Chad Wackerman on the legacy of Frank Zappa, and a stirring new jazz-rock project

May 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of drummer Chad Wackerman’s studio debut with Frank Zappa on Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch. Wackerman would eventually appear on some two dozen Zappa recordings in a tenure that lasted from 1981-88. But Ship Arriving Too Late was special for another reason, in that it was also home to “Valley Girl” — Zappa’s only Top 40 single in the U.S. Co-written with Zappa’s daughter Moon Unit, the track peaked at No. 32 in the Billboard Hot 100.

Not that the belated notoriety changed anything about Zappa, or the way he did things.

“Unlike a pop band, nobody was really hanging out for the hit song: The audience didn’t come in expecting to hear certain songs from a Frank Zappa concert,” Wackerman told us, in the latest SER Sitdown. “They were happy to hear one of the more popular songs, like ‘Dancing Fool’ or ‘Bobby Brown,’ but you weren’t going there to hear hits. You went to a Zappa show to be surprised. You know: ‘What’s he going to do?,’ that was part of the thrill of a Zappa show.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Chad Wackerman's 2012 release deftly recalls and then updates the throwback fusion forms of his earliest solo collaborations with Alan Holdsworth.]

Wackerman has since launched a solo career as a respected jazz-fusion and rock musician, having recorded and toured with James Taylor, Steve Vai, Barbra Steisand, Andy Summers, Men at Work, Albert Lee, Terry Bozzio and Alan Holdsworth — who also appears on Wackerman’s 2012 release Dreams, Nightmares and Improvisations, a fire-and-ice amalgam of fusion sounds. His band is rounded out by guitarist Alan Holdsworth, keyboardist Jimmy Cox and bassist Jimmy Johnson, who were also featured on Wackerman’s initial solo dates as a leader — 1991’s Forty Reasons and 1993’s The View

NICK DERISO: Fellow band alum Adrian Belew compared his time with Frank Zappa to a kind of rock ‘n‘ roll postgraduate course, calling it the School of Zappa. Was it true that you used to take stacks of records home, just to be prepared for a setlist that might include as many as 80 different songs?
CHAD WACKERMAN: Everything could change. With Frank’s band, he would say: I want to play these 10 tunes, or something off of this older album. So you’d go home and learn that stuff, if you didn’t know it. But then he’d start changing it all! (Laughs.) He’d start rearranging it, or change the style of an old tune. To expand on that, he would also change it up while you were on stage, in front of thousands of people! You realized that, when it came to his stuff, the parts were written but it was really flexible, too.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Chad Wackerman was part of a legendary Halloween 1981 show with Frank Zappa, this two-hour blast of almost indescribably brilliant/crazy rock that actually aired on MTV.]

NICK DERISO: Zappa, in particular in concert, was such a master at pacing – oftentimes changing gears mid-song, with brilliant results.
CHAD WACKERMAN: And his music works in various styles. That kind of opened things up for me. He always had a nice contrast between very dense composed music that was very hard, and then he’d have a very long, open, very flowing guitar solo. It wasn’t all this in-your-face, really fast music. You would have these great breaths of musicality, when he would play guitar. That contrast made the dense stuff work really well. Too much of anything is going to get a little bit old. He had a really great understand of pacing, and how music needed to breathe and then be exciting, to travel all of the human emotions. Yeah, it was like being in an amazing school. He broke a lot of rules. I realized that things didn’t have to be only one way. He would assemble these musicians who would never be in any other band together, and the common denominator became Frank’s music. You would have a guitar player who was very influenced by Jimi Hendrix, and a keyboard player who was influenced by Art Tatum. You would have a classical percussionist, and jazz horn players. Frank’s music brought them together.

NICK DERISO: Your own background in jazz and classical music must have come in handy when you had to cope with complicated Zappa compositions like “Mo and Herb’s Vacation.”
CHAD WACKERMAN: I was a schooled musician, so I had played in some percussion ensembles. I played a lot of 20th century classic music. Big band jazz helped, too, because it was lot of reading and interpretation. Frank wrote a lot of music, and a lot of it was in a classical style. Even the rock tunes that we would play, it would not be uncommon for the middle section to be a piece of 20th century avant garde music. It would be hard for symphonic players to do it. Being schooled in a variety of styles was completely necessary to play in his band. I couldn’t just play by ear. It wouldn’t work. There’s too much detail in it.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Adrian Belew talks about the future of King Crimson, his brilliant orchestral reimaging of 'e,' and attending the Frank Zappa School of Rock.]

NICK DERISO: After Zappa, you moved into fusion, putting out a series of records that flew in the face of a jazz scene then dominated by either smooth jazzers or kids dressed up in suits mimicking the bebop legends. In many ways, the industry had moved past jazz rock. What made you stick to your guns?
CHAD WACKERMAN: Rock people tend to think this should be filed under jazz, while the jazz people think of it as rock. (Laughs.) We never gave much consideration to what was trendy at the time. We just kind of do what we do. It’s easier now too, when you’re out on your own. When you do something like that, you can put out what you want to put out. I think what you do is make the kind of music you want, the kind of music you can be proud of, rather than try to second guess what may be trendy at the time. I’ve always just tried to get my favorite musicians together, and record what happened. That goes back to Frank Zappa, years ago, too. He would get members of a band together, and figure out very quickly what they do well, and then use that. He would make arrangements to incorporate what that person could do. Part of what I like is getting a chance to improvise with players like Alan Holdsworth and Jimmy Johnson. What they come up with is so amazing to me, and so inspiring to me, that I end up playing at a different level. I’m not trying to second guess what people will like, or what they won’t like. I just try to be honest. I figure if we’re having fun, you’ll like what we’re putting out. Of course, it’s not for everybody. But the people who do like it seem to be very passionate about it, which is great.

