Frank Zappa’s wacky, surrealistic lyrics actually take on a new level of meaning and hilarity coming from the mouths of this tradition-bound, tuxedo-clad a capella sextet. The Persuasions, led by Jerry Lawson, do not possess the smooth, velvet-voiced harmonic inventiveness of such contemporary a cappella groups as Take 6, Boyz II Men or Rockapella, but they do infuse every number with an energetic commitment that is infectious.
Back in 1969, master of rock ’n’ roll absurdism Zappa signed an unknown a cappella R&B-gospel quintet from Brooklyn to his record label, launching the recording career of the Persuasions. As a tribute to their mustachioed mentor (who died of cancer in 1993), the ensemble has just released a CD of his music titled “Frankly a Cappella.”
Beginning with a zesty, scat rendition of Zappa’s quirky instrumental “Lumpy Gravy” (featuring a recurring riff on the word “duodenum”), the ensemble winds its way through a representative sampling of Zappa fare culled from Mothers of Invention recordings from 1963 to 1969.
Lawson handled the solos through most of the one-hour concert, including the philosophical “Any Way the Wind Blows,” the hard-driving, politically incorrect “Hotplate Heaven at the Green Motel” and the deceptively tender, doo-wop inspired “Love of My Life.”
The Zappa highlight of the evening has to be the decidedly irreverent “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,” led with revival meeting fervor by a choir-robed Lawson. It is amazingly affective to hear this quintet of church-trained vocalists warn the audience that the prophets of old are “a waste of time and it’s your ass that’s on the line.”
To give evidence of their own vocal roots, the Persuasions added several R&B hits, including “Sincerely,” “Good Night Sweetheart,” “Speedo” and a unique, rumba-soul rendition of the Latin classic “Besame Mucho.”