Tis The Season To Be Jelly

Frank Zappa / Mothers Of Invention

Foo-Eee / Rhino Records, 1991


REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


Today we're going to talk about a subject that has often been taboo -- even controversial -- in the music industry: bootlegs .

In one sense, one can understand why record labels are so against these illegal recordings of artists, either in concert or, courtesy of master tapes lifted from studios or cars, works in progress. Such albums run the risk of taking away profits from the label, and certainly cost the artists songwriting royalties. On the other hand, bootlegs often give diehard fans a chance to hear their favorite bands in concert when they are unable to see them, or it gives them a peek at the creative minds that make the music the fans love.

But when it comes to dealing with bootlegs, you have to admire what Frank Zappa started to do just before his death in 1993 -- he started taking bootlegs and, with some cleanup work in his studios, stole them back from the bootleggers. The end result were two box sets of previously unavailable bootlegs, some of which are now available outside of the box sets. Today's review, Tis The Season To Be Jelly, was the first of the bootlegs Zappa reclaimed.

The album captures Zappa and his band, The Mothers Of Invention, onstage in Sweden in 1967, while touring for their debut release Freak Out. The songs that are instantly recognizable come from Freak Out and its successor, Absolutely Free; it is always interesting to hear "You Didn't Try To Call Me" and "Big Leg Emma" performed by either Zappa or one of the Mothers incarnations.

But what sets this album - and, for that matter, The Mothers -- apart from everything else is the mixture of music that they play onstage. From the shuffle-waltz tempo of "You Didn't Try To Call Me," Zappa leads the band into a portion of Stravinsky's "Petroushka," and instantly transforms a classical work into a catchy pop number. (Hardcore classical music fans would call this sacrilege; I call it introducing a form of music to a new audience.) If this weren't enough, the band segues from "Petroushka" to "Bristol Stomp," then into "Baby Love"... my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 finally into "Big Leg Emma," all without skipping a measure or leaving a noticeable seam. This, my friends, is Talent.

The highlight of Tis The Season To Be Jelly is an early performance of The Mothers' jazz-rock masterpiece "King Kong," including a brief description of the song from Zappa. Admittedly, "King Kong" is the type of song you must show some patience to get through, but in the end, it's well worth it, and may even open up some people's minds and ears to the world of jazz.

If only everything on this album were as good; the one disappointment comes in the closer, "It Can't Happen Here," an a capella number which illustrates "freaking out" - or is that free-forming? I just can't get into this rendition, no matter how hard I try.

Tis The Season To Be Jelly is a short album - which makes me wonder why Zappa didn't decide to flesh out the bootlegs with archival tape from the same show or ones from around that period. The Mothers (and, to a more limited extent, Zappa) were artists in flux; their style of music one year was not guaranteed to be the same style they'd be playing the next year. I do wish that Zappa had dusted off some old tape reels and given us a little more of a taste of this show, if he had taped the concert himself.

This is, by no means, a complaint about the sound on this one. It's a little spotty at times -- I noticed at least one instance of tape dropout -- but, for a bootleg, it's pretty damn good. I never doubted Zappa's artistry in the studios, but even I am amazed at this album's quality. (I have never heard the "official" bootleg, always having been too cheap to spend $15 on a one-record boot.) But one wonders how much anyone, even Zappa, could clean up a bootleg tape; I've listened to one or two clunkers in the Beat The Boots! collections.

Despite all the praise I've given this record, Tis The Season To Be Jelly is not an album for a fair-weather fan or for someone just getting into the whole Zappa scene. This one is more aimed towards the long-time, drooling fans who would sell their souls (if not their stereos) to get their hands on anything new with Zappa's name on it. Older fans who remember the starting days of The Mothers should also appreciate this one.

Zappa may have ceased touring five years before his death, but thanks to performances like those on Tis The Season To Be Jelly, those who weren't old enough (or alive) to experience The Mothers in their early days can still enjoy the songs of a true American legend. Here's hoping that Frank's widow Gail and his family continue the reclamation of bootleg material for official release.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1997 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Foo-Eee / Rhino Records, and is used for informational purposes only.