To an outsider, Igor Stravinsky and Frank Zappa seemed to reside on different planets, even though both lived in the Hollywood Hills in the late 1960s. But insiders know Zappa was a serious Stravinsky buff, invoking the Russian’s acerbic spirit, techniques and even some of his music in his own gargantuan output. Thus, the teaming of one of Zappa’s favorite Stravinsky pieces — the ever-zesty, ever-acidic “L’Histoire du Soldat” — with a survey of Zappa’s intricate idiosyncrasies for rock band at REDCAT on Friday night was not so much far-fetched as it was far-sighted.
As it happened, though, Zappa came off a lot better than Stravinsky.
There are rumblings of a Zappa revival afoot in the world — what with his son, Dweezil, preparing to take an authorized “Zappa Plays Zappa” band on the road next month (they’ll be at the Wiltern June 23) and this ongoing Grande Mothers project, which was launched in Europe in 2003. The latter group is a quintet containing three alumni of various Zappa bands — bassist Roy Estrada (an original Mother), keyboardist Don Preston and vocalist/reeds Napoleon Murphy Brock — plus Eastern European wah-wah guitar wizard Miroslav Tadic and drummer Christopher Garcia.
This outfit was road-tested (their 66th gig), as precise as any of Zappa’s bands and able to burn brightly on a wide range of Zappa selections on Friday (the set list was completely different Saturday). With Brock’s powerful vocals, physical shtick and ability to double expertly on flute and tenor sax coupled with Preston’s and Tadic’s electronic salvos, the evening contained a lot of the contradictory eclectic, serious and circusy flavors of a Zappa show.
Indeed, in some cases, the Grande Mothers were able to go deeper into the material, rather than merely parroting Zappa’s notoriously tricky composed lines. “The Idiot Bastard Son,” for example, revealed some lovely harmonic ideas only hinted at on the original Mothers recording.
All on board were adept at exploring the drumfire jazz-rock riffs of the early ’70s, and there was a deftly done sample of Zappa’s doo-wop sendups.
All the while, the screen behind the band displayed slides of Stravinsky beaming down paternally — as if one needed more reminding after the “Rite of Spring” riff in the middle of “Duke of Prunes.”
Ironically, the discipline and canny pacing of the Zappa portion of the program were almost entirely missing in the Stravinsky perf. The three Mothers took the roles of the Narrator (Estrada), the Soldier (Preston) and the Devil (Brock), making tedious, hammy work of C.F. Ramuz’s playlet, and there were missed cues and outbreaks of scrappy playing in the otherwise high-spirited seven-piece instrumental ensemble. More rehearsal, tighter control of the dialogue, please.