NICK DERISO: The new album is a reunion of the classic 40 Reasons lineup, which incorporated fusion textures with a more free-jazz sense of improvisational abandon. We don’t get that sense of anticipation in music so much anymore these days – that sense of being out in a very wide open space.
CHAD WACKERMAN: It’s a dangerous place. In the pop world, you’ve got bands with sequencers, and tracking vocals. This is the opposite of that. You have to be a little brave to go out there. Of course, everybody plays a little differently now than we did when we made 40 Reasons. It’s also a little bit different in that the improv tunes on the new album were made in a trio format, with the composed stuff being done in a way more typical of a modern recording – with bass and drums, and guitars overdubbed later. It makes for more contrast, too, and that gives them a different feel than the improv stuff. When it comes to improvisation, though, it really becomes about the players. It’s everybody putting their own personality into it. If nobody has anything interesting to say, then it gets boring. It’s a fun thing to do, but it needs the right people to do it. When it’s bad, it’s quite hard to listen to. That’s why most people play composed tunes. It’s safer.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: We celebrate the session that saw Frank Zappa join forces with childhood friend Don Vliet aka Captain Beefheart for the ageless 'Willie the Pimp.']

NICK DERISO: A standout moment from the latest project is “Bent Bayou,” with its angular, second-line rhythm. That has the feel of a great jam session, where everyone gets a chance to shine.
CHAD WACKERMAN: Everything just happened very quickly. Jimmy Johnson came up with that double stop chord on the bass. He played about two bars of it on its own, and I said: “That’s great, let’s record that.” I just counted it off and we started. Alan happened to be on a clean sound, and he went with that for a while. It does have a very New Orleans feel – though, just spontaneously, I was playing in a much more aggressive style that you’d typically hear in that kind of music. But it still has that kind of dance feel to it, slightly swinging. It was a really weird combination of things that happened all at once. But I like that. I remember Frank saying, “You’d be crazy not to utilize the things that are really special about the musicians in your band.” And that’s just it: I would be crazy not to let Alan Holdsworth, Jimmy Cox and Jimmy Johnson just go for it, because stuff happens that you would never, ever be able to compose. They’re such great musicians, that it’s really, really easy for great music to come out of them, and it sounds composed.

NICK DERISO: Elsewhere, Dreams, Nightmares and Improvisations moves across so many textures and tones – something, of course, that’s so in keeping with the name. Did the title come first, or the music? Did you listen to what you had in front of you and think – well, this title fits?
CHAD WACKERMAN: I always come up with the titles last. Basically, the music was done over a period of time, and after a while I had many of the tunes finished. I was trying to piece it all together in a way that had some meaning to it, and my wife actually helped me with the title of this record. It was her idea. A lot of the improvisations were very ethereal sounding. When we talked about it all, that just seemed to be the mood of the band at that time. A lot of it was kind of dream like. But when I played her all of the songs, at one point, there was quite a lot of drama in it, too. So, she said why not call it Dreams, Nightmares and Improvisations? Of course, when it comes to the improvisations, some people don’t realize which is which. They’ve guessed that some of the composed tunes are improv, and the other way around.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: If we had to pick only one electric-guitar virtuoso album to take to that mythical desert island, it’s going to be Alan Holdsworth's 2000 gem 'The Sixteen Men of Tain.']

NICK DERISO: I can see how people might be confused discerning which was which – in particular because of the symbiotic musical relationship you have with Holdsworth. Sometimes the improvised stuff sounds like you already knew where you were going.
CHAD WACKERMAN: That’s a really important thing that you bring up. When you play improvised music, you can sense right away if the interaction is working well. To create something spontaneously, it’s very much like chemistry. You can have two players, and both of them are fantastic, but together it just doesn’t work. Years and years ago, when I auditioned for Alan Holdsworth, he didn’t play any composed tunes. It was just an hour and half of improvising – with no bass, either. Just guitar and drums. That’s how he chose a drummer for his band. He figured anybody could learn a tune, to learn the beats and kicks, but the real magic happens when you improvise together. So, we’ve always had that connection. It’s always been easy. It’s a lot tougher to keep it musical, or to make some kind of musical statement that doesn’t sound random or like it’s waffling along and not going anywhere. With Alan, he has so much music in him, I can pretty much leave him alone and he creates these great tunes spontaneously. I think together, it does create something new. Jimmy Johnson, Alan and myself have been playing together for almost 30 years. That’s one of the joys we’ve always had together: These guys are such great improvisers. They have so many great things to say. You just roll tape, and it all comes together. Nothing is really talked about. Somebody starts, and you just go.

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Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.