Some people discover music in their adolescent years, while others discover it during their rebellious teenage years. For others, like Dweezil Zappa, music is something on which they were raised.
Zappa, the eldest son of the late American composer Frank Zappa (who listed “musician” on the religion part of Dweezil’s birth certificate), has helped carry on the Zappa musical legacy through years of guitar mastery which he honed through legends like Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, and of course, his father. Although Dweezil has a handful of original albums under his belt – and a new one, “Via Zammata,” ready for release – he has been paying homage to his father’s legacy for nearly a decade with the popular Zappa Plays Zappa outfit, coming to the Sherman Theatre in Stroudsburg July 26.
As part of the tour, Zappa Plays Zappa will perform one of Frank’s more technical albums, “One Size Fits All,” in its entirety as part of the show. For longtime Zappa fans, the album may be viewed as almost impossible to perform, but for Dweezil the album is a fun exploration of his father’s signature style.
“The shows have been going really well, because the music is so fun to play on stage,” he said. “The record is one of my favorites, but it’s also a well-known fan favorite. The material that’s on there is exciting to play live; the song “Inca Roads” is always a challenge, but it’s a classic example of my dads’ signature style. I think what that really boils down to is that he will take through-composed things, and he will orchestrate them with really cool instrumentation, but also leave the song open to some improvisation, and then come back to the through-composed parts. “Inca Roads” is probably one of the best examples of that songwriting arrangement style. What that does is let you play that song every night, but never play it the same way twice. That’s what’s cool about it. When you have strict written parts, but then open improvisation, the song almost has a life of its own; it will never sound the same.”
Zappa’s music commands precision musicianship from any band trying to perform it, and the current lineup of Zappa Plays Zappa has allowed Dweezil the opportunity to dive into some of his father’s more technical material. Along with the tightness of the band, Zappa is very happy with the younger audience he sees at the shows. It’s exactly what he hoped Zappa Plays Zappa would become.
“I think that what’s different about this incarnation of the band – it’s a little smaller. It’s a six-piece band rather than an eight-piece band – there’s a real synergy in the rhythm section, and there’s a real positive and fun attitude in the band,” he said. “The musicians in the band are also younger than the previous incarnations of the band. Overall, it has a better connection to a younger audience because we’re seeing a younger audience each time. That’s one of the key goals we had from the beginning – to introduce the music to a new audience. So this is definitely helping.”
Introducing his father’s music to a younger demographic is what Zappa strives for, and when keyboardist/vocalist Chris Norton joined Zappa Plays Zappa in late 2009, Zappa was happy with the results.
“That right there is one of the key reasons I started Zappa Plays Zappa,” he said. “Chris Norton is a perfect example of a musician looking for something to take himself farther into different styles and really explore what’s possible in music. When he found this music, he heard us playing it then got into the original versions … the best part about it is, if you can inspire musicians to be excited about this music, and want to learn this music, that’s how it gets brought into the future. It’s got to be new generations making connections to it as not just nostalgic music, but current music.”
Although there are other artists performing his father’s material, Zappa doesn’t really hear much about them. Instead, he realizes how his father treated his compositions and follows that blueprint.
“Next year is the 50th anniversary of his first album, “Freak Out!” Some of the music on that record still sounds like something you’ve never heard before, and it’s 50 years old,” he said. That’s what’s so amazing; there’s so many examples of that in his music from record to record – he had over 80 albums in his lifetime – so there’s a wild amount of music. As far as other people performing it, I really don’t hear other people performing it often; certainly not mainstream artists or anything like that. What I do is, I treat the music and the band as if it’s a repertory ensemble and this is classical music. The example I’ll give you is, when an orchestra plays a piece by Beethoven or Bach, they are meant to be playing the music the way it was written on the page. The composer wrote it to be played a certain way, and the instructions are right there and the composition is to be respected and carried forward as it is. That’s how I treat this music; I really don’t make any changes to it. Sometimes when people do what they call a “tribute,” they’re really making changes to the music and saying ‘hey, look what I can do to this music.’ I think for me, that’s really not going to improve the music.”
As far as what’s in store for the Sherman Theatre show, Zappa plans to give the audience a tour through four decades of his father’s music, with the album performance being the starting point.
“Obviously we’re playing the whole ‘One Size Fits All’ album, but we have a lot of other things we play in the show,” he said. “There’s usually about 22 to 25 songs, which makes the show about two and a half hours. We have a few songs that feature big brass arrangements, so there’s songs like “Grand Wazoo,” “Big Swifty,” and another one that’s lesser-known to people called “Imaginary Diseases.” There’s kind of a big band feel to all that stuff. That was just something I was in the mood to be working with right now. There’s a lot of other up tempo songs and different things from throughout Frank’s career, so we pretty much spread it out so you’re getting stuff from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and even early ’90s.”
Ryan O’Malley is a music journalist and correspondent for Weekender.
IF YOU GO:
What: Zappa Plays Zappa
When: 8 p.m. Sunday, July 26
Where: The Sherman Theatre, Stroudsburg