Nick Coleman: Why I dig Radio Zappa

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The Independent Online

My oldest and dearest friend, Lozzer, has been going through a Frank Zappa phase for, oh, 30 years. It began in the lower depths of teenage despair and has never abated. A typical early peak was the decision to remove all forms of music from his life except for that made by this famously irascible Sicilian-Greek son of Baltimore. Lozzer reasoned that the non-Zappa music he liked he knew off by heart; there was nothing worthwhile new under the sun - so he would make do with his 50-odd official Zappa records plus his 150 Zappa bootlegs.

Zappa's music, Lozzer believes, has all the world in it. Where I hear smug, overwrought, paranoid, snobbish, facetious, cold music of limitless ill-grace, my friend hears The Truth. He hears magnificently intricate, humorous, bewitchingly sly, deeply honest music of ground-breaking originality and imagination. I should add that Lozzer also thinks cats are better than people and fiction should never be read "because it's all lies, basically". I love him dearly.

And he will be chuffed that the late Frank is at the centre of a sparkling tiff at the heart of the British music establishment. Radio 3 has given over an edition of Jazz File later this month to his works. Deep horror is the result. Not among the Schubertians and Early Music boffins - but among R3's swingin' jazz listenership. "They are likely to start alienating the jazz fans the way they have the classical fans," spluttered one member of the listeners' group, FoR3.

But Roger Wright, controller of Radio 3 (and longstanding Zappaphile), is right. He is living in a musical world that has changed out of all recognition from the cosy post-war cultural carve-up. Borders no longer signify division but, in the words of the experts, interface.

The new thing I have most enjoyed this year was by a Norwegian quartet playing uncategorisable music that owes as much to Schubert and Scandinavian folk as it does to the jazz principle of improvisation. The Christian Wallumrod Ensemble's Sofienberg Variations is not what we used glumly to refer to as "fusion". It's 21st-century music of reach and bottom and modernity. And it's music that any self-respecting jazz, classical, folk or rock fan should have no difficulty inhabiting as if it were their very own house of boogie. A Radio 3 that cannot contend with music like that is not doing its job. And if it can contend with that, then its jazz constituency can cope with Frank Zappa. Sure, Miles Davis could teach Frank a thing or two about how the expression of complexity entails embracing the idioms of simple speech; Coleman Hawkins could teach Frank a thing or two about the value of warmth. Equally, R3's jazz listeners might well learn from Frank. Zappa is "all" interface. And they can congratulate themselves on not being so needy as to hear beauty in Zappa's essential ugliness.

Zappa famously observed that jazz isn't dead; it just smells funny. That's why he belongs on Radio 3. Worthwhile, challenging, difficult, culturally alive music always smells funny.