Friday, October 2, 2015

On Interpretation: Zappa Plays Zappa

Dweezil Zappa and ensemble at the Boulder Theater last night. No, I didn't get any closer. I could hear just fine where I was.
How many recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are there? Thousands. Why? Haven’t they gotten it right yet?

When Dweezil Zappa hit the stage with his cover of his father Frank’s 1975 One Size Fits All album (the 10th and last official Mothers of Invention product – Zappa went solo after) at the Boulder Theater last night, it was standing room only – with a fairly large contingent of people my age and older, grandparent-y-looking freaks in disguise. When the house lights went down, a Trinity Site-size- and –shaped mushroom cloud of dope smoke ascended, rolling and roiling, breaking in silent tsunami against the lofty Art Deco ceiling.

It got loud fast. We stayed well back on the left, but got to observe all kinds of aisle action – security going after the blatant smokers, trippers waving their fingers in our faces. It got hot.

Zappa was an affable, laid-back host, a gentle curator who slayed it, playing the seemingly unlearnable solos his father composed and played. He was backed by an amazing quintet – Kurt Morgan on bass, Chris Norton on keyboards, Joe Travers on drums, Ben Thomas on trumpet, trombone, harmonica, guitar, and what else comes to hand; and the ball of fire Scheila Gonzales, who worked the keyboards, and flute, and sax, ripping out an amazing horn solo on a cover of “The Grand Wazoo” later in the evening.

Ben Thomas handled the lead vocals, too. (The vocal mix got blown out, and was pretty incomprehensible. I had to go back to the lyrics sheet later to refamiliarize myself.) It seemed odd that Dweezil would relegate this duty – but maybe not. It must be odd to play your dad’s albums for screaming crowds.

Or not. This definitely wasn’t the kind of note-for-note replication that bands such as Dark Star Orchestra perform. And is that what we want? The Eagles reportedly strove to make every concert “sound like the record.” Dweezil and Company kept substantially to the songs, but opened them out as well, developed them, extended them through their own experience and understanding.

And maybe that’s the best way to keep this music alive. Like Mercer Ellington and Sue Mingus, Dweezil Zappa has a mountain of material to work with – Zappa released 62 albums in his lifetime, sometimes five a year – a confounding mix of juvenile comedy, rock, soul, jazz, orchestral, R & B (who doesn’t love Cruisin