Frank Zappa wasn’t a rock musician. He led any number of bands beginning with The Mothers of Invention in the mid-1960s, and the record company always promoted them as rock bands. In the late ’60s many musicians were blurring the boundaries between popular music styles and Zappa was assumed to be doing the same. But even if record companies didn’t “get it,” fans did.
Zappa had more in common with Igor Stravinsky, who had revolutionized orchestral music earlier in the century, than his contemporaries. Both were received with a mixture of outrage and ridicule, but their music sounds as fresh today as it did when they wrote it because neither man paid any attention to convention. They both stood outside the eras in which they worked, creating music unlike anything else at the time, and their work remains fresh for as long as musicians are willing to accept the challenge of playing it.
The first to accept the challenge was his son, Dweezil. His father, a consummate composer, released 60 albums of original material between 1966 and his death in 1993. In spite of that prolific output, many more compositions remain unrecorded. And yet many people, if they remember him at all, know him as the clown prince of rock, the man responsible for a few radio hits based on scatological bathroom badinage. Perhaps because of that widely held perception, in the years following his death, fewer and fewer younger people were listening to his music. Dweezil became increasingly concerned that so few people of his generation even knew his father’s name, let alone his music.
Despite the many daunting challenges, he decided to do something about it. In 2007, he formed a band calling it Zappa Plays Zappa to introduce his father to a new generation. On Wednesday, Jan. 39, they’re coming to Chattanooga to play at Track 29. It’ll be their first visit, but then according to Dweezil, he and the band have taken his father’s music to many places he never had an opportunity to play.
“This is a grassroots campaign to bring Frank’s music to places it wouldn’t otherwise go,” he told me last week. “We can take the music to places it’s never been. We’re going to be going to Mississippi and some other places that Frank never went (in the states), as well as other places in the world, Frank never had the chance to go. We played in Israel, we’ve played in Iceland (as well as Australia, Europe, Sweden, Denmark and Netherlands) … it’s a journey, that’s for sure.”
A journey in every sense of the word for everyone involved. On their first tour in 2007, Zappa Plays Zappa had eight members; this year it has six. Multi-instrumentalists all, they have spent long hours mastering the compositions that Tommy Mars, a member of Frank Zappa’s bands in the late ’70s and early ’80s called “the most challenging and invigorating music I’ve ever played.”
Mars, a pianist “trained to play the strangest music and the most sensitive music—from Mozart to Bartok," told a BBC interviewer about working with Zappa: “Nowhere else have I ever encountered that challenge and that great an opportunity musically, never mind the improvisatory nature of it—to be able to go from stride piano … to Devo. Frank had the most interesting way of taking a tune and when you least expected it turning—making a 180-degree turn—almost off a cliff. All of a sudden you’re in the other direction—at the speed of light.”
In one of the last interviews he gave before he died in of prostate cancer in 1993, Zappa talked about his approach to music and the stress it imposed on the musicians who played with him. “If you’re going to write for human beings,” he said, “ you have to know what they can do, and what they can’t do. Then you have the option of pushing a little bit, writing something that’s slightly more difficult than you’d imagine a human being was capable of playing. If you get lucky you’ll find people who can rise to that occasion. I’ve been lucky enough to find certain musicians in the last 25 years who managed to play some things that other people would think of as impossible. But they never would have done it if somebody hadn’t thought up the impossibility and then not only asked them to do it, but paid them to do it, and then gave them the chance to do it in front of an audience who went, ‘Hooray!’ You did it!’ which then encouraged them to do more of it. That’s an interesting process, but very expensive, and it’s very time consuming.”