Often cited as a key example of jazz fusion, I think Hot Rats makes a rather poor representation of the genre. For the most part, it’s a well-orchestrated affair that leaves precious little room for any significant improvisation. And after all, it’s improvisation that marks any music as “jazz”. Zappa, as usual, is really the opposite of what he pretends to be. This music is sort of a distraction, a cynical ploy that conceals behind a wall of exuberant, nearly psychedelic effects a kind of gutless service to all the lame institutions of the past. This isn’t the freaks revolting and taking over the world; this is the show that the “great and powerful” Wizard of Oz puts on to help the boring old man control the realm just out of sight. Or perhaps it is cheap vaudeville to let off some steam so that the machinery of established society keeps churning without exploding. Either way, the status quo emerges unscathed.
The best offering here is “Gumbo Variations” (as the title implies it’s really built more off Euro-classical tradition than any kind of jazz idiom). A few players rotate solos and you’re out. Don “Sugarcane” Harris puts in a nice electrified violin solo, but the song really drags after a while. Captain Beefheart makes an appearance on “Willie the Pimp”. Even Beefheart kind of gets lost on the album, scarcely utilized at all. The album is respectable, but, like most Frank Zappa albums, it just isn’t anything special.