Stanley J. Zappa ‘Muster Point’ LP/CD (We Jazz) 4/5

Muster Point is Stanley J. Zappa’s first release on Helsinki’s We Jazz label. Until now he’s kept a low profile, previously appearing on a number of limited releases including a handful under his own name: 88888888 from 2010, Stanley J. Zappa Quintet live at Casse-tête, 2014 and Sing-Song Songs from 2016. A couple of these are quite conceptual abstractions, 88888888 was a private release of just 33 copies featuring Zappa on synth and electronics.

Originally from New Jersey, Zappa is now based in Oliver, Canada. His interest in jazz apparently sparked after hearing free jazz players Andrew Cyrille and Peter Brötzmann on Columbia University’s WKCR station, this later prompted study with Milton Graves and Bill Dixon. The Cyrille and Brötzmann set up of drums and sax is replicated on this album.

What struck me on my first listen to Muster Point was simply the sound of it rather than the music itself. There’s a sort of warmth and very natural unforced realness and an authentic stripped back quality to it. On most of the record, Zappa, who plays tenor and soprano sax along with alto clarinet is performing with Finnish drummer Simo Laihonen. The duo tracks are interspersed with tantalising glimpses of live trio work recorded on tour in Finland with the addition of Ville Rauhala on bass. Three of these four live tracks are just a few seconds in duration but the final is quite a show stopper.

Zappa and Laihonen both share a connection with free drummer and Renaissance man Milton Graves. It might be Graves’ ideas about music that in part account for the sound of this record. His dictum ‘The tone of the beat is as important as it’s duration’ sounds like it’s being played out here. Laihonen is perhaps best known for his trio Black Motor, which includes the aforementioned Ville Rauhala on bass.

One of the album’s highlights, ‘Operator Get Me Bennington College’, starts with that wonderful tone, it’s accompanied all the way through the track by a distant and disembodied voice from a telephone receiver, it’s barely audible in places but harmonises with Zappa in others, the total effect is quite meditative. The title, surely a reference to his former teacher Bill Dixon, professor of music at Bennington College, Vermont from 1968-1995 and founder of the college black music division. Dixon described his playing from 1970-1976 as ‘in total isolation from the marketplaces of this music’, perhaps Zappa, an artist who released just 33 copies of an album found himself identifying with this sentiment.

The soprano gets an outing on ‘538 E14TH, City of Piss, USA’. I couldn’t work out if this track is a homage to Otto’s Shrunken Head Tiki Bar and Lounge which is located at 538 E14TH or simply a cautionary tale, still, things really gel on this track with each musician producing remarkable levels of excitement.

The album closes with ‘Muster Point Ⅳ’ which really whets the appetite for the trio work, it was recorded live on tour in Finland like all the Muster Point tracks which pepper the album. The performance flows with a wonderfully abstract precision, a whole album of this stuff is something to anticipate.

Stanley J. Zappa is a pretty niche recording artist and for all I know he likes it that way but a few more releases like this will put paid to that.

James Read