Describing Frank Zappa's music to someone who has never heard it is a bit like describing New Orleans to someone who has never been there. You can mention the obvious: It's colorful, raunchy, a bit absurdist, truly original and can be just as complex as it is banal. But you can't fully understand it until you've experienced it.
For Dweezil Zappa, son of the late avant-garde rocker and composer, reviving the Frank Zappa experience is the driving force behind "Zappa Plays Zappa, " the tribute show he organized to honor his father's music and help it reach new audiences. Now beginning its third year of touring, "Zappa Plays Zappa" has garnered consistent praise from critics because of its no-nonsense, profoundly respectful renditions of the Frank Zappa catalog. The show comes to the House of Blues on Wednesday.
One of the most prolific artists in American music, Frank Zappa's career spanned more than 80 albums and 30 years, spent largely at the fringes of popular music and comfortably planted in the avant-garde with chamber pieces, rock operas and orchestral works. But, since his death in 1993 from prostate cancer, Zappa has been remembered more as an underground hero with a cultlike following -- someone who wrote wacky songs dedicated to breasts and beer (literally) -- rather than a serious American composer.
Just as New Orleans is often misunderstood as simply a frivolous bed of indecency, Zappa's music often is shelved as a lewd novelty act. For Dweezil Zappa, the determination to illuminate his father's musical legacy has informed every aspect of "Zappa Plays Zappa, " which he performs with a cast of accomplished jazz and rock instrumentalists, as well as Ray White, who toured with Frank Zappa in the 1970s and '80s. In a recent phone interview, the 39-year-old guitarist shared his hopes for the tour's third year.
What was the original inspiration for Zappa Plays Zappa?
The overall concept was something I was thinking about for a long time, but the work required to do it right was a Sisyphean task, just to put it mildly. So I really had to get organized and see how to make it happen. I studied the music for two years on my own before I even got the band together, just to see if I could do what I wanted to do.
What did you want to do?
I wanted to play it note for note, because I really feel Frank's music has been overlooked, especially his work as a composer.
The real goal for what we do is to let people hear Frank's music . . . unadulterated, as close as possible to the original. This is the most respectful celebration of what's out there.
Why do you think he's overlooked, and what do you want new audiences to take away from the music?
Think of the kid that grows up and the only thing he's ever heard is Green Day or Puff Daddy. They're not going to have any idea of what this music offers, because they're so used to the more mainstream pop sound. If you grow up not really knowing all of what's possible in music, hearing this stuff for the first time, it'll blow your mind.
The more you learn about Frank's music, the more you hear it, the more you want to know. There's more than 80 albums. It's insane the amount of variety that's in this music. The youth of the music today has no idea what they're missing.
As "Zappa Plays Zappa" has progressed, how have the audiences changed? Do you think you are reaching newer listeners?
Well, this is the third year we're touring, so we'll see how much more of a change there is. Even in 2007, there were a lot more young people and a lot more first-timers coming to the show. Ideally, you want the core fans who have always been there to continue to embrace it as you also spread the word and introduce the new fans.
How do those goals inform the material you include in the show?
We're always striving to learn new material, things that are not often played, or playing versions that are specific to an album version or specific to a live arrangement. The thing is, a lot of times we're playing things . . . on tour that have never been played on stage. We go out of our way to not do the obvious.
Every year of the tour, you have focused on pretty specific periods in your dad's career. What kind of material did you select for this tour?
The overall message that I always try to put into what we're doing is focusing on Frank as a composer and a guitarist. We've touched on some really strong periods in the '70s. Now we've done more of a time warp, and we've done more stuff from the early years. We've (also) chosen to do quite a few songs from the "You Are What You Is" album, some more stuff from "Sheik Yerbouti" and some more obscure tracks from "Joe's Garage."
"Meticulous" is a word that comes to mind when thinking about Zappa's music, including your performances of it. How did you and the band go about learning these songs, many of which have complex arrangements, virtuosic solos and dozens of changes in key and meter. Were you working from written scores, or figuring it out from the recordings?
There are many instances where there are scores and stuff written on paper. That's handy. But the majority of stuff in score form is not songs like you would necessarily believe, so when it comes to songs where you have a lot of different parts in them, we have to do a lot of transcribing. Many times we'll pull out the master tapes not just to get the right notes, but to get the texture of the instruments, because the timbre of the instruments is just as much a part of the music as the notes themselves. We want it to really embody the character of the true songs.
How much flexibility, if any, do you allow into your interpretations of the songs?
What I do allow is if there's a song that exists on a record, and there's also a live version that's been released, if I like certain elements of different arrangements I might make a hybrid arrangement. Here I have one version connected to another version. In that case, making a new version out of components that were originally made, conducted, rehearsed by Frank, that's OK with me.
It drives me crazy when people try to . . . change (the songs) around just to draw attention to themselves, using Frank's music as the bait. Usually in most examples of that, people take out the exact things that make Frank's music interesting.
Why, because they think it will make the music more accessible?
I don't know. I think they do it because they can't play the hard parts, so they just say, "Let's leave that part out."
How do you think your performance style compares with your dad's?
I've seen people make comments before that I don't have the same stage presence as Frank, and that's a good thing, because my purpose on stage is not attention on myself but to draw attention to the music. I really do take a backseat to the whole thing.
Somebody made a really interesting observation once, which I appreciated. They said that . . . the show was like taking a tour of the finest museum and me, Dweezil, being the curator who never stands in front of the paintings when they're trying to take a picture. I'm taking a tour with them of this music, but I'm not getting in the way of the music. There's no dance troupes coming out, pryotechnics. It's just real people playing music. What a concept.
Molly Reid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3448.
ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA
What: Dweezil Zappa tribute concert to his father Frank Zappa.
Where: House of Blues, 225 Decatur St., (504) 529-2624.
When: Wednesday at 8 p.m.; doors open at 7.
Tickets: $35 and available at www.ticketmaster.com.
Frank Zappa = the original bad ass
I love his son, he's adorable