Friday, February 24, 2012

Frank Zappa • Sleep Dirt


   Four months after premiere of Studio Tan, January 19, 1979 next Zappa’s album Sleep Dirt has been released by Discreet Records (DSK 2292). For customers this looked like continuation of previous publications and maybe new series but this time Discreet Records label was totally controlled by big record company and three albums delivered to Warner Bros were treated as a legally secured debt. Zappa has treated these recordings rather as lost and not fully edited. But from today’s point of view this three albums should be treated more as the series of recordings establishing new position for composer’s creative output. In late seventies Zappa was already a well-known artist, so it was no surprise that the company has struggled with the artist to gain control over the largest possible amount of his music. In fact this became first commercial success of Zappa’s instrumental music and at Billboard’s North America Pop Albums Chart Sleep Dirt reached 175 position.
   Sound and constructive ideas of Sleep Dirt were something new, maybe not revolutionary but quite different than music dominating on earlier records. After all these albums merging satiric song, rock and fusion jazz, Zappa played some more abstract music of pure aesthetic meaning. This album has relatively fresh shape even in comparison to Studio Tan, which in fact was evolution of 200 Motels and Billy the Mountain ideas. After narrative Greggeary Peccary and two orchestral compositions from Studio Tan, second album was example of more jamming than symphonic attitude. What was the intention it's clear considering this album was titled by Zappa as Hot Rats III. Violating contract, company changed the album title. In effect program of Sleep Dirt was the cycle of instrumental works for various groups, from guitar duo with James Youman to compositions played by Mothers group with some extended sound structures developed through the multi-track recording, but not connected by title to earlier Hot Rats music. Republishing this album Zappa didn’t changed the title.

Frank Zappa – Sleep Dirt (1979)

   The meaning of the title was not clear for many listeners. Especially with the creature getting up from bed shown on Gary Panter’s cover painting. Taken from 1971 Japanese movie Godzilla vs. Hedorah, in seventies Hedorah a.k.a. “Smog monster” was symbol of pollution. It was clear reference to Zappa’s works from his first movie attempts to Cheepnis, song known from many concert events and 1974 double album Roxy and Elsewhere. In Zappa’s individual style combining pop culture artifacts and surreal imagination was one of distinctive features. Most convincing explanation of this title is an assumption that Zappa refers to popular description of excretions and contaminants gathering in the corner of an eye during sleep, also called „sleeping dirt”. This is reasonable clarification since the title track has something of a dream at the edge of sleep and wakefulness. This inspired miniature is sound simple but is organized in impressionist way, thus may evoke early 20th century music with its power of unreal expression. At the end, when sounds of accompanying guitarist James Youman has weakened Zappa asked “You getting tired?” and Youman answered “No, my fingers got stuck”.
   Material for Sleep Dirt was recorded by group of musicians in various configurations. All of them are well known from Zappa’s previous records. As always the core of the group was Frank Zappa playing guitars, keyboards, percussion instruments and programming synthesizers. His companion were playing keyboards George Duke, Ruth Underwood with variety of percussion instruments, bassists James Youman and Patrick O’Hearn and drummer Chester Thompson. This album was something distinct from the recordings for which listeners were previously accustomed.

   From opening composition Filthy Habits showing soloing Zappa with accompanying bass player Dave Parlato and drummer Terry Bozzio. In this trio Zappa was featured artist playing guitars as well as some keyboards. Strong guitar phrases over steady ostinato has its role in preparing the ground for Zappa’s improvised music which blossomed few years later on Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar triple album. In next two pieces Zappa switches to easy jazz, even piano bar style, but these are only externals. In fact Zappa was constructing this compositions from elements of jazz style, exactly the same as he was doing in his debut album.
   Patrick O’Hearn played perfectly musical bass parts in Flambay and Spider of Destiny and this was beginning of his fruitful collaboration with Zappa. In fact he was not new on music scene, after private studies with Garry Peacock he was playing in San Francisco jazz groups with best artists - Charles Lloyd, Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Joe Pass, Woody Shaw, Eddie Henderson, and Bobby Hutcherson. His bass has great jazzy sound, perfect articulation and was recognizable for his own style. He has his own contribution to the success of Shut Up And Play Yer Guitar. It’s easy to find the foretaste of this work in the closing composition of Sleep Dirt album The Ocean Is the Ultimate Solution were Zappa shows with Patrick O’Hearn playing bass and Terry Bozzio playing drums. In Zappa’s intention this was probably an answer for Filthy Habits, but this time it’s much more than jamming. Whole piece sounds perfectly different – unless first trio was rock, this is jazz.
   This recording was republished in 1991 with drums overdubs by Chad Wackerman and some instrumentation changes. Songs Flambay, Spider of Destiny and Time is Money were originally composed for abandoned 1972 musical Hunchentoot. Digital versions of this songs had been enriched by vocals by Thana Harris. Although well written and perfectly performed, for many listeners this version was just surprise. Once more Zappa’s works occurred beyond the boundaries of fashion and style.

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