Released on the 1970 LP Hot Rats, “The Gumbo Variations” is a studio jam session. A basic drum beat, a wobbling bass line, a simple melodic frame, and the stage was set for the three main soloists of the day. First, Ian Underwood delivers one of the best saxophone solos he recorded for Zappa: crossing over to free jazz, he steals the spotlight for seven whole minutes. Violinist Sugar Cane Harris comes in next, followed by Zappa himself. There you have it: a straightforward rock jam featuring gifted improvisers. Of course, “The Gumbo Variations” is far from the usual material the man put out, but then Hot Rats is not your typical Zappa record. This piece is one of the reasons why so many people who usually hate the guitarist agree on the qualities of the album. The original LP version of the piece was edited, but when Ryko reissued the album on CD in 1987, it was restored to its 17 minutes. Zappa’s love of studio tweaking being legendary, this is most probably the only complete take of a jam session available on his records. — allmusic’s François Couture
Also from allmusic Steve Huey’s review of Hot Rats, one of the earliest albums I ever bought (my mum might have even brought it home). I still think Captain Beefheart is at his seediest best on Willie the Pimp and I absolutely also love “Sugarcane” Harris’ violin on this track.
Aside from the experimental side project Lumpy Gravy, Hot Rats was the first album Frank Zappa recorded as a solo artist sans the Mothers, though he continued to employ previous musical collaborators, most notably multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood. Other than another side project — the doo wop tribute Cruising With Ruben and the Jets — Hot Rats was also the first time Zappa focused his efforts in one general area, namely jazz-rock. The result is a classic of the genre. Hot Rats’ genius lies in the way it fuses the compositional sophistication of jazz with rock’s down-and-dirty attitude — there’s a real looseness and grit to the three lengthy jams, and a surprising, wry elegance to the three shorter, tightly arranged numbers (particularly the sumptuous “Peaches en Regalia”). Perhaps the biggest revelation isn’t the straightforward presentation, or the intricately shifting instrumental voices in Zappa’s arrangements — it’s his own virtuosity on the electric guitar, recorded during extended improvisational workouts for the first time here. His wonderfully scuzzy, distorted tone is an especially good fit on “Willie the Pimp,” with its greasy blues riffs and guest vocalist Captain Beefheart’s Howlin’ Wolf theatrics. Elsewhere, his skill as a melodist was in full flower, whether dominating an entire piece or providing a memorable theme as a jumping-off point. In addition to Underwood, the backing band featured contributions from Jean-Luc Ponty, Lowell George, and Don “Sugarcane” Harris, among others; still, Zappa is unquestionably the star of the show. Hot Rats still sizzles; few albums originating on the rock side of jazz-rock fusion flowed so freely between both sides of the equation, or achieved such unwavering excitement and energy.
The original gumbo variations version followed by Zappa on Zappa’s version, the latter very good indeed as it all his stuff: unusual for making a career of one’s father’s legacy. Dweezil is in a league of his own (if one must insist that he is running a tribute band): unlike the usual tribute kitsch he has taste and class and is highly talented in his own right. One would have to be to be able to interpret Zappa’s challenging body of work.