MAD RIVER UNION, 5-13-2022
Stinkfoot Orchestra, Napoleon Murphy Brock bring Zappa classics to Humbrews Friday
ARCATA – In the 29 years since Frank Zappa died, countless ensembles have cropped up, attempting to replicate the absurdist virtuosity of a Zappa show. Few, however, can boast the participation of one of Frank’s most revered lead singers.
This Friday, May 20 at Arcata’s Humboldt Brews, you can behold just such a rockin’ teenage combo – in this case, the 15-piece Stinkfoot Orchestra (SFO) – deploying their sonic Zappa distortion field.
Further elevating the escapade will be a genuine Zappa alumni, the man Frank himself hired to front his band – Napoleon Murphy Brock. The legendary sax man and singer (and vivid storyteller) was part of the Zappa band that included George Duke, Ruth Underwood and Chester Thompson, and sang on classic FZ tunes such as “Pygmy Twylyte,” “Cheepnis” and “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy.”
On being asked to appear with a Zappa-oriented band, Brock he reviews their demo tape to hear whether or not the music is being performed “correctly.”
That’s no small feat when the tunes are festooned with Frank’s trademark tricky tinkertoys, polyrhthymic note blizzards, knots of nested tuplets and the occasional rampaging giant poodle. Not all make the grade, but the SFO did.
“I know the difference,” Brock said. “I was there.”
The band’s exertions are well appreciated by Zappa fans.
“People come up to me teary-eyed at shows, saying, ‘We can’t possibly fathom the amount of work that goes into pulling this off, but we appreciate all the work you put into doing it right’,” said SFO founder Nick Chargin.
That requires carefully balancing the labors of a 6-piece horn section with the rock and percussion side of things, plus deft pacing of the ultra-demanding songs
“Everything is coordinated,” Chargin said, for maximum musical coherence. “There are considerations on many different levels.” A “pretty intense medley” of full-band songs will be followed by more basic Frank fare that gives the horn section “a chance to breathe,” and for the multi-instrumentalists to switch off with each other.
While organizing a small plattoon of musicians to play difficult music for nominal compensation is a heavy lift, love and luck have played their role as well. “So many serendipitous things have happened,” Chargin said. These include being hooked up with key musicians such as mallet man Shota Otaguro (essential for the authentic Zappa flavor), Frank-fanatic bassman Joey Fabian and, of course, having benefit of Mr. Brock’s limitless exuberance.
“He’s full of infectious energy, and hasn’t lost a note of his range,” Chargin said. “The universe is on our side. Frank is smiling down on us.”
In an interview, Brock is full of reflections, observations, reverance for Frank and gratitude for having been part of “the Conservatory of Zappa Music.” And he has a message for Arcata music fans.
“If they miss this show, they’re doing themselves incredible psychological harm,” Brock cautioned.
“This music matters,” Chargin affirmed. “To us and to the greater good of society.”
The Stinkfoot Orchestra Featuring Zappa Alum Napoleon Murphy Brock Makes Debut In San Jose
Watch videos and check out the setlist for the band’s first performance celebrating the music of Frank Zappa.
By Ted Silverman
San Jose-based singer and keyboardist, Nick Chargin expended a great deal of effort, over a span of the last two years, to reinvigorate the music of Frank Zappa, as delivered by Frank’s hand-picked frontman of the 1970s: San Jose’s one and only, Napoleon Murphy Brock (aka “Napi.”) This effort resulted in the recent debut performance of The Stinkfoot Orchestra at San Jose’s Art Boutiki Gallery on Friday, September 11.
This comfortable but intimate room played host to a pre-show VIP meet and greet, followed by a high energy, professionally executed review of the best of the Napi-era Zappa repertoire, along with a few choice vocal and instrumental gems from other eras, delivered by The Stinkfoot Orchestra.
Chargin (formerly of the Blissninnies, among other bands) gathered a cohort of extremely talented and musically adept to support the effort of presenting this much-loved but often challenging material. As bandleader, Chargin offered Napoleon the opportunity to jump backward in time and be the face of the music.
