Let’s relive ‘The Yellow Shark’, the amazing symphonic album which came out a few months before the Baltimore genius told us goodbye…
The bad news arrived in the middle of 1990. Frank Zappa, the musician born in Baltimore on 21st December 1940, the man the venerable orchestra director Pierre Boulez defined as “one of the greatest composers of the 20th century”, was informed that he had advanced prostate cancer. Too far gone, according to the doctors. That was the day Zappa began what is cynically called the “long goodbye” – but he was planning on making it something rather special.
A life in music
The Maestro had one more project in mind: an album of classical music. From his debut album ‘Freak Out!’, through the rock, blues, jazz, vaudeville avant-garde and all the lucid madness associated with his art, the first solo album by Frank Zappa (the seminal 1967 ‘Lumpy Gravy’ recorded with the Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra) was basically a classical music record. Concrete, to be even more specific. Indomitable.
Zappa was able to do far more than play masterful blues on the guitar (just get an earful of the erotic sensuality of a “minor” work like 1976 ‘Zoot Allures’) accompanied by the cream of session guitarists. In the end, he would record all of sixty-two albums during his lifetime, with another forty-eight coming out posthumously for a total of one hundred and ten titles which would not even sell three million copies. There is no certainty about the quantity in this case, only about their lasting forever.
The making of Zappa’s Universe
In 1991, finally, along came the chance of a lifetime. Zappa was seriously ill and the whole world has only recently found out. In summer of that year, Frank let it be known that he would like to stand for the presidency of the United States with an inimitable slogan: “Could I do any worse than Ronald Reagan?” A big concert was organized, Zappa’s Universe, at The Ritz in New York to raise funds for the electoral campaign, but that evening, (in November ’91) Zappa would never appear on stage.
A few days before, during a press conference to launch the event, his daughter Moon and son Dweezil opened up for the first time about their poor father health. Their news was met with sadness and bewildered feelings, but meanwhile Frank had started working again at full throttle. The organizers of the prestigious Frankfurt Festival (the Glastonbury of music lovers) asked him – as well as John Cage, Karl Heinz Stockhausen and Alexander Knaifel – to prepare a performance for the following September.
A singular mascot
Zappa, accompanied by the Ensemble Modern, would be able to give free rein to the swirling complexity of his compositions and conduct the orchestra himself. Finding renewed strength in his enthusiasm for the project, Zappa rearranged some of his historic pieces (like ‘Uncle meat’ and ‘Dog breathe variations’) as well as more recent pieces close to his heart (‘G-Spot Tornado’ which appeared on his sterling ‘Jazz From Hell’ in 1986), alternating them with new pieces composed for the occasion.
The musicians of the Ensemble Modern (led by the German conductor Andreas Mölich-Zebhauser) paid their own way to California to the legendary studio Joe’s Garage, and got straight down to rehearsing. At some stage, Mölich saw a fibreglass fish hanging on the wall of the garage and decided that would be the mascot of the entire project. Zappa gave it to him as a gift. It was a little yellow shark.
In early September 1992 Frank flew to Germany to put the finishing touches to the work before the premiere performance. The entire work lasted ninety minutes – and due to his rapidly declining health, Zappa would only be able to be present at two concerts, missing the countless other performances. At the Frankfurt premiere, he gritted his teeth and directed two movements (including the sarcastic ‘Welcome to the United States’) wowing the audience with his improvisations on the Synclavier before handing the baton to Peter Rundel.
The evening was a huge success: standing ovation, football stadium chants, twenty minutes of applause which seemed to go on forever, and Zappa, exhausted, grinning under his trademark mustache. ‘The Yellow Shark’ would come out one year later, in October 1993, and instantly became one of the greatest critical successes of all his works – not an easy listen, but then again, what was easy about this man? Not long after, on 4th December 1993, Zappa died in his home in Los Angeles. It was a Saturday, and the funeral was strictly private, on a day when most of the world is off work, a touch of irony for the greatest workaholic in the music industry.