By Brian F. Johnson
For more than a decade, Dweezil Zappa has been fully immersed in the music of his father, the late Frank Zappa. In 2004, he began to study Frank’s immense library, and had to completely re-learn the way he played guitar — completely re-envision the neck of the guitar — to perform passages that no one had ever played.
In 2006, Dweezil put together Zappa Plays Zappa, with a team of immensely talented musicians, and for the last several years Zappa Plays Zappa has toured the world over performing some of Frank’s classic albums, taking the music of Frank Zappa to a new generation of audiences and paying homage to a man that many say was the Mozart of the 20th century.
For this upcoming tour, Zappa Plays Zappa will dust off the 1975 Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention album One Size Fits All, as well as a set of “fan favorites or things that might be expected” from the span of Frank’s career. The album itself — the last for the Mother’s of Invention — features one of Zappa’s most intricate tracks, “Inca Roads,” and has a song that Frank Zappa himself never played live — the one minute, five second whimsical vocal and piano interlude “Evelyn, A Modified Dog.” “It’s very much a studio song, and I don’t know of any live version ever existing.” Zappa said during a recent interview with The Marquee.
Zappa would know if a version existed somewhere, as he frequently combs the vault so that he and his band can learn the complex material that his father wrote. “We go through every score at the house, but if it’s not in Frank’s handwriting we always need to make sure that whoever did the transcription did it correctly, so we have to reference it to recordings. We never just find a piece of music with a lead sheet and a melody on it and say ‘Hey yeah, there it is.’ We double-triple check everything, because the point of it is to play the music as it’s written and if we don’t have the actual page with the correct notes we go to the recording and transcribe stuff. Sometimes the music is too difficult to determine from a stereo recording and then we go to the master tape vault and go track by track and figure out what’s on there.”
It’s a miraculous feat for any musician, but for the self-taught guitarist Dweezil, who is the only member of Zappa Plays Zappa who doesn’t read music, it’s not only a labor of love but the greatest musical education anyone could ask for. Not surprisingly it’s lead to him recording a new album of all original music. Via Zammata, his first album in nearly 10 years, will be released just days after his Denver show this month.
Despite his immersion in Frank’s material though, Dweezil said that the album will certainly highlight some influences of his, but that it’s a very different album than his father would have made. “It has elements of everything that got me interested in music to begin with. Not one song from the record is cut from the same cloth. So there are a lot of different influences that come out,” he said. “I think people will be surprised because oddly enough this record, more than any other record I’ve ever made, is in many ways more of a straight forward pop record, except that the songs are much more quirky than a standard pop arrangement.”
Via Zammata is named after a road in Partinico, Sicily from where his father’s family emigrated. (The road, by the way, was recently renamed Via Frank Zappa), but Dweezil explained that the album is a nod to his roots, as well as a step forward as a musician. “I visited there a few years ago and part of the experience of traveling there was imagining what it would be like to leave there and come to a new place and how all of that changed what would happen. That connection sparked the interest in making a record that takes a similar type of journey,” Zappa said.
The album features one track that he co-wrote with his father but has never been recorded elsewhere. “I played the song live with my brother in a band that we had called Z in the ’80s. So we used to do a version of it, but it never got recorded and the version that’s on this record is nothing like how we played it then,” Zappa said. “It’s called ‘Dragon Master.’ Frank handed me these lyrics in like 1987 or ’88 and said ‘You should write the music to this.’ So I did. It’s definitely classic metal, everything about it is metal to the core and you awaken the dragon and it’s full-on metal, somewhere between Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. It’s the only song on the record that has anything close to that kind of sound.”
The rest of the album, he said, takes twists and turns as well, such as Zappa’s guitar translation of a Bulgarian women’s choir. “It has about 60 guitar tracks, and again, I don’t read music. I have to learn everything by ear,” he said. “To do that, I learned a few notes at a time. So I’d learn a phrase that has 10 notes and then listen to the next and the next, and I learned the first ten notes of all of the phrases until I found out if it sounded like I wanted it to sound and I kept building the piece as I went along. It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge.”
In addition to the Zappa Plays Zappa tour, and his new album, Zappa also has a new TrueFire.com guitar course that will come out around the same time as the new album. Zappa, who hosts a musical boot camp called “Dweezilla” and also hosts guitar classes while he’s on tour with ZPZ, will give students the chance to go through elements taught in the masterclass and boot camp, including his key teaching about the “Five Shapes of Freedom,” which educates students on how to split and divide the neck of the guitar into separate elements that, once applied, can open up limitless possibilities. “It’s a way of looking at the guitar that people, when they experience it, find to be an epiphanous moment,” Zappa said. “I taught myself guitar for the most part and when I looked at it this way, it made perfect sense.”
Zappa Plays Zappa
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