Zappa Plays Zappa

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Zappa Plays Zappa takes the music of frank to a new generation of fans

:: Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa ::
:: Fox Theatre :: November 25 ::

By Brian F. Johnson

“I always knew that I lived with a composer
who, luckily, through rock and roll,
was able to afford his habit which was writing
music — writing dots on paper.” wife Gail Zappa

When Frank Zappa passed away from prostate cancer in 1993, the Zappa family lost their patriarch, the band that bore his name lost its anchor, and a generation of audiences lost one of the most prolific and genius composers that contemporary America has ever seen.

Frank Zappa played his final concert in 1988. While he had left an enormous catalog with enough material to guarantee posthumous releases, the live performance music of Frank Zappa was largely a ship adrift without rudder or compass. In 2005, Frank’s own son Dweezil — one of the few individuals in the world who had the skills to pull it off, and also had the genetic green light to take on such an ambitious project — decided to change that.

Frank Zappa was a man of principal — a do it right and do it fair, kind of a guy: a guy who, in the 1980s would take on Al Gore’s wife Tipper in a national battle against censorship; a guy who was openly critical about middle-class morals and corrupt politicians; and, above all else, a guy who wrote some of the most meticulous, intricate and near-death-defying music ever recorded or performed. So it’s no wonder that his type-A, meticulous, do-it-right and do-it-fair son, Dweezil, who was kicked off of MTV in the 1980s for badmouthing the network on the Howard Stern show, took up the cause to get the music back out in the public’s scope.

It was a cause that would change his life and lifestyle drastically. “The first thing I had to do was to go back and listen to every one of his albums — 60 of them. That took a few weeks of listening for like eight hours a day,” Zappa said in a recent interview with The Marquee.

To do it right, Zappa had to become a master at dissecting his father’s impossibly complex arrangements — a feat that he shows off specifically on the “Classic Albums” episode which analyzed Frank’s heralded collection Apostrophe (’)/Over-nite Sensation. Watching Dweezil pick apart those pieces in a studio is a feat that is sort of like watching someone fluently speaking a language that you’re in the process of learning, and to this day Dweezil is a student himself of the elaborate work left by his father. “I had to do a lot of music training and study a lot of theory that I didn’t have in my background,” he said.

But, not only did he need to be able to perform this music, he needed to find a group of people who could also play it, and in Zappa form, play it perfectly. “This isn’t an interpretation of Frank’s music. This is note-perfect, the way it was written. We treat his music the same as any composer. Orchestras that play Mozart or Beethoven don’t rearrange it, or play it their way,” Zappa said.

To find that cast of characters Zappa was forced to create rehearsals that were nearly impossible. He said that he purposely chose material that musicians who auditioned for the group would have incredible struggles learning, and furthermore, he made the deadlines even tighter to weed out the slackers.

“They had two songs that they had to do, ‘Inca Roads’ and ‘The Black Page,’ which have incredible time signatures and intricate stops and starts, and they had two days to fully transcribe it and learn it. So that’s like maybe four hours of sleep, if they’re lucky,” Zappa said.

Few passed the first song of a rehearsal, but a few actually took the bait, learned the material and formed the first incarnation of the band. A few lineup changes later, the band has solidified. Rolling Stone has called Zappa Plays Zappa “The World’s Greatest Tribute Band,” they have toured the world, and to top it all off, they were honored with a Grammy Award earlier this year for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for “Peaches En Regalia” off of their live, self-titled DVD.

Dweezil made a heart-warming and emotional acceptance speech at the awards, acknowledging the honor of winning a Grammy for a song that appeared on the album Hot Rats, which, ironically, was dedicated to Dweezil by his father 40 years ago when he recorded it. “So I’m dedicating it right back to him,” Dweezil said in the speech. In our interview, he added, “When you grow up in the house that I grew up in, you immediately don’t put too much stock in things like that. But when you realize that it’s your dad’s work and you’re being honored for your work of your Dad’s work, it becomes really special.” But in typical Zappa humor, cynicism and anti-establishment sentiments, he quickly added, “I like to remind people that Milli Vanilli won a Grammy once.”

:: Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa ::
:: Fox Theatre :: November 25 ::

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