A Token of My Extreme: Frank Zappa & The Ensemble Modern- The Yellow Shark (1992)

Zappa Records/Rykodisc; September 17-28, 1992
Alte Oper, Frankfurt; Philharmonie, Berlin and Konzerthaus, Vienna

Frank Zappa was a legend among musicians, and even in my usual wild flights of shitty hyperbole, that is not a label I apply lightly.

You'd be hard pressed to find a composer ("songwriter" doesn't quite do him justice--he wrote SHEET MUSIC, y'see) more prolific, more talented or more genre-encompassing in the 20th (or any other) century. Since the mid-1960s to his sad death from prostate cancer in 1993, he had recorded albums of rock, doo-wop, jazz fusion, modern classical, musique concrete, soundtracks for film, solo guitar and everything in between--he had a staggering 57 live and studio albums under his belt
while he was still alive, and the process of clearing out the Zappa vaults has resulted in an additional twenty-three posthumous releases (bringing the total to 80). 2Pac had nothing on FZ. With a discography like that, you can expect at least a few classics, and Zappa had more than his share. Which brings us to this review.

One of the man's last releases and the last live recording,
The Yellow Shark is firmly in the classical genre, yet this isn't classical as most people know it. There are two kinds of classical music--the stodgy baroque composers of centuries past that made beautiful but somnolent music for Heaven's waiting rooms, reserved for music students, the old, the traditionalists, and the elitists who won't listen to anything made past 1900; and truly exciting, boundary-pushing, and defiantly unorthodox composition from the last century that shares only the instruments with Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Zappa belongs on the same page with greats like Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, and Varese (who was FZ's idol) with this album.

In other words, if you're looking for the Frank of "Don't Eat The Yellow Snow," "Broken Hearts Are for Assholes" or "Valley Girl," he ain't here. Don't expect a single kickass guitar lick, Eddie & Flo's vocal stylings, pastiches of pop music, or even much of FZ's own voice. His trademark vulgar and sociopolitical wit can still be found on a few tracks (most notably the spoken-word "Welcome To The United States") but it is strictly sidelined by the Ensemble Modern's stunning performance, which takes Zappa's music composed for synclavier from albums like
Jazz From Hell and translates it to the human element with surprising success, considering it was not designed to be played by flesh-and-blood musicians in the first place.

That all said, this never feels cold or pretentious by any means. In the hands of the EM,
Yellow Shark has Zappa's signature--a tight angularity juxtaposed with a goofy, off-kilter whimsy, with melodic yet dissonant arrangements that feel like they're wandering even when they're not. There are reworkings and reimaginings of his jazz-rock work ("Dog Breath Variations," "Uncle Meat," "Pound for A Brown," "Be-bop Tango"), full-blown modernist classical ("Outrage At Valdez," "Times Beach II & III," "Exercise #4" "The Girl In The Magnesium Dress"), a work for two pianos ("Ruth Is Sleeping") and string quartet ("None of The Above"). All of it is excellent, to the point where you actually get annoyed by the inclusion of the spoken-word pieces at the end of the album (though "Welcome To The United States" has an absolutely HILARIOUS musical quote from "Louie, Louie" that makes sitting through the goofy voices and lame humor a lot easier to swallow).

However, the real treat follows shortly after. The incongruously titled "Get Whitey" is one of the prettiest FZ compositions since "A Watermelon in Easter Hay"--as stately and beautiful as Zappa ever got. And the truly rousing and ridiculously hard to play (Zappa actually cautioned the EM from even trying it at first) "G-Spot Tornado" ranks as a fitting finale to FZ's 30-year career, as the audience rose to their feet with a 15-minute ovation. Musicians decades from now, classical and otherwise, will still find this album to be truly groundbreaking stuff, and FZ wouldn't have had it any other way.


Yellow Shark
is just about the last thing you want to hand a Zappa neophyte... unless they really, really like classical. In which case it might be the first.

Hot Rats is the starting point I recommend to everyone, so you might as well begin there if you haven't heard any FZ yet. Following that up with a dollop of his other early '70s fusion work (Waka Jawaka, The Grand Wazoo, Burnt Weeny Sandwich) and a few of his weirder ones (Lumpy Gravy, Jazz From Hell, Weasels Ripped My Flesh) is also a good idea. Yellow Shark is sometimes viewed as the culmination of the man's work and for good reason, but it's definitely not easy going. Once you're firmly indoctrinated in the Cult of Zappa though, you will fucking crave this album. Trust me.


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