Market forces likely never motivated Frank Zappa much, if but to reinforce the musician’s dogged determination to maintain his independence. Even in 1970, when there existed a substantial desire amongst his audience to see a reunion of his Mothers of Invention, Zappa gave the people what he wanted disguised as what they wanted.
The Mothers of 1970 were a wholly new unit centered around two brilliant players- multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood and keyboardist George Duke- whose Zappa roots dated from and around the 1969 recording of Frank’s first solo album, Hot Rats; Underwood performed on the historic session; Duke, a friend of Jean-Luc Ponty (also on the session). As well, the subversive vocal pair of Flo and Eddie, aliases of two contractual Turtles on hiatus (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan), and the monstrous addition of the stellar Ansley Dunbar on drums and Jeff Simmons on bass, rounded out a septet that certainly could follow Frank having fun being funny, but most importantly, could really JAM; music designed not just to freak out the straights, but maybe even freak out the freaks, too.
The four-disc set begins with recording sessions from London’s Trident Studios, and are surfacing now, 50 years later, mostly for the first time. Free and funky, rocking and groovy, and definitely turn-of-the-decade progressive, the most conspicuous aspect of both the studio tracks and the three discs of live excerpts from their seven months together- aside from the expected wackiness- is Zappa’s ever-evolving guitar work amongst this dazzling bunch. Still biting and burning in the afterglow of Hots Rats and its elastic improvisations, Zappa is quickly establishing himself here as a guitar hero.
Several of live selections- such as “Pound For A Brown,” “Easy Meat,” and “King Kong,”- are becoming fabled centerpieces and would remain staples of the repertoire throughout Zappa’s entire career. The greasy, gritty, and grinding concert segments fascinate as they unspool- including, at a Florida performance, a jesting oath to rednecks, promising decency, followed by Zappa’s dedication of the show to Duane Allman- and are surprisingly strong sonically, given that many were recorded on Zappa’s own tape recorder; credit Zappa’s Vaultmeister Joe Travers and Estate guardian Ahmet Zappa for once again producing an archival release with the utmost care and attention.
Transitional as this turned out to be, the lineup of The Mothers of 1970 was incredibly influential on the coming smaller ensembles Zappa assembled, including drawing an indelible musical blueprint for the groups that wowed the Roxy and recorded perhaps Zappa’s best run of studio albums over the next five years. It was a short-lived band- not quite the reunion people imagined. Yet it was no doubt a killer group and more than deserving of this four-disc celebration.