Frank Zappa left behind a complex and precious legacy that remains, ironically, a relatively unknown American treasure. Over the course of a career that spanned three decades, he released over 80 albums, his music has been performed all over the world by dozens of the best musicians ever to take the stage and he helped spawn the illustrious careers of Lowell George, Adrian Belew, Steve Vai and many more, leaving behind a body of work so large and so insanely diverse and unprecedented in sound, scope and scale, it can only be described as its own genre.
Known to most as just a weird guy with a bizarre mustache and a sick sense of humor, the man who will one day be considered the greatest American composer of the 20th century was cut down by prostate cancer in 1993 at age 53 years.
Overseen by his widow Gail, the Zappa Family Trust has done a pretty good job of keeping Frank's fans satiated with occasional releases from his infamous underground vault of tapes. But until last year the family had never granted its stamp of approval to any touring ensemble dedicated to performing Frank's music live.
Last summer, Frank's son Dweezil undertook the first-ever "official" Zappa road show since his father's passing. Dubbed "Zappa Plays Zappa," the band of young musicians was joined by special guests Vai, drummer Terry Bozzio and fan favorite Napoleon Murphy Brock on sax and vocals for the 2006 trek. Touring the country and playing a few European dates as well, ZPZ pleased Frank freaks all over the globe with the first "official" live performances of the great man's music since Zappa's last tour in 1988.
Getting ready to hit the road again for a world tour that will last into the fall, Dweezil promises a set list that will change from night to night, a show that will exhibit a lot of contrast compared to last year and a few surprises, too.
"Last year we focused heavily on a period from the middle '70s, and now we've diversified," he says. "We've got some more stuff from the '60s, later '70s and some early '80s, too. Obviously, we've still got the material from last year, which we can include if we want to. But we wanted to give people as much variety as possible. There's so much of Frank's music to choose from, so every night could really be a very different show."
Modern technology will afford audiences the opportunity to see and hear Frank himself playing his legendary "air sculpture" guitar solos with the Zappa Plays Zappa ensemble on their summer tour, courtesy of vintage footage projected on a big screen behind the band.
"We were able to find performances where we could get camera angles that focus only on Frank, and we have the separated audio track of his guitar solo," says Dweezil. "And so the way it works is that we've built a click track that will follow in sync to that performance. The drummer hears the click track (in his headphones) and we play to the drummer, and then the audience gets to see Frank in sync over the top of a live performance and hear his guitar raging. The footage looks great, his guitar sounds are great and he's singin' some stuff, too. So it's gonna be really cool."
Dweezil, Frank's first-born son and the only one of four siblings to pursue a career in music, wouldn't own up to having experienced any "goosebump moments" during rehearsals or performances with the footage of his late father. But he does admit it was very emotional.
"It's totally unique, ya know?" he says. "It's a really weird feeling. I think the audience will feel that emotionally, as well."
About testing the waters with the Frank footage, Dweezil says, "I was expecting the crowd to erupt in applause as soon as they saw Frank. But it was more of a stunned silence, like, 'Whoa. How is this possible? This is weird.' And it was very emotional."
In a recent VH-1 Classic Albums segment dedicated to Frank's Apostrophe (') and Overnight Sensation LPs from 1973, Dweezil and the ZPZ band are shown in rehearsal. Running through a spot-on rendition of "St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast," Dweezil effortlessly tackles the song's extremely complicated mid-section from memory, with no sheet music in front of him. I ask him what was the most rewarding aspect of the Zappa Plays Zappa project for him personally.
"For me, when I take on something that starts out as being completely impossible and then work on it, work on it, work on it, until it becomes possible, that's very rewarding," he says. "I'm playing certain things on guitar that were never written to be played on guitar. They were written for other instruments like keyboard or marimba, which have a very different attack than guitar; and the instruments are laid out completely differently. So it's a monumental task to do some of the things I'm doing on guitar."
About ZPZ's objective to exploit and expand upon Frank's large legacy, Dweezil says, "This is really just the first step in a new introduction to many new audience members but also part of an educational process. The songs that I've selected to do in these shows I've chosen purposely to educate people about what makes Frank different, ya know? To really put on display the things that he accomplished that nobody even attempted to go near."
Momentarily overwhelmed by abiding love and respect for his father's work, in a spontaneous discourse peppered with humble chuckles, Dweezil goes on to say, "I feel he is completely underrated, and I think that a live situation is the easiest way for somebody to be indoctrinated and understand it on a deeper level than just listening to it. I think it helps to better understand the complexity of what it takes to play this stuff.
"And it also just unravels the mystery of the arrangements for a lot of people. When you see it happening, and the complexity of this stuff, you have to ask yourself, 'How the hell are they doing that?' That's what I used to think when I watched Frank's concerts when I was young. I just thought, 'That's impossible, yet they're doing it.' So we kind of have the same experience while we're playing, like 'This is impossible! But we're playing it.' "
Zappa's music is an anomaly seen through almost any lens. The treasure chest of his immense accomplishments, locked away for so many years, now re-opened, re-discovered and re-interpreted by his No. 1 son, proves the child might indeed be father to the man.
ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA appears at Coney Island's Moonlite Gardens on Tuesday.