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Playing on the Zappa legacy Project/Object performs tribute despite copyright dispute

The story and it's a story that has taken on the status of myth over time -- goes like this: Shortly before his untimely death in 1993, Frank Zappa said something along the lines of "Just play my music." Succumbing to a lengthy battle with cancer, Zappa is said to have been concerned with his legacy, fearing that the incredibly dense canon of music he'd composed and recorded over the years would wither and die if no one was playing it. So his final wish was that those who loved his work and had been influenced by it would pass it on to future generations by performing it.

It's a fittingly poetic end to an artistically rebellious life. Of course, it may or may not have actually happened. Zappa spent his entire musical career kicking against the bricks, butting his head up against a commercial "pop" music world that labeled him a ne'er do well and freak, and finding the world of classical music an even more hostile environment. Relentlessly inventive and willfully irreverent, Zappa posited a continuum between the modern classical music he revered and tirelessly composed and the blend of improvisation-heavy compositions and scathing social commentary-centered pieces that comprised his "rock" albums.

He ended up frustrated with the way he was received in both worlds. Quite rightly, Zappa believed he would follow the model set forth by so many of the composers whose music he admired -- as an artist who would be undervalued while living and canonized after he'd died.

Nearly 16 years after his passing, the music of Frank Zappa is being played more often than ever, and by ensembles that run the gamut from regional collectives, to orchestras, to string quartets, to touring bands comprised of musicians who'd been part of Zappa's various bands, to a group led by Zappa's son Dweezil. One of these, the fully tenured Project/Object, comes to Buffalo to perform inside the Tralf on Saturday at 8 p.m.

With all of this activity related to Zappa music, it was perhaps inevitable that problems of ownership would arise. Zappa's widow, Gail, in her role at the head of the Zappa Family Trust, has fought tirelessly to protect her late husband's music. Some see this as an attempt to clear the field so that son Dweezil's Zappa Plays Zappa ensemble can reign supreme in the world of Zappa repertory groups. Others believe that Gail Zappa is only carrying on Frank's work and protecting that work from those who would seek to profit unduly from it.

"I had no idea there would be such a huge response worldwide," says Project/Object guitarist Andre Cholmondeley. "But I knew for sure there was a need [for the music] and there were fans everywhere. It's a shame that Dweezil and 'the Mom' find the rest of us nothing more than targets for legal attacks. But so be it. We will play as long as we want to."

Cholmondeley is referring to the Zappa Family Trust's many actions to control both Zappa's body of work and his image. Most recently, the ZFT sought to prevent the annual Zappanale festival -- held for the past 20 years in the German town of Bad Doberan -- from employing Zappa's image and trademark (the classic soul-patch and walrus mustache that screams "Zappa!") in promotions and merchandising for the festival. (That festival has drawn musicians of all ages from around the world, including Buffalo's Kilissa Cissoko, member of local all-Zappa band the Voice of Cheez.) According to Guardian.co.uk, the ZTF's lawsuit against Zappanale has been denied.

The ZFT has issued many cease and desist letters against Zappa "tribute" bands, unauthorized fan sites, blogs, and in some cases, even the clubs that employ the Zappa repertory bands. Project/Object has been one of them.

Should any of this matter to fans? Probably not. The criteria we use to measure the worth of any Zappa-related project should be the same one Zappa himself would've employed; How valid is it, musically? In the case of Project/Object, the music is, and has been, excellent.

Buffalo audiences have been treated to Dweezil's Zappa Plays Zappa three times over the past few years, and each show has been outstanding. Similarly, Project/Object has been performing here in town since its formation in the early '90s, and Saturday's show -- which features, for the first time playing together, longtime P/O players Ike Willis and Cholmondeley and Zappa alums Don Preston and Ed Mann -- should deepen the band's rather glowing reputation in these parts.

The Zappa fan is the true beneficiary of all of this activity. If Zappa's final wish was indeed that his music be played far and wide, then we might imagine him smiling somewhere off in the great beyond. Or smirking, at least.
e-mail: jmiers@buffnews.com

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