Review by Brad Walseth
When casual listeners think of the late composer Frank Zappa, they often think of his scatological references and mutant rock guitar work, but Zappa, although not a fan of the standard ii-V7-I jazz formula, did at times write some interesting "jazz" music. Now Norwegian guitarist/surrealist Jon Larsen has released an album of music that builds on the Zappa-esque style of jazz music. Appropriately titled "Strange News from Mars," this production is noteworthy for the way it accurately mimics Zappa's more jazzy excursions as well as for the fact that former Mothers of Invention members Tommy Mars, Bruce Fowler, Arthur Barrow and Jimmy Carl Black appear on it. In fact Barrow engineered the recording and Mars plays keyboards throughout, with Fowler adding some delicious trombone. Black primarily provides comic interludes (as the "First Indian on Mars"), but what may be most amazing is how Larsen's core band: bassist Ole Morten Vågan, drummer Håkon Mjåset Johansen, guitarist Knut Reiersrud, marimba player Rob Waring and Larsen himself are able to effectively reference from and build on the Zappa oeuvre.
Songs like "Mutant Fromage," "The Secret Word for Today," "Conseptual Continuity on the Red Planet," etc… share more than bizarre titles with Zappa's outlook. Strange time changes, unexpected changes, extended vamps, jumpy bursts of marimba, comedic interjections and Zappa-inspired textures will be familiar to those who recall the late composer’s less-prickly (though no less creative) side. Songs like "A Windy Day on Mars" and the reggae-tinged "Capt. Zurcon's Cranberry Cocktail" feature Larsen attempting to merge his Django-influenced guitar style with Zappa's modal blues improvisational guitar sound with stellar results. Throughout, Tommy Mars is a killer on the keys (check out his work on "Cydonian Music," "Cinderella on the Event Horizon of a Black Hole"), and shows why the legendarily particular Zappa would have entrusted him with the keyboard chair from 1977-1982. We are reminded that the keyboardist's signature tones and angular forays were a big part of Zappa's sound during this highly creative phase of the artist's career.
Larsen promises that this release is only the first of a trilogy and we can hope for more from this fine group of musicians. Zappa died far too young, and as this release shows us, there was plenty more work to be done in the areas he was pioneering.