Frank Zappa’s prolific career as composer, arranger, guitarist, satirist, dada art conceptualist, producer, and record company entrepreneur spans a breathtaking array of American and European styles, often brought together in combinations through his own idiosyncratic filter.

Zappa first moved into commercial rock & roll music — relatively speaking — with his 1973 album Over-Nite Sensation. This was a collection of short songs about sexual deviants and other oddballs, like the dental floss farmer in “Montana,” which turned out to be Zappa’s first hit. Longtime fans cried sellout, while feminists were enraged.

Commercial-sounding rock would be Zappa’s primary mode of expression for much of the remainder of his career. The next album, Apostrophe (‘), featured the hit “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” (with its “huskie wee-wee”) and the is-he-racist-or-is-he-not “Uncle Remus” in addition to brief gems liks “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast” and “Excentrifugal Forz.”

Just as it seemed as though Zappa was descending irrecoverably into commercialism and cheap satire, he did something that saved his career trajectory for the next few years: he hired an absolutely killer band. The live Roxy & Elsewhere, from 1974, was the first document to feature a lineup that included tuned-percussion virtuoso Ruth Underwood; reed player and manic vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock; the airy, jazzy keyboards and vocals of ex-Cannonball Adderley sideman George Duke; the Fowler brothers (Tom on bass, Walt on trumpet, Bruce on trombone), and Chester Thompson on drums. This band achieved an ideal balance of personal style with the ability to play Zappa’s daunting music flawlessly.

Roxy is a fine album, but the greatest achievement by this band is You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore – Vol. 2 (YCDTOSA #2), one of the series of live albums that Zappa released in 1992, this one culled from a series of concerts that a smaller version of the band played in Helsinki. Where Zappa couldn’t rely on his audience’s command of the English language, he toned down some of the cheap humor and focused more on the music itself. The result was one of the best live progressive rock albums ever recorded, up there with Phil Manzanera’s 801 Live, Magma Live, and King Crimson’s Night Watch. The band rips through “serious” instrumentals like “RDNZL” and “T’Mershi Duween” along with pop tunes like “Village of the Sun,” theatrical showpieces like “Room Service,” and repertory favorites ranging from “Montana” back to “Uncle Meat.” The communication amongst the musicians is telepathic.

Zappa went into the studio with the Roxy band and produced his best studio album of the mid-70s, the unjustly overlooked One Size Fits All. This sparklingly-produced collection of songs includes “Inca Roads,” featuring one of Zappa’s most memorable guitar solos (pasted in from the aforementioned Helsinki concerts); the heavy-metal-ish “Florentine Pogen,” the two German lieder-influenced “Sofas,” and no cheap porn whatsoever. The programming, material, and playing make this one a standout among Zappa’s rock albums.

Fans of the Roxy lineup should also look for the DVD Frank Zappa: Dub Room Special, which contains clips of that lineup from a live TV special (as well as others of a later, less interesting band).

Another interesting sidelight to this band is Road Tapes, Venue 2, which was released in 2013.  It was recorded in Helsinki a year before the YCDTOSA #2 concerts.  The material is much the same, but the band is a transitional one from the previous Zappa era: in addition to George Duke, Ruth Underwood, and Tom Fowler, it featured Tom’s brother Bruce on trombone, Ian Underwood (of older Zappa bands) on keyboards and reeds, and special guest Jean-Luc Ponty on violin. Zappa’s approach to this material was more tentative, and the band hadn’t jelled as on YCDTOSA #2, but the material still shines.