The Stinkfoot Orchestra featured a blazing six-piece horn section with John Hassan (baritone saxophone), Jo Major (tenor and soprano saxophone), Paul Degen (saxophone/flute) Mike McWilliams (trumpet/flugelhorn), Kevin Kono (trumpet) and Mark “DBone” DeSimone (trombone). The orchestra’s rhythm section consisted of masterful percussion and vibraphonist Dillon Vado, ace-drummer Michael Palladino and rocking bassist Josh Baker, along with the exceptionally talented guitarist Tomek Sikora who delivered fantastic tones, fleet-fingered accuracy and a remarkable touch in rendering this fully composed music. Improvisations occurred but they were rare, which really emphasized the challenge put before Tomek.
Backing Napoleon at every turn, the orchestra featured Chargin’s effervescent personality, vocals and driving keyboards, along with a trio of expressive backup vocalists – Mike Boston, Lainey Leone and Suzi Baker. Napoleon Murphy Brock delivered most of the night’s vocal drama and contributed tenor sax and flute in complicated compositions like, “Echidna’s (Arf of You), from the Live at the Roxy era.
In a July interview I undertook with Napi, he stated, “I appreciate the fact that they prepared themselves properly. They learned the music properly, they play the right notes and they are articulate about it. I didn’t have to come in and teach anything. If they weren’t doing it correctly, I wouldn’t show up. I mean, the standard is high.”
Chargin teed up the evening’s entertainment by introducing the entire 14-piece band with the strains of “Zoot Allures,” as the foundational theme. A suite of songs from the 1974’s Roxy and Elsewhere album followed, which included “Son of Orange County,” “More Trouble Every Day,” and the epic, ”Penguin in Bondage,” all delivered with skill, humor and tongue-in-cheek excellence. “City of Tiny Lights,” from Frank’s 1979 opus, Sheik Yerbouti followed.
Sliding backward in time to 1972, “Blessed Relief,” an instrumental track from the Grand Wazoo, led back toward the present with another track from 1979, “Outside Now,” from Joe’s Garage Acts II & III. “Dirty Love,” from Overnight Sensation (circa 1973) had all the grind and nastiness of the album track with Napoleon expertly covering the vocal originally laid down by trumpeter Sal Marquez. With all the time-shifting, it was not surprising that “Dirty Love,” flowed seamlessly into “Magic Fingers,” from 1971’s 200 Motels LP.
“Florentine Pogen,” from the 1975 LP One Size Fits All, led to, “Uncle Remus,” from the 1974 LP Apostrophe. Toward the tail end of the set, Napoleon headed for the green room. The Stinkfoot Orchestra showed off their incredibly tight instrumental chops (laced with playful humor) by applying their skills to the familiar “Joe’s Garage,” from the eponymously named LP, released back in 1979. SFO did a terrific job in emulating all the novelty factors of the voice-over elements in “Joe’s Garage” to great effect, led by the close vocal emulation of Zappa by Boston and “nagging neighbor,” hilarity by Baker.
After a brief intermission, the second frame of the night kicked off with, “Camarillo Brillo,” from Overnight Sensation with a seamless transition toward a pair of tunes that Napoleon considers the heart of his contribution to the Zappa repertoire, “Village of the Sun,” and “Echidna’s Arf of You,” from 1974’s Live at the Roxy double LP (and movie). From there, things got cynical and dark with Napi’s expertly delivered take on “I’m The Slime,” from Overnight Sensation. “Advance Romance,” from 1975’s Bongo Fury followed by “Sofa #1” from One Size Fits All concluded this suite of tunes from the 1970s.
“Heavenly Bank Account,” from 1981’s You Are What You Is followed by a swing back to the ’70s with “Zomby Woof,” and “Montana,” from Overnight Sensation and then “Inca Roads,” from One Size Fits All concluded the pre-encore portion of the show.
The four-song encore was rich with classics starting with FZ’s contribution to The Real Book, “Peaches en Regalia,” from 1969’s Hot Rats, let guitarist Sikora blaze adeptly on guitar backed by the full-power of the SFO six-piece horn section.
