I’m a long-time fan of Frank Zappa. “Freak Out,” “Absolutely Free,” and “Cruising With Ruben and the Jets,” are landmark formative musical influences in my adolescent cultural weltschmertz. But of all the many Zappa albums I’ve owned and listened to over the years, my favorite, hands down, is the double live CD from the early ‘90’s called, “The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life.” The album was so named because the personalities in the band completely melted down during the middle of what would be Zappa’s last tour. Further, the tracks were taken from European and East Coast concerts of what was to be an extended international tour.
Aside from personnel dysfunction, this is arguably the best possible introduction to Zappa’s music there is. Included on the double disc set are brilliant live versions of Zappa classics such as “Zombie Wolf,” “The Torture Never Stops,” and “Let’s Move to Cleveland.” But this particular tour also found Frank in the midst of a serious Reggae phase, so Best Band You Never Heard includes Reggae versions a wide variety of tunes including Ravel’s “Bolero” (utterly brilliant!), Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” Finally, no Zappa album would be complete without some biting, caustic, commentary on social and political events of the day. With that, there’s more than an ample segment devoted to examining the sexual indiscretions of TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Listening to the latter makes me pine for Zappa’s much-needed social commentary, and also realize how much we lost with his untimely death in 1993 from colon cancer at the age of 52. With the exception of South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, no one has come close to taking his place.
What does music like in heaven? This is it. Once upon a time decades ago, the top five Class A American orchestras (as in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago) all sounded completely different; sadly not so true today. The brass sections of these great American orchestras at the time were led by some of the most legendary classical trumpet players that will ever live. Young brass students like me knew the principal players of all the sections in the orchestras by name. We followed their every new recording and often argued over favorite performances of works by Stravinsky, Ravel, and Mahler as if arguing baseball stats.
In 1968 Columbia Records producer Andrew Kazdin gave us the ultimate Christmas gift: a recording of the antiphonal music of Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Gabrieli as performed by the brass sections of the Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago symphonies. The playing throughout the recording is breathtaking–as good as classical brass playing gets. What is all the more remarkable, is that the entire album was recorded in three three-hour sessions. Abe Torchinsky, the tubist from the Philadelphia Orchestra, has also written that when everyone went out for a beer at the end of the sessions, the group realized that they had forgotten to tune. Needless to say, I wore out multiple copies of the LP over the years and have purchased every new re-mastered version as recording technology has improved (current version on SACD). Will there be a Blu Ray version in the future? I hope so. Highest possible recommendation.