Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa – in Aspen
November 19, 2009
ASPEN – By the time of his death, in 1993, Frank Zappa had left his mark in many places. He was perhaps known best for the comedic songs – “Don’t Eat That Yellow Snow,” “Valley Girl” – that affirmatively answered the question raised by the title to his 1986 album, “Does Humor Belong in Music?” Zappa was a social critic who didn’t confine his observations to such songs as “Heavenly Bank Account” and “Trouble Every Day”; he testified before Congress on the subject of labeling music, adding a rare measure of color to the U.S. legislative record, and debated censorship issues on CNN. As a namer of offspring, Zappa and his wife, Gail, were in a league of their own, coming up with Moon Unit, Ahmet Emuukha Rodan and Diva Thin Muffin Pigeen.
Zappa’s talents were so diverse that he needed a second name to contain them all. As Francesco Zappa, he composed orchestral works and such pieces as “The Black Page” and “Peaches en Regalia” which have lived on at classical music festivals (including the Aspen Music Festival). Not to be overlooked were Zappa’s unique gifts as a guitarist. He played rock, jazz, blues and more, and was rewarded with a No. 45 ranking in Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest guitar players.
But if the goal were radio immortality, Zappa might have been better off focusing his energies on one big hit song. Sixteen years after his death, probably as many people are familiar with Dexy’s Midnight Runners, for their hit “Come On Eileen,” as are acquainted with the breadth of Zappa’s musical legacy.
Which really irked Frank’s second child, Dweezil.
“I just noticed that, in talking to anyone under 30, they didn’t know my dad’s music,” said Dweezil, who was technically born as Ian Donald Calvin Euclid, when the hospital refused to register the name “Dweezil.” “And what they did know didn’t reflect the totality of what he did. They knew ‘Valley Girl,’ ‘Dancin’ Fool’ – things with a sense of humor. People thought of him like Weird Al Yankovic.”
Not able to live with the thought that generations might confuse Zappa with the guy who came up with such parodies as “Like a Surgeon,” Dweezil Zappa decided to get his father’s music back on stage. Some five years ago, he formed Zappa Plays Zappa, a band that covered Frank’s material. The group featured guest appearances by members of Frank’s old bands – guitarist Steve Vai, singer Ray White, drummer Terry Bozzio – but ultimately the core of the band was made up of younger players who had, at best, second-hand knowledge of the material.
Recommended Stories For You
The latest iteration of the band – a septet known as Dweezil Zappa Plays Zappa, and absent any of Frank’s former bandmates – makes its Aspen debut at Belly Up on Tuesday, Nov. 24.
As a musician, Dweezil had only a passing acquaintance with his dad’s music. “I’ve always been a fan of it, and learned little elements from time to time,” the 40-year-old Zappa said from his studio, near Hollywood. “But I never did anything like this.”
“This” required not only putting a band together and learning the tunes, but essentially re-learning how to play the guitar. Zappa spent two years studying his father’s output – not such a far-fetched idea, given that Frank was as prolific as he was diverse, releasing nearly 60 albums during his lifetime, and that his playing was exacting, with little room for flaws. (Frank had little use for hippie culture, and especially the noodling style of guitar work that went with it.)
“It was scrutinizing every version and every note and learning it exactly the way it was intended to be played,” Zappa said. “I’ve got a lot of time in this.”
Dweezil had been an accomplished guitarist before he started the Zappa Plays Zappa project, performing under his own name, and with his brother Ahmet in the band, Z. (Dweezil has also been an MTV VJ, an actor, and composer for television.) Learning his dad’s material, though, brought him to a new level.
“Most of it is very, very challenging,” he said. “From my background, I didn’t have the fundamental knowledge or skills.”
And Dweezil was determined to pay proper tribute to the material. Frank had a reputation for being a perfectionist and a demanding bandleader, and apparently these traits left their mark on his second child.
“That’s why I started out very slowly, so it would be respectful to the work,” said Zappa, whose singing voice is remarkably similar to his dad’s. “That’s why people have enjoyed what we’ve presented. There’s a high level of detail. We don’t get up and do with it whatever we want, re-harmonize it. That’s not appropriate.”
But faithfully re-creating his father’s tunes hasn’t prevented critics from taking notice. Zappa Plays Zappa won a Grammy earlier this year in the best rock instrumental category for its version of “Peaches en Regalia,” from the live CD, “Zappa Plays Zappa.” (That matches the number of Grammys Frank won during his lifetime: He earned an award, also in the best rock instrumental category, for 1988’s “Jazz From Hell.” He also was given a posthumous lifetime achievement award.)
Dweezil is gearing up to get on to his own music. Next year, he plans to record an album of his own material; it would be his first since 2006’s “Go With What You Know.” But he doesn’t feel that the years away from his own material have been an artistic hiatus. Far from it.
“The benefits, musically, of doing [Zappa Plays Zappa] are unsurpassed,” he said. “It’s a time-consuming job. It’s like getting a master’s degree in something.”
If Dweezil’s music doesn’t get on the radio, he can take solace in the fact that he’s in good company, and furthering the family legacy.
“The reality is, [Frank] was blacklisted from radio in the late ’60s,” Zappa said. “He was on a do-not-play list. He had strong political views. And other people thought there was material that was inappropriate to be on the airwaves.”
Dweezil isn’t going to reach a radio audience by playing his father’s music. But he is making sure that Frank Zappa’s music has a fair shake at reaching new listeners.
“I thought he was overlooked, misunderstood and under-appreciated,” he said. “I thought I should do something in my lifetime to change that. People should know what they’re missing.”