Over the past couple of years, Universal Music, in partnership with the Zappa family, has been issuing multi-disc sets of archival Frank Zappa concert recordings, compiling some of the late avant garde master’s most iconic performances. And, each time a new collection arrives it’s tempting to declare it the one: the definitive assemblage of Zappa and his ensemble of magnus musicians. Whether it was the comprehensive box covering the Roxy stand of ’74 or the subsequent complete Halloween ’77 residency in New York City, each gave freshly unearthed cause to argue the latest was the greatest. Now, it’s the 40th anniversary of Zappa in New York that’s up for celebration and this is, at least for right now, the one.
The five-disc box takes over the top spot for one simple reason: “Black Napkins.” More specifically, the 25-minute version on disc four, and even more specifically, the solos from Eddie Jobson and Michael Brecker, on violin and saxophone, respectively. It’s that good; essential listening of which any description cannot serve it justly. Just listen and rejoice.
The rest of the collection is sonically and sequentially marvelous. The proper album, released in 1978 documenting the post-holiday December ’76 run in NYC featuring a one-off Zappa cast of regulars and guests from the Saturday Night Live band, is restored to its original vinyl mix. The subsequent discs include at least one version of every song performed during the multi-night tenure, each chosen for its exemplary nature; with some showing up multiple times. Additionally, there are some studio work-ups of the repertoire, including a Ruth Underwood solo tribute to “The Black Page #1, recorded in 2017.
As for the packaging, it’s functional and clever; each disc in its own sleeve, with full-color pics and dates of performance, within a New York City manhole-styled cylindrical container; its film-canister shape also winking in honor of a man who kept thousands of tapes. The booklet, with a horde of new photography from Zappa’s wife, Gail, and essays from band members Ray White and Underwood, as well as notes from Zappa’s Vaultmeister Joe Travers, capture the time, place, and legacy of these appearances with meticulous care, and love for their originator.
Without the aforementioned “Black Napkins,” Zappa in New York is an absolutely gratifying acquisition. If only for “Black Napkins” it is an absolutely gratifying acquisition. Together it becomes the necessary obligation of any Zappa fan- of anyone seeking an irreversibly affecting musical experience- to get this now and enjoy it, until, and then alongside, the next release likely, if the pattern continues, to emerge from the Vault and inevitably challenge it for the excelsior status of being the one. sdun