From 1988 to 1992, nearing the end of his life, Frank Zappa released a series of CDs made from live recordings of his bands from the 70s and 80s. He had compiled a huge library of recordings, and scoured them for the best, most significant performances of much of his catalog of rock and jazz music.
One of these recordings was an instrumental track called “Big Swifty”. The studio version of this took up the entire front side of the “Waka/Jawaka” album from 1972, and featured Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Aynsley Dunbar on drums and Soul Music Hall of Fame member George Duke on keyboards. But I was drawn to the live recording of the piece that was released on “You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 1“.
Sometime in the late 1990s, I was obsessed with that recording of that piece of music, in particular the middle improv section. You see, every time they played this track, the band improvised for several minutes in the middle. So no two recordings of it sound the same. The music in that section sounded unlike anything I was familiar with at the time, so I took the CD to work and played that track for a coworker of mine who was a bass guitarist and teacher with a serious background in jazz. “Where can I find other music that sounds like this?” I asked him. He listened to the recording once, maybe twice, and gave his answer, which was something like this:
“Yeah, that’s early- to mid-1970s fusion. Go listen to Weather Report and Herbie Hancock from that period.” So I did. At the time, I had never heard either except for Hancock’s weird track from the 80s called “Rockit” that they played on MTV. I started buying up Weather Report and Herbie Hancock albums, and grew a library of and appreciation for a whole new genre of music I’d never heard.
A few years later, I sold my turntable and gave away all my records, as part of what I call “the great downsizing of 2011”. But then I bought another better turntable (American made) in 2016, and rebuilt a small record collection. One of the first vinyl albums I bought? Herbie Hancock!
You still with me? Here’s where the story gets even better.
Now it turns out that in addition to making audio recordings of a ton of his live shows throughout the 70s and 80s, Zappa also filmed some of them. One film project was a set of shows his band did at the Roxy Theatre in 1973. The Roxy had just opened in the fall of 1973 and was the hot thing in West Hollywood. Tons of cool bands were playing there, and Zappa was booked to play on December 8, 9, and 10. The film crew filmed all of them on 16mm color film and made audio recordings (of course).
Unfortunately, there were some technical problems with the film reels they shot, preventing them from being synchronized to the audio correctly. And so the video was written off as a loss.
The audio recordings slowly made their way public over the course of the next 41 years. In 1974, Zappa released some of the recordings from the Roxy shows on the album “Roxy & Elsewhere“. But these recordings had overdubs of some parts. In 1988, some more recordings of those shows were released on “You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore, Volume 1” as I mentioned before. Those probably also had some edits and overdubs. In 2014, the album “Roxy by Proxy” was released that had original recordings of some of the other tracks from those performances, without any overdubs.
And then, in 2015, something wonderful happened. The technology of audio and video editing had advanced enough that they were able to go back to those 1973 film reels and repair them so they could be synchronized correctly with the audio recordings, which led to “Roxy – The Movie” being released. It’s a Blu-ray video from those shows, accompanied by a CD of the audio of those same recordings (without overdubs).
As of yesterday, I knew almost none of this. But then I found the video on Amazon Prime Video. So I decided to spend my Saturday night watching this 46 year old live performance, which I was pleased to discover included “Big Swifty”.
Can you guess what else I learned? The performance that’s in “Roxy – The Movie” is the exact same one that I heard 20 years ago on the live compilation CD from 1988. Now I can see all these amazing things I’ve only been able to hear for the past 20 years…
- Ruth Underwood’s mind-blowing mallet work
- the incredibly tightness of one of Zappa’s greatest bands at the height of their abilities
- George Duke and the rest of the band finding the groove instantly and staying in it for the duration
- Frank’s wildly unpredictable guitar solo that somehow just works
Thanks for bearing with my long gushing blog article.
If you want to hear the recording of this specific performance I’ve been talking about, it’s here on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAe3_O3vZzQ
And if you have Amazon Prime, you can watch the movie right here: https://www.amazon.com/Frank-Zappa-Live-at-Roxy/dp/B07JMX2Q7Q