zappa plays zappa
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.”
When Dweezil first formed the band, he was acutely aware that many people thought of his father as a musical comedian akin to Spike Jones. For the first few years he “purposely stayed away from the humor in his music because I wanted people to recognize its value as music, not as novelty.”
Since then his attitude has softened, and these days he says, “My goal (is) to give people a live experience that allowed them to hear a broad cross-section of Frank’s music—some of which they might be pretty familiar with and some might be brand new. But we wanted to be sure that we played it in a way that is most evocative of the era and also respectful of the composition itself.”
The six musicians in the band have spent countless hours mastering not only the notes but the feel of Zappa’s music. “The current version of the band only has six players,” said Dweezil, “but they’re multi-tasking and recreating the sound of several ensembles. For instance, the girl who plays saxophone also plays keyboards, and sometimes she does both at the same time. I’m covering textures ranging from piccolo flutes to violins on the guitar. It took us about 20 hours of listening as a band to figure who’s going to play which parts and where … it’s very particularly timed so this multi-tasking can take place. The lead singer in the band also plays trumpet and trombone. There’s Olympic style-choreography going on in these pieces. It’s a real challenge to learn this stuff.”
Frank Zappa was first a drummer and was always drawn as much to rhythm as to melody. He was also a very adept studio engineer and one of the first to use the studio as another instrument (much like George Martin when he was working with The Beatles). Talking about his remarkable skills in the studio, Dweezil cited the piece many regard as one of his most enduring compositions, “Peaches en Regalia.” In that tune, he said, “There’s a lot of tape machine speed manipulation in order to create textures that aren’t otherwise possible. Towards the end there are sped-up drum parts that were recorded at slow speed and then played back at regular speed changing the pitch of the instruments. He did the same thing with the saxophone lines that are in there … in essence changing the register of the instrument to a register that’s not possible to play, creating a texture and an instrument that doesn’t exist. In a way, he was inventing his own instruments. He was always on the cutting edge of production as well as composition.”
One of the many challenges Dweezil and the band faced was reproducing the sound and feel of music made on very early synthesizers. They have much more sophisticated computerized equipment to work with, of course, and the Midi allows them to reproduce the sound and timbre of a variety of instruments through a single keyboard. But the technical challenges are only the beginning. Zappa’s music was a rich gumbo teeming with the myriad threads of American music as well as European art music. “That was one of my biggest challenges,” says his son. “I didn’t have any background in jazz, in gospel, in country … these are all styles that people take a lifetime to learn on one instrument. You have to be able to play with the right sound, the right feel, and with authority. I had to brush up on a lot of different styles that I’d never learned about so I could play some of these songs. The way I end up doing it is by playing the parts as they are on the record.”
Zappa Plays Zappa is essentially a “cover” band in that they are doing their best to reproduce the music as it sounds on the original records, but they aren’t slaves to the page. Everybody in the band is given some solo space where they can improvise within the compositions, but in “the right context,” Zappa was quick to add. “It’s never presented in such a way that we take a big left turn and suddenly it doesn’t have anything to do with Frank’s music anymore.“
Working on the project so intently for so long has not only given Dweezil a heightened respect for his father’s gifts, it’s also brought him much closer to him.
“The thing that is sometimes surprising to me is that I have learned a lot of the idiosyncrasies within his guitar style and I’ve studied a lot of the sounds that he used and so when I’m playing certain things and when I’m improvising I’m using some of his phrases as guidelines within solos and so what happens is I’ll play something on the guitar that’s so evocative of something that he’s already played that it sometimes doesn’t feel like it’s me playing it. I’ll have moments when I’ll feel, ‘Wow! Frank just really snuck out there.’”
Dweezil Zappa: "Zappa Plays Zappa: Accept No Substitutes
8 p.m. • $30-$55 • Wednesday, Jan. 30
Track 29 • 1400 Market St. • (423) 521-2929 • track29.co