San Francisco bassist Ashman formed the ZP Orchestra just to play classic songs from Motown and other sources casually at parties, but the loosely constituted soul revue proved mighty popular in those parts. The menu on Greatest Hits! includes “To Sir with Love” as well as “Nowhere to Run” and “River Deep Mountain High,” all given reverent big-band treatment with a rotating 15-strong cast of singers and players. A little too polite and slavish perhaps, but good-humored fun all the same. The Pitts Bear Down follows a similar course, with more ’60s soul classics getting the treatment.
The earlier Cooler Than Death features almost exclusively original material and only three musicians other than Ashman in common, but the Orchestra still gets cover billing. (Drummer Gina Schock, then still in the Go-Go’s, appears on three of the seven tracks.) In this far more ambitious undertaking, Ashman plays slithery, rhythmic instrumentals with inventive horn work, sardonic dance rock, low-key/dramatic soundtrack music, even a noisy piano improvisation. But the piŠce de resistance is a brilliant juxtaposition: Katie Guthorn singing George Gershwin’s “Summertime” over the “Peter Gunn Theme.”