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Being Frank
Dweezil Zappa keeps his father's music alive with new touring road show
By JEFF MIERS - News Pop Music Critic
Published in The Buffalo News - October 20, 2006

"The thing is, so many people claim to be paying tribute to Frank, and so many musicians play his music, but a lot of them just aren't getting it right." - Dweezil Zappa, Frank Zappa's son
Frank Zappa didn't write songs hoping they'd end up behind glass in a museum. He wrote them to be performed.

Zappa - composer, guitarist, producer, satirist, genius - created an incredibly vast body of work during his lifetime, and much of it was quite complex. Yet, with a host of different bands, orchestras and even on his own, Zappa married virtuosity and technical brilliance to spontaneity.

Now, his son Dweezil is picking up the baton and running with it. The guitarist has formed Zappa Plays Zappa, a virtuoso ensemble dedicated to furthering Frank's legacy. By the time Dweezil's show arrives in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts on Monday, he'll have fine-tuned the performance of this demanding material to a point that would satisfy the harshest of music critics: his father.

"The thing is, so many people claim to be paying tribute to Frank, and so many musicians play his music, but a lot of them just aren't getting it right," Dweezil Zappa said in a recent interview. "This stuff is incredibly difficult to play, and I believe that it deserves to be played right. That was my first impetus for doing this, because Frank was a very detailed composer, and he really cared about the details."

Zappa Plays Zappa - which features Dweezil as guitarist and musical director, and boasts contributions from former Zappa band members Napoleon Murphy Brock, Terry Bozzio and Steve Vai - began life as Dweezil's attempt to play Frank's music the way its composer wanted it to be played. But rather rapidly, it turned into something more.

"I want to make sure Frank's music is passed on properly," Dweezil said. "As a classical composer, I feel that he's being given his due, that his music has made it to colleges and has been taken seriously the world over by people who are totally respected. But the rock-based stuff - that's a different story. There is no real avenue to get this stuff out there, and it needs to be heard."

A musical anomaly

Zappa the senior is an anomaly in rock music for many reasons, not least of which is the serious musicianship he brought to the table and demanded of every musician he hired - many of whom have gone on to successful careers after cutting their teeth in Frank's band, among them Bozzio, Vai, Jean Luc Ponty and Adrian Belew, to name but a few.

The popular conception of Frank's work has devolved, since his death in 1993, into two strains. There's the notion that he was some kind of novelty act, a twisted Weird Al Yankovic character whose claim to fame was his biting wit and penchant for inserting "dirty words" into rock songs. And then there is the blatant worship of the wholly technical side of the music, which, for musicians at all familiar with it, is both daunting and invigorating.

The problem lies in a lack of middle ground. Clearly, the senior Zappa could be bitingly sardonic, and his gifts for social criticism and political lampooning were vast. Just as clearly, his compositions - and his peerless guitar playing - form a vast catalog of technically demanding music.

"His stuff needs to be performed in a technically exact manner, yes, absolutely, but it also needs to have spontaneity," Dweezil said. "Once you get it totally down, once you really have it ingrained in your brain and under your fingers, it really is fun. I can't emphasize that enough."

In order to meet the exacting standards Dweezil inherited from his father, the guitarist said he had to "basically relearn the guitar, to begin playing in a fashion that was completely new to me."

"The most difficult part has been learning to play, on the guitar, sections of songs and melodies that were never meant to be played on guitar when Frank wrote them," Dweezil said. "Whether they were keyboard lines, or melodic percussion lines, or something like "G-Spot Tornado,' from the "Jazz From Hell' album, which was written on the Synclavier [an early keyboard-computer interface].

"I've had to strive for a whole new level of musicianship, and it has really required a ton of work," he said. "But it's worth it. Playing something like the middle section of "St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast' correctly is its own reward!"

The protective son

In many ways, Dweezil feels himself responsible for protecting, and deepening, the Frank Zappa legacy. He has worked extensively on his father's catalog, labored intensively in the surround-sound medium - an endeavor that yielded the wholly brilliant "QuAUDIOPHILIAc" release and will include future efforts as well - and generally overseen the musical side of the Zappa Family Trust, the family-based entity that controls Frank's work.

But for Dweezil, the Zappa Plays Zappa project is about much more than the son taking over the family business from the father.

"The world needs Frank's music," Dweezil said. "I want to give the true fans the music the way they deserve to hear it, the way that would meet Frank's criteria.

"But even more importantly, I want new listeners, young people, even kids, to be exposed to it," he said. "That's what this is all about."

 
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