Musical iconoclast Frank Zappa took as his motto the Edgard Varese quotation, “The present-day composer refuses to die!” Now many of the revolving cast of characters that comprised Zappa’s touring and recording bands have seen to it that this late great musician’s output — a massive body of uncategorizable work that radio and retail had little idea what to do with — continues to be heard by those who will listen, at least in a live context.
A loose, motley looking bunch onstage (group coalesced for a Zappa tribute in Germany in 1995), all are consummate, in-demand players — having been put through their paces over the years by the legendary discriminating bandleader and wearing it like a badge of honor — and each would have his moment to show off during the first of four capacity weekend shows.
But possessed solos in particular from Kurt McGettrick — whose weathered baritone sax nearly outweighed him — and guitarist Mike Miller practically brought down the roof on the tightly configured venue. (Miller couldn’t exactly fit onstage with the other musicians, and Arthur Barrow, ably filling in for bassist Tom Fowler who’s touring with Ray Charles in Europe, knocked over drummer Ralph Humphrey’s music sheet reading light early on adjusting to the cramped quarters.)
But read Zappa’s complicated charts they did, what with their bewildering melange of tones, tempos and styles — often within a mere musical passage of one song. Smiles and hoots were in abundance from the predominantly male Zappa-tistas in the aud in instant recognition of such fan faves as “Inca Roads,” “Peaches en Regalia,” “Montana” and an encore of “Zombie Woof,” all among Zappa’s more melodically friendly fusion fare.
The sound was quite extraordinary, given a nine-piece electric ensemble with brass was squeezed into a stage and seating area the size of an extra-large living room. Venue, opened in January, is run by the son of Don Randi, owner of the original jazz club in Studio City since 1970, and offers some welcome booking competition to Catalina and the Jazz Bakery.
And while Zappa’s unique ringmaster stage persona and musicianship were sorely missed — much less his own satirical potshots at politics and religion (some comical references to candidate George W. Bush were offered up in the spirit), Banned From Utopia is vital living proof that his compositional efforts will not soon be forgotten.