A conversation with Dweezil Zappa
The late composer, guitarist and bandleader Frank Zappa was never one to get all soft and emotional in public. A hyper-intelligent man with a milewide sardonic streak and an unwillingness to suffer fools, Zappa was both uber-sophisticated composer and razor-tongued social critic. He could slay an interviewer with three words and a cold, hard stare.
Yet one imagines that Zappa, who died in 1993 after a long battle with cancer, would be smiling if he saw what his son Dweezil has been doing since 2006. It was then that the band Zappa Plays Zappa was formed by Dweezil, its mission to celebrate the genius of the Zappa catalog through meticulously performed renderings of some of the most complex, sophisticated music of the late 20th century. Assembling a cast of abundantly talented young musicians - many of whom were unfamiliar with Frank's music prior to getting the call from his son - Dweezil hit the road and has been touring the world ever since, a missionary zeal in the quest of sharing his father's music with subsequent generations of listeners always prevalent in his thoughts.
Some 500 shows, a Grammy Award and a catalog that includes nearly 300 of Frank's compositions later, Dweezil and Z Plays Z have taken to performing one of Frank's most beloved collections, "Roxy & Elsewhere," in its entirety. The band will do exactly that when it arrives
at Kleinhans Music Hall on Thursday for an 8 p.m. concert.
Prior to the evening's performance, Dweezil will conduct a master class at Kleinhans, during which he we will share much of what an incredibly close and ongoing study of his father's music has taught him. (Tickets for both Thursday's concert and the afternoon master class are available through KleinhansBuffalo.org, or via 885-5000. Master class attendees are encouraged to bring their guitars with them.)
I spoke to Dweezil Zappa last week on subjects ranging from the ongoing significance of the "Roxy" album, to his desire to keep his father's music alive for new generations, and the difference between a repertory ensemble and a "tribute band."
JM: "Roxy & Elsewhere" was the album that turned me on to your father's music, and led me to explore his entire catalog. There are many distinct and equally rewarding periods in Frank's work, but why do you think the "Roxy" album stands out for so many people?
DZ: For me, the best way to describe that album is that it's one of the first of Frank's recordings that shows the diversity of his compositional style in all its complexity, and with all of its detailed performances on full display. There's such a stylistic diversity there. The music is sophisticated and modern, but there are also elements of the avant-garde, and at the heart of it all is this rich, funky, bluesy sort of basis.
Really, the album is one of a kind. It offers a great combination of almost everything Frank did. It's complex and demanding, but also approachable. I think that's why it has always been a favorite album of the fans. It's certainly why I love it so much, and why we as a band love playing it so much.
JM: Quite a lot has happened with the band since you launched it in 2006. Can you talk about that period a few years in where you turned a corner in your own playing and musicianship, and the band went from being simply "great" to clearly being one of the most sophisticated touring bands going?
DZ: Well, my approach to playing is constantly evolving. To play this music, so much studying was necessary, simply in terms of learning it all. The techniques that the music demanded I learn in order to be able to play it well were then something I could apply to my own improvisational skills. Once this started to happen, I definitely turned a corner as a musician. But really, it's all about constant growth. I've tried to do this in a way that is noticeable from tour to tour. I think that's probably what you are responding to when you talk about turning a corner, musically. It's a constant work in progress.
Here's an interesting example that might not seem like it applies to Frank's music, but was a lesson to me. As a kid, I loved [guitarist] Randy Rhoads. Before Randy became the guitarist in Ozzy Osborne's first solo band, he was in the group Quiet Riot. When you hear how much he developed as a player between Quiet Riot and Ozzy, it's just absolutely incredible, and it all happened within a short period of time, because Randy practiced and played constantly. That was an inspiration to me at the time, and it has continued to be an inspiration as I've continued to grow as a musician.
JM: I know that introducing Frank's music to new generations of listeners has always been one of your main concerns with Zappa Plays Zappa. How successful do you feel you've been in this endeavor?
DZ: We've continued to see a generational jump at the concerts, no question. Interestingly, you can see this both out in the audience and within the band itself. For example, in 2010, we got a new keyboardist named Chris Norton, who is now 26. When he joined the band, he'd never heard Frank's music. And he was absolutely inspired by it, and welcomed it into his life in a major way.
You see, when Frank was making music and touring, it was current and modern. Today, it's harder for people to understand that this thing we're doing is not some sort of nostalgia trip. This isn't tied to any one era. The music still sounds way ahead of its time, in my opinion, and because of this, it's a very different thing than, say, a tribute band. We're not a tribute band. We play Frank's music in the present tense, not as some sort of trip down memory lane. I think younger people don't bring any baggage with them to the party - they simply hear this music as new music. That's the way it should be."
JM: You've been doing master classes on tour, as an outgrowth of your yearly "Camp Dweezilla" getaways for musicians. You're doing one here in Buffalo on Thursday. How do these work? What is the general idea behind them?
DZ: Basically, the master class revolves around me sharing how I approached learning this music, about how learning it forced me to change my practice routines and find a new relationship with methods of improvisation. The classes are for all skill levels. The idea is that I hope to help these players get into a deeper level of making music, and to help them have more fun doing so. The goal for all of us is to make music by breaking the habits and routines that we all develop, but which ultimately keep us from breaking through to a deeper level of feeling, understanding, and enjoying music-making.
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