Hot Rats Remastered
Zappa Records UMe
BluesWax Rating: 8 out of 10
Perhaps the First Jazz-Rock Album
Hot Rats was released in October, 1969. Five of the six songs are instrumental; “Willie the Pimp” features vocals by Captain Beefheart, but there’s also a lengthy instrumental segment. This was also Frank Zappa’s first recording after the breakup of the Mothers of Invention; Ian Underwood was the only member of the Mothers who made the transition to Hot Rats. Others featured were some of Los Angeles’ top-shelf musicians: Max Bennett and Shuggie Otis on bass; drummers John Guerin, Paul Humphrey, and Ron Selico; and, electric violinists Don “Sugar Cane” Harris and Jean-Luc Ponty. I’ve felt that Hot Rats might have been one of the first jazz-rock albums of its kind that also fused Zappa’s well-known signature and salty attitudes, along with lengthy ear-candy-like jams. Plus Zappa’s amazing arrangements, and his virtuosity and tireless vigor from his guitar. It also didn’t hurt having Underwood, Beefheart, Sugarcane Harris, Ponty, and various rhythm sections (especially the jazz team gone jazz-rock wild of Guerin’s powerful drum work and Bennett’s boundlessly creative electric bass) on board for the ride.
Hot Rats opens with the often-used top-of-the-hour FM radio bumper tune “Peaches En Regalia,” which is perhaps the most light and airiest track included, but (if you listen closely) note the complexities that exist on this tightly arranged beauty. In stark contrast to the opener comes the raw “Willie the Pimp” with Captain Beefheart’s over-the-edge vocals. As kooky as this starts out, the jam that unfolds (with just Zappa, Guerin, and Bennett) is one of my all-time favorites, the fatness and interplay that all three musicians exude is of the highest magnitude, and they all play their asses off into the stratosphere! “Son of Mr. Green Genes” has symphonic similarities to “Peaches En Regalia,” that is until Zappa unleashes his first guitar solo which is when the plot thickens. Zappa solos throughout and lets Underwood cook too, the rhythm section is right there every step of the way, and those wild orchestral arrangements remain forever imbedded in my brain. The quirky “Little Umbrellas” finds Bennett on stand-up, a rarity for Zappa, but this is one of my least favorite songs on this otherwise magnificent recording. Oh, man, I forgot how intense “The Gumbo Variations” were/are, Zappa’s ripping on the first notes, eventually Sugar Cane electrifies the bar and explodes, and there’s Underwood’s scorching sax, Bennett’s bass is relentless as is Paul Humphrey’s drumming. This all goes on through all kinds of twists, turns, and gyrations for nearly thirteen minutes of utter chaos, but somehow it all works, at least it does for me… The finale “It Must Be Camel” introduces Jean-Luc Ponty for the first time here. Ponty possesses a lighter tone than Sugar Cane (not many played with the ferocity of Sugar Cane), but that being said this closing tune meanders (sometimes aimlessly) and our little trip down a fuzzy memory lane is over.
To say that Zappa was light years ahead of his time would be an understatement. Not only did FZ play guitar here, he also produced, composed, and directed this near masterpiece single handedly, and assembled a band (not known for their rock and electrified jazz work) prior. Kudos to Frank Zappa for such fearless leadership, I still miss him dearly.
Remastering note: The liner notes indicate that this version of Hot Rats was re-mastered in 2008 by Bernie Grundman. While I can hear subtle differences from the previous version of the CD, I am not impressed with the recording sound. Yes, there’s a tiny bit more detail, but the dynamics of the recording are lackluster and offer little additional punch to this mind-bending recording. I was really looking forward to being punched in the gut by this remix, but upon several listening sessions, I remain mostly disappointed. Oh well, Hot Rats is still a tremendous recording, enjoy!
Bob Putignano is a senior contributing editor at BluesWax, a contributing writer at Blues Revue, and the heart and soul of Sounds of Blue.
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