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Published Sep. 27, 2005

Frankly A Cappella: The Persuasions Sing Zappa (Earthbeat) _ The Persuasions and Frank Zappa? Sure, both are great American originals, but they don't seem to have much, if anything, in common. Zappa was a Southern California rock 'n' roller influenced by avant-garde classical composers such as Stravinsky and Varese. The Persuasions, who met on Brooklyn basketball courts in 1962, salvaged the lost art of a cappella singing decades before Take 6 and Rockappella came on the scene.

But, in fact, there is a longtime connection between the two. It was Zappa and his wife, Gail, who signed the Persuasions to their first album deal. The quintet made its recording debut on Zappa's Straight label in 1970. Now the group _ expanded to six members _ pays tribute with an improbable, delightful a cappella treatment of Zappa's music.

The album gets off to a breathtaking start with rapid-paced wordless vocalizing on the jazz instrumental, Lumpy Gravy. Zappa composed the work, according to executive producer Rip Rense's liner notes, with the word "duodenum" in mind, and the Persuasions even manage to work that into their bravura performance.

Zappa, who died in 1993, tends to be underestimated because he is best known for novelty hits like Don't Eat the Yellow Snow and Valley Girl, but the Persuasions might change people's minds about him with their version of Any Way the Wind Blows, a lyrical love song, or the gospel shouter Find Her Finer.

Many of the 16 selections on Frankly A Cappella are sparkling arrangements in the tradition of the doo-wop music Zappa loved, but with the twist of weirdness that only he could dream up. The Persuasions turn to his classic album of faux '50s greaser rock, Cruisin' with Ruben & the Jets, for a pair of streetcorner song symphonies, Cheap Thrills and Love of My Life. They deliver a gorgeous rendition of Tears Begin to Fall, featuring the upper-register acrobatics of guest vocalist Robert Martin.

The album is not totally a cappella. The lineup on several songs includes guitarist Mike Keneally and trombonist Bruce Fowler, both former Zappa bandmembers. There are also three short interludes and a mystery track cooked up by the Persuasions in homage to Zappa's off-kilter humor. Grade: A _ JOHN FLEMING, Times performing arts critic