his music isn’t merely surviving in a world without his presence, but thriving as a genuinely cherished artifact of America’s rich cultural mosaic.