“Hot Rats” : Frank Zappa’s Early Jazz Rock Masterpiece

Hot Rats by Frank Zappa. I can honestly say that this was one of the records that had a major impact on my life. I think I was around 12 years old when I was first heard it, an advantage of having an older brother with fairly hip taste for the time. I had already heard earlier Mothers Of Invention albums and liked them because they were weird and funny and I was also listening to records that featured long solos so there was also some sort of nascent interest in improvisational music. Hot Rats was one of those albums that just blew me away the moment I heard it and made me want to (somehow) make music like it.

Prior to Hot Rats, Zappa hadn’t really featured his guitar soloing very much. That changed with this record. The two longest tracks, Willie The Pimp and The Gumbo Variations, are jam type numbers with extensive solo space for Zappa’s guitar, as well as the electric violin of Don “Sugarcane” Harris and the sax of Ian Underwood. Here, Zappa the guitarist steps out and, as the saying goes, it’s a good thing. As a soloist, Zappa’s melodic and harmonic vocabulary were not especially out there, being very much based on blues and modal scales. It’s Zappa’s rhythmic conception that set him apart from practically all other guitarists. In a old Guitar Player Magazine interview, Zappa said that his rhythms were speech influenced and he played lines that featured a broad range of irregular rhythmic groupings. It was what made him sound like no other.

The remaining compositions on Hot Rats showcase Zappa’s genius as an orchestrator and Ian Underwood was the man who made it work. Underwood, the only holdover from the Mothers Of Invention, played the multiple reed and keyboard parts that are really what makes this music so great and certainly makes him the MVP of this record.

As I listened to this record again, I found myself returning most often to Son Of Mr. Green Genes. The piece is an instrumental re-arrangement of the song Mr. Green Genes from the Mothers Of Invention album Uncle Meat, and with it, Zappa created the perfect mix of an intricately arranged chart featuring Ian Underwood’s multiple overdubs and extended soloing by Frank.

Frank Zappa – Son Of Mr Green Genes

Where would I be if I never heard Hot Rats? I don’t know but I’m glad I’m here.

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Posted in Improvisation, Jazz, Music Appreciation and Analysis

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