Return to Forever IV and Zappa Plays Zappa at the Orpheum Theatre, 8/24/11

Categories: Last Night

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Return to Forever IV & Zappa Plays Zappa
August 24, 2011
Orpheum Theatre


While the term "jazz fusion" often makes music fans cringe, there still remains an ever-faithful audience for the 70's style of rock and jazz that showed up to the Orpheum Theatre Wednesday night. Some of the most iconic music, from the inventors and pillars of the genre, were present. And, take it or leave it, you can't deny the abilities of its practitioners--and all were on display in full force in an exhilarating evening of high decibel, frenzied musicianship.

Starting the evening off was Dweezil Zappa's latest band, Zappa Plays Zappa. Frank, known as a genius for his compositional approach, personality, and fusing of not just jazz and rock but often classical, doo-wop and blues music. However, what the Dweezil and company have managed to do since beginning this tribute to the elder Zappa's work is not only continuing bring his music to new audiences with perfect execution, but have given voice to a bevy of younger players.

The 7-piece ensemble features some of the highest-caliber musicians Dweezil's taken on. Of note was bassist Pete Griffin and singer Ben Thomas, who was able to channel Frank, Captain Beefheart, and his own vocal gymnastics on "Carolina Hardcore Ecstacy", "Willie the Pimp", crowd pleasing couplet of "Don't Eat Yellow Snow" into "Nanook Rubs It".

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Unlike past tours from Zappa Plays Zappa, this show featured only the core members and didn't integrate any players from Frank Zappa's past. It's always been great to see the meshing of the past and present, having Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio and Napolean Murphy Brock play with the band on previous visits to the Twin Cities.

Return to Forever IV represented the standing giants of the jazz-fusion genre. As veterans and pioneers of the craft the five members, led by keyboard wizard Chick Corea on this tour, included Frank Gambale on guitar, Jean-Luc Ponty on violin, Lenny White on drums and Stanley Clarke on bass. All long-time collaborators--with a combined age of 312--the five members did everything they could to play as many notes per second as possible during the set.

Again: if you aren't a fan of jazz fusion this would have likely made your temperature boil over. The level and consistency of playing was so over-the-top you could see people's eyes and ears popping. And while the music has a history with many of those present, the uninitiated wouldn't have known what to do while sitting through it. It is music played to an extreme that in this day and age is not only typically frowned upon but, outside of music schools, not even attempted. Despite that, the rabid audience of fans in the crowd ate up every note.

"I bet he's going to play 'School Days'! I swear he's gonna do 'School Days'!!" shouted the guy next me continuously throughout the set. Eventually they would (for the encore), but not before Return to Forever IV cascaded through a millenia of music all showing off each member's compositional skills, solo work, and nuance that delivered a satisfying, if not seizure-inducing, effect on the music lovers and air drummers and guitarists in the crowd.

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photo by @mitchelsbrew
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Often switching between an electric and acoustic, some of the work showing the technique and musicality of newer songs and providing a context to go back into some of the more classic material from the different member's past. More often than not, one player or another took extended solos during each song. While there always remained a steady groove and support from the band, there were definite moments of overindulgence. But: in many ways that is what this style is all about.

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Continually throughout the night each member of Return to Forever IV took a time-out between pieces to address the audience, say their thanks and praise, and introduce the other members of the group and some of their own songs. The theme overall was that these guys are top notch players, are still at it, and feel the love from a crowd that is still listening and, miraculously in many cases, even singing along.

Critic's Bias: Huge Zappa fan.
The Crowd: An amazing mix of hippies who kept getting lost to find their seats, music students and general enthusiasts of 70's jazz fusion. Don't smirk... they really do exist!
Overheard in the Crowd: "Man, that Gambale... he's definitely known for those sweet leads!"
Random Notebook Dump: How many ways can you really scramble an egg guys!?


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