“Muffin Man” from Bongo Fury was charmingly delivered by Napoleon with its existential musings on the nomenclature of baked goods and sexual confusion. The classic “Cosmik Debris” was one last comic offering for the night, with even more drama saved for the evening’s ultimate gem, “Andy,” from One Size Fits All, which put an emphatic exclamation point on this debut demonstration of devotion to the life and music of Frank Zappa.
The Stinkfoot Orchestra with Napoleon Murphy Brock admirably delivered all the musical virtuosity, compositional non-conformity, and satire of American culture that Frank Zappa distilled within his extensive oeuvre. Word has it that Napi is “all in,” for further live performances and Nick Chargin and The Stinkfoot Orchestra are currently making plans for fall shows and expanding their already broad repertoire in order to entertain stalwart Zappa-nuts and brand new fans.
The impression left upon driving home from this experience was one of deep appreciation mixed with laughter and amazement. The Stinkfoot Orchestra is more than worthy of your time and money.
Set One: Zoot Allures (Band Intros) > Son of of Orange County > More Trouble Every Day, Penguin in Bondage > City of Tiny Lights, Blessed Relief > Outside Now, Dirty Love > Magic Fingers, Florentine Pogen > Uncle Remus, Joe’s Garage
Set Two: Camarillo Brillo > Village of the Sun, Echidna’s (Arf of You) > I’m the Slime > Advance Romance> Sofa #1 > Heavenly Bank Account > Zomby Woof, Montana > Inca Roads
Encore: Peaches en Regalia, Muffin Man > Cosmik Debris > Andy
Introducing The Stinkfoot Orchestra Featuring Zappa Alum Napoleon Murphy Brock
(Not) just another band from San Jose!
By Ted Silverman Aug 18, 2021 • 1:53 pm PDT
As a passionate student and devotee of the history of the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll, I recently had the opportunity to chat with one of the most talented yet under-appreciated frontmen of the 1970s: Napoleon Murphy Brock. Brock, (referred to by his close associates as “Napi,”), is best known for his humorous and animated work singing and playing saxophone and flute with Frank Zappa in the 1970s.
His stint with Frank encompassed work on albums like Apostrophe, Roxy & Elsewhere, One Size Fits All, Bongo Fury, Sheik Yerbouti, Have I Offended Someone and Thing Fish among others, and vocal performances on songs like “Village Of The Sun,” “Cheepnis” and “Florentine Pogen.” Napi also played a key role in a number of Frank Zappa’s movies and documentaries including Baby Snakes, A Token of His Extreme, Roxy The Movie and more.
“Frank Zappa only had one frontman and his name was Napoleon Murphy Brock. And that frontman was also someone he hired to interpret his music, not just to sing it. I sang songs that he could not find anyone to sing, because they couldn’t understand what the hell was going on.” — Napoleon Murphy Brock
In his post-Zappa-life, he led the Grand-Mothers of Invention alongside Zappa-alums, Roy Estrada, Tom Fowler and Don Preston, served the sax and vocals role in early iterations of Zappa Does Zappa alongside Dweezil Zappa and Steve Vai (winning a Grammy for his performance of the song “Peaches en Regalia”) and continues to perform and record under his own name.
My recent chat with Napi took place via Zoom meeting, with some assistance from keyboard wiz and Zappa-phile Nick Chargin who along with Napi is rooted and based in San Jose, California. Nick’s musical footprints in the Bay Area music scene include playing keys for regionally renowned bands, Blissninnies and Elephino. Nick was in on the Zoom call and he, along with a few of his Bay Area running partners, are responsible for putting together The Stinkfoot Orchestra, a 15 piece Tribute to Frank Zappa featuring Napoleon Murphy Brock: the latest fully evolved, fully orchestrated homage to the history and legacy of Frank Zappa’s music.
My starting point for our discussion was geographic in nature. My initial question was why the debut performance of the Stinkfoot Orchestra, slated to occur on September 11 was taking place in San Jose?
