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 , 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.

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