Son of Invention
Zappa brings Zappa into the 21st Century
By BILL CARBONE
Published in the New Haven Advocate - October 26, 2006
When I first had this idea, a lot of people sort of said ‘that’s going to suck.’”
Those were the words of encouragement Dweezil Zappa—actor, guitar player extraordinaire, former MTV VJ, and, of course, son of the legendary Frank Zappa—heard from his circle of friends when he announced his intention to launch his new group, Zappa Plays Zappa.
“They thought I’d just fill the band with Frank’s old musicians and put on my guitar and try and sound like Frank,” a loquacious and amicable Zappa said in a recent phone interview, “but that’s never what I wanted to do.” Did Dweezil always call his dad Frank? “Yeah,” he replies with a dry laugh. “All the kids did. I don’t know why. We call my mom Gail too.”
Now 37, Dweezil spent his youth amid the best musicians in the world—the guys in his dad’s band. Yet when Dweezil decided to pick up the guitar himself, he chose a more mainstream route.
“Whenever Frank was home he’d be working on music and I’d hear it, but he seemed like a mad scientist. The music was so difficult it didn’t seem like I could ever do anything like it.”
Instead, Dweezil learned his first licks from another guitarist kicking around the house, Steve Vai. Although Frank pitched in a few lessons as well, it seems that Dweezil’s most memorable tutoring came from someone else. “Back then, Van Halen was the biggest band in the world, and Eddie Van Halen would come over and sit on my couch. It was unbelievable. I’d just say, ‘OK Eddie, play “Eruption.”’”
Lessons with the six-string illuminati seem to have worked. By the age of 18, Dweezil’s pyrotechnic guitar style had yielded two solo albums and a Grammy.
Yet a Puritanical work ethic is clearly in the Zappa genetic code. “I spent two years changing my guitar playing to be ready for Zappa Plays Zappa,” commented Dweezil, whose fretwork has reached an immediately apparent zenith. “I used the two years of preparation for this tour to expand myself and to really dive into Frank’s work. It was always there for me, but, you know, you’re ready when you’re ready.”
As one would expect, Dweezil outfitted ZPZ with virtuosic instrumentalists. There is, however, a twist. “My ultimate goal with these tours is to have Frank’s music be in young peoples’ world,” Dweezil explained. “Frank’s truly underappreciated. I want him to occupy the place in rock & roll history that he’s deserved for so long.” Because he hopes to reach younger generations that couldn’t have witnessed his father in his prime, Dweezil selected younger musicians (as in under 40) for the core group, and then rounded up a crack crew of Frank Zappa band alumnae as important, yet secondary, figures.
The band spent three months in rehearsal before premiering earlier this year. “We learned 27 songs for the last tour. (For this tour) we’ve kept those 27 and added 9 more.” Most of the music comes from Frank’s ’70s repertoire since, as Dweezil puts it, “I really think that Frank hit his creative stride from 1971 to ’79. He was blending styles and using bands with horns and percussion to do things usually done with an orchestra.”
ZPZ has been working from Frank’s master manuscripts, and when they are unavailable, the band makes its own charts from the original master tapes. Over the course of rehearsals the musicians memorize nearly everything, no small task considering the legendary complexity of Zappa’s compositions. Have any arrangements been altered? “You need to play the notes Frank wrote,” Dweezil insists. Who are any of us to change what Frank wrote? I don’t want to hear it any other way.”
However, Dweezil is quick to point out that Frank left plenty of space for improvisation in the open sections of his compositions. Still, is the younger Zappa able to approach these open sections with his own voice, rather than an imitation of his father’s? Dweezil answered that “yes, I’m able to express myself, even though I am trying to imbue what I do within the sound of Frank’s style.”
Although ZPZ probably can’t quite recreate the legendary circus atmosphere of Zappa’s tours, they don’t just stand there and play. Throughout the evening the group is joined by “kamikaze” guitarist Steve Vai, vocalist/saxophonist Napoleon Murphy Brock, and finally by drummer Terry Bozzio who, according to Dweezil, “comes out and plays by himself with the band, sings, and gets to do all his ‘Terry-isms.’”
The ZPZ songs that feature Bozzio’s “Terry-isms” present the full spectrum of the Zappa repertoire in a nutshell. On the one hand, Bozzio slips into for-mature-audiences-only character acting when he sings the part of the devil on “Titties and Beer” and plays the role of a gender bending rockstar on “Punky’s Whips.” On the other, Bozzio, drummer Joe Travers and percussionist Billy Hulting redefine the concept of “technical mastery” in their trio performance of the through-composed percussion compositions “The Black Page #1 and #2,” so named because of the copious amount of ink on the sheet music. The rest of ZPZ’s current playlist reads like a Zappa fan’s dream mixtape. The “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” trilogy, “Inca Roads,” “Advance Romance,” “Stinkfoot,” “Imaginary Diseases,” “King Kong,” “Montana,” “Token of My Extreme” and “Florentene Pogen” are but a few of the options the band has when crafting its nightly set list. Some amazing videos of ZPZ in action and profiles of each band member are available at zappa.com/zpz/index.html.
Nor is Frank entirely absent. The Central Scrutinizer both presides over and takes part in the proceedings by the way of a Jumbotron screen mounted above the stage. “We have a video of Frank taking a guitar solo and the band backs him up,” says Dweezil, adding, “we can actually change it too; it’s not always the same solo.”?oe
Zappa Plays Zappa—Dweezil and the Zappa Family Trust Present the Music of Frank Zappa
Oct. 29, 7 p.m., at the Chevrolet Theatre, 95 S. Turnpike Rd., Wallingford. (203) 265-1501, livenation.com.