Zappa the Younger's tribute
'I don't want his music to disappear in my lifetime.' Dweezil Zappa on his father, Frank
By JOAN ANDERMAN
Published in the Orlando Sentinel - December 8, 2006
Most people remember Frank Zappa as a weirdo: the hairy guy from the '70s who sang "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and named his kid Dweezil. And most people know Dweezil Zappa (and his sister Moon Unit) as the original oddly named celebrity offspring.
When Frank died of prostate cancer in 1993, he left a legacy of maverick musicianship and widespread misconceptions. Dweezil, 36, has set out to preserve the former and skewer the latter with Zappa Plays Zappa, a k a the Tour de Frank, which is circumnavigating the globe [and stops at Orlando's Hard Rock Live on Monday].
Introducing Frank Zappa's music to a new generation is no easy task, mainly because it involves actually playing Zappa's music. In addition to being an absurdist wit and subversive pundit, Zappa was an accomplished composer and iconoclastic arranger. With his group The Mothers of Invention and a series of subsequent touring ensembles, Zappa fused rock, funk, jazz and classical music in often wildly theatrical and technically intricate works.
It's no wonder Dweezil, a disciple of Eddie Van Halen, gave himself a two-year "guitar makeover" in preparation for Zappa Plays Zappa.
"I had to learn some new techniques and music theory elements," says Dweezil. "Frank's music is hard to play."
That's an understatement, and this is no casual tribute band. Frank's son readily concedes that he's on a mission.
"The important thing," says Dweezil, "is that people need to recognize he's not Weird Al Yankovic. That's not to slam Weird Al. He's good at what he does. But the perception is, if you use humor in your music then you don't take yourself seriously, and therefore what you do isn't really valid. Frank took what he did very seriously."
While there's no doubting Dweezil's efforts to hip the world to his father's estimable gifts, it's clear that the motive isn't merely musical altruism. Labor of love seems to be an especially apt description of Zappa Plays Zappa. Talking about it brings Dweezil to tears.
"I don't want his music to disappear in my lifetime," he says, wiping his eyes. "It's tough. It means a lot to me."
Zappa has put together an ensemble that includes seasoned veterans of his father's road shows, among them vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock, drummer Terry Bozzio and guitarist Steve Vai, as well as a core ensemble of young talent. In order to find musicians with the right blend of virtuosity and spirit, Zappa orchestrated a challenging audition process. Prospective keyboardists, for example, were given three days to learn "The Black Page" and "Inca Roads" without sheet music. Zappa wanted them to transcribe the songs by ear and play each the way they heard it on the original recordings.
"The only way for people to discover Frank's music at this point is for us to re-create it live on stage," says Zappa, "because it's never going to be on the radio. My goal was to have a younger band so that we could attract a younger audience, make it feel more contemporary. I don't want it to seem like a circus act or a nostalgia act. I also wanted to train them from the ground up. Frank's music needs to be played in the correct manner."
Up close, personal
Like everything else about this project, the set list is personal. Dweezil chose the material that meant the most to him growing up: the tunes he heard around the house as a child. Much of the 30-song set is culled from a handful of albums (out of 70 Zappa released in his lifetime): Apostrophe ('), Over-Nite Sensation, Roxy & Elsewhere and Sheik Yerbouti.
"When you're 10 years old and and you hear 'St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast,' " says Dweezil, "it's pretty cool."
The lead vocalist in Zappa's live band during that period was Brock, a former light opera singer whom Frank discovered in 1972 fronting an R&B cover band in Honolulu. (Zappa's mid-'70s ensemble also included George Duke and Jean-Luc Ponty.) In recent years Brock has been hired to perform Zappa's music with numerous classical ensembles and big bands, and when Dweezil called the singer to ask if he wanted to participate in the ultimate Zappa concert, Brock didn't hesitate.
"Here we are 30 years later and I'm able to do this with the son . . . It is so beautiful," says Brock, who lives in San Jose, Calif. "You realize that the music was so far ahead of its time, and that it's timeless. Frank is sitting up there going 'Yeah. Finally.' "