Monday, March 15, 2021

Hot Rats

In many ways, the Laurel Canyon scene was the culmination of the folk-rock movement. Canyon artists like Joni Mitchell and David Crosby were instrumental in folk's evolution adding a pop sensibility and a jazz flair that later, with albums like Court and Spark and Aja would further incorporate jazz fusion.

That relationship accentuated each faction involved. While jazz greats like Miles Davis were incorporating a rock sensibility in their music (fusion), the LC crowd was utilizing jazz greats in their recordings. Joni Mitchell's 1970 offering Ladies of the Canyon featured Paul Horn, and James Taylor's Sweet Baby James included Stax Records' Memphis Horns, who historically worked with Stax artists like Otis Redding and Sam and Dave, and then added Isaac Hayes, Al Green and Stephen Stills to their roster.

It is Miles who is credited with the first of the fusion LPs with In a Silent Way, but others appeared simultaneously (or even before it). LPs like Gary Burton Quartet's Duster (1967) Larry Coryell's Spaces and even Frank Zappa's 1969 solo effort Hot Rats, opened wide the fusion door and from there the genre grabbed onto the Laurel Canyon scene and didn’t let go. Many of the fusion LPs to come were far more jazz-oriented than rock, from Weather Report's phenomenal Heavy Weather to Return to Forever's Romantic Warrior, but it was Hot Rats that truly incorporated the genres. 

As he did everything, Hot Rats was Zappa first class all the way, from the advanced recording techniques, to the intricate arrangements (especially the shorter pieces, like the evergreen classic "Peaches En Regalia" to first-rate musicians like Jean-Luc Ponty, Don "Sugarcane" Harris, Ian Underwood and pre-Little Feat Lowell George. Hot Rats exemplifies Zappa's virtuosity and ingenuity without the silliness. I've often noted that bands like The Mothers, The Tubes and Captain Beefheart's Magic Band had to overcome their comic element with exemplary musicianship, and yet it's the non-comic pieces where the music is allowed to shine. For the Tubes, their comic sensibility overshadowed the musicianship until one isolated tracks like “Haloes” and “Brighter Day” that nixed the comedy in favor of pure, unadulterated musicality. For Zappa, that LP is Hot Rats.

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