The tale of how Frank Zappa’s “Roxy by Proxy” saw the full light of day is somewhat convoluted. Comprised of sterling sounding outtakes from two December 1973 concerts that produced one of the guitarist, composer and bandleader’s most rightly acclaimed live albums, “Roxy & Elsewhere,” “Proxy” was first made available in 2014, exclusively by mail order. But as part of the reissue campaign between Universal Music and the Zappa Family Trust, the record became one of two dozen posthumous recordings this spring to receive widespread releases. In terms of sound quality, performance daring and sheer musical invention, “Roxy by Proxy” might just be the pick of the whole pack.
Credited, as was “Roxy & Elsewhere,” to Zappa/Mothers (a nod to how the once broadly demarcated borders separating Zappa’s experimental and largely instrumental solo albums from the comparatively streamlined adventures of his band The Mothers of Invention had become indistinguishable and redundant), “Roxy by Proxy” revisits the animated performances of a remarkable band. There is a potent jazz sensibility to this music — not surprising since the lineup included future fusion and funk star George Duke on keyboards and vocals, and soon-to-be Weather Report and Genesis drummer Chester Thompson. Then there was the band’s flair for embracing Zappa’s uncompromising artistic mischief.
The tunes repeated, but through different performances, on “Roxy & Elsewhere” point out the post-production touches that added a little sonic punch to the earlier album.
“Cheepnis” especially is left without the extra boost that drives its chorus melody. But the performances themselves don’t at all suffer, especially the summery pop delivery that Duke gives to “Village of the Sun.”
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But the real treats here — and indeed the very reasons Zappa die-hards and neophytes alike need to consider “Roxy by Proxy” essential listening — are the songs that weren’t presented at all on “Roxy & Elsewhere.” One of the highlights, a slow and almost lounge-savvy version of “Inca Roads,” begins the album. Similarly, a four-minute medley of “Dog Breath” and “Uncle Meat” offers a joyous update of vintage Mothers music largely owned here by the ridiculously agile and speedy exchanges between trombonist Bruce Fowler and marimba/vibraphone ace Ruth Underwood.
Then we have the last third of the album, which further mines Zappa’s instrumental vocabulary in a way that “Roxy & Elsewhere,” in comparison, only suggested. A 16-minute version of “Dupree’s Paradise” runs from free jazz frenzy to, at the 10-minute mark, a Zappa guitar solo of efficiently brief beauty. He stretches out far more on a medley of “King Kong,” “Chunga’s Revenge” and “Mr. Green Genes” to crown an album of astonishing instrumental dexterity, band clarity and, by Zappa standards, almost boundless joy.
How wonderful, after so many years and a limited initial release, to have all of this so readily available to Zappa fans of all generations.
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.