“Well, it’s my hometown,” Napoleon said. “I was born here. I graduated from high school here. I went to San Jose City College and San Jose State here. I love San Jose. I told people about San Jose before Burt Bacharach … I was telling people this long before any of this happened because I knew about the passion and the love. My family, my father’s family, was the first Afro-American family in San Jose, California. So yeah, I have a passion about San Jose. I learned Broadway in San Jose. I was doing high school plays, Guys & Dolls and stuff like that. And the San Jose Opera Company came and drafted me out of high school to work with them for four years. That’s how I learned Broadway. And that’s how I learned theater.”
It is worth noting that despite having lived in San Jose most of his life, the upcoming Stinkfoot Orchestra performance will mark the first time Napoleon has ever had the opportunity to play Frank Zappa’s music in his hometown.
The band’s history is explained on their fledgling website:
In the early months of 2019, South Bay musician Nick Chargin (keyboards and vocals) got a wild hair up his ass.” Best known for his work with the successful Bay Area cover band, the Houserockers, Nick had the idea of assembling an ensemble to acknowledge one of his greatest musical influences – Frank Zappa. The goal he set was to perform a handful of shows in the winter of 2020 ( which were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic) in celebration of what would have been Frank’s 80th birthday.
But it couldn’t be just any band … There had to be horns. There had to be a mallet player. There had to be backup singers. This had to be more than a band that was capable of playing “all the right notes” – it had to be a band that was capable of performing Frank’s music with accuracy and integrity.
I asked Napoleon about how Nick and the Orchestra prepared for their debut and subsequent performance.
“Well, I appreciate the fact that they prepared themselves properly,” Napoleon said. “They learned the music properly, they play the right notes and they are articulate about it. I didn’t have to come in and teach anything. If they weren’t doing it correctly, I wouldn’t show up. I mean, the standard is high.
“It’s music that’s ahead of its time. Time definitely has not caught up with it yet, and it probably never will. And because of the construction of it and because of the genius of the creator, there’s a certain standard that has to be followed. If that standard is not followed, it’s obvious immediately. There is no questioning whether it’s there or not. It either is or it is not. If it is not, then I have to exit.”
“One of the things, as far as putting the instrumentation together, orchestrating this and finding players, you look for different things with different players, like the trumpet players, it’s best to have people who are classically trained,” Chargin added. “With your sax players, It helps to have some jazz influence in there. We’ve got mallet percussion too, you know, and Dillon (Vado), he’s a monster, man, pulling off Ruth Underwood’s lines. That’s not an easy task, man. That stuff is really hard.”
Our discussion focused on the immense cognitive and physical challenge of internalizing the complexity, scale and scope of Frank’s compositional legacy and the dedication, mastery and skill it demands from those Frank hired. The challenge remains for musicians skillful and adept enough to tackle it in the post-Zappa era.
Napi explained his perspective on the subject at length:
“You have to understand what his music represents and the type of music that it represents, I would never have gone with Frank if he had insulted me on our first meeting. He was very smart and he was a genius. I understood part of his genius because he walked up to me and he said, ‘Hello, my name is Frank Zappa, and you’re my new lead frontman and lead vocalist’ …
“Because of the element of jazz that’s incorporated in his compositions, that’s where the scripting or the space for improvisation lives. But before you get to the improvisation, you have to first play the conversation. In things like a ‘Echidna’s Arf,’ you could be a half a tone off and think you’re right, and you could be completely wrong. And mostly, conservatory musicians catch it because of their training. If you don’t have conservatory training or a level of training that’s near and severe — all of these elements are necessary, just to understand the music. And then you have to learn how to play it.
“Now that’s the crux of the biscuit for Zappa right there. If you could start with that, you have to retrain your brain. Maybe you all used the left side before. Well, you need to use the right side. Now you have to open your mind and understand that music is two things. Frank said it. Duke Ellington said it. ‘There’s only two kinds of music. Good and bad.’ How you play. It is one of the determining factors and whether or not it is good or bad because you’d either play it right or wrong.”
The debut performance of Stinkfoot Orchestra is scheduled for September 11 at Art Boutiki in San Jose.
Please check back later for updates.