For the past decade, Dweezil Zappa has been touring the world bringing immaculately detailed and impeccably performed celebrations of his father Frank Zappa’s considerable oeuvre to audiences of all ages the world over.
He’s included a Buffalo tour stop on every road jaunt since Z Plays Z’s birth. At 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dweezil and Zappa Plays Zappa will continue that tradition by kicking off their 2015 tour in our town, as UB’s Center for the Arts welcomes the ensemble for a show that will include a performance of Frank’s seminal “One Size Fits All” album in its entirety.
I spoke with Dweezil by phone last week during a break from rehearsals for the coming tour. Here’s how it went.
Q: “One Size Fits All” is in many ways the quintessential Frank album. I could be biased, because it’s the first one I fell in love with, and I fell for it at a young age. But it does seem to cover many of the different modes of composition Frank worked in, all in one place.
A: It’s a special album. If you take just the first song, “Inca Roads,” you can see that it exemplifies so much of what was great about Frank. All of the interesting rhythms and the melodic structure, and then the space for improvisation, within that one piece. There’s just so much there.
Q: What are the particular challenges inherent to this material? And how do you manage to both play the pieces as written, and allow the personalities of the players to shine through?
A: All of Frank’s music is challenging, but here, we’re talking about two disciplines – to play the pieces as he wrote them, and to make the improvisations into worthy ones. He fine-tuned his compositions so much – there was nothing sloppy or off-hand about any of his compositions. It’s a complex challenge to play them correctly. And then, with the improvisational areas, there’s a wide-open canvas, and it’s just super fun to work within that area! That said, it sounds hard, and it most definitely is hard! (laughs)
Generally speaking, there is this popular idea that when you perform music written by someone else, you’re supposed to change it. I find that idea very strange. What I believe is that you are here to carry the tradition forward, and so in a sense, we treat this material like you’d treat classical music. And really, if you go to hear an orchestra play classical music, you don’t really want to hear, say, someone rapping over it, right? (laughs) We don’t really make changes because we don’t need to.
Q: Ten years ago, when you were just launching Zappa Plays Zappa, you told me that one of your main goals was to pass your father’s music on to new generations. Do you feel you’ve been successful in that endeavor?
A: I really do. Here’s an example – pianist Chris Norton, who has been with us for several years now, joined the band when he was 23. He had never heard Frank’s music until he heard us play it. It was all new to him, and he fell in love with it.
The point is, anybody can find this music at any time in their life, and they can connect with it on a deep level. And what I’ve learned is, once they connect with it, they stay with it. So I meet people who have stayed with this music for decades and decades at our shows, and then I also meet people who have just discovered it. That’s a wonderful thing. What I wanted to do when I started this was to help to carry Frank’s music forward into the future, and it’s working.
Q: You’ve been hearing this music for your whole life. What continues to surprise you about Frank as a composer after all this time?
A: When I started hearing music for the very first time in my life, it was my dad’s music. And so everything I heard later sounded somewhat unfinished and incomplete! (laughs) I mean, the level of detail, the ability to decorate time with so much amazing musical information – just, wow. I’d listen to other music and think, ‘Where’s all the missing harmonic and rhythmic information?” (laughs) Of course, I’ve learned to appreciate simplicity, too. But it took a while.
The music just continues to amaze me as we learn and perform it. In everything we learn, I really don’t ever find Frank repeating his compositional devices over and over. Think about that. The depth and variety over the course of 80 albums – it’s amazing. There really is no other artist like him.
Q: You’ve got a new album coming out in May. If you were to tour this new material, would Z Plays Z be the band? Or are you intent on keeping your own music and your father’s music separate?
A: I’m trying to figure out what we’re going to do. Z Plays Z is the band on the record, so that would mean they’d be the band when this stuff gets played live. How that will play out, I’m not totally sure yet. For this record, I really went for what I wanted, and didn’t at all feel limited to only writing and arranging and recording what could be played live. I wrote for a small orchestral ensemble, for example. And Geoff Emerick, who we all know from the Beatles, recorded the strings and horns for this project. The album took a long time. A really long time. (laughs) I’d love to see what we can do with it.
Q: With all of the racial problems in this country, and our seemingly limitless inability to respect each other, I often think ‘What would Frank say?’ about a given issue. He wrote ‘Trouble Every Day’ during the Watts Riots in the ’60s, and he was an unflinching critic of American social and cultural and political life for his entire career. What do you think he would make of all the race-related violence of the past year? What would he think of unarmed young men being gunned down by police?
A: He’d say “Business as usual.” Sad to say, but true. He wrote that song in an entirely different era, but it is as true now as it was when he wrote it. I wish it wasn’t. But it is.
Dweezil Zappa and Zappa Plays Zappa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: University at Buffalo Center for the Arts (103 Center for the Arts)
Tickets: $29.50 to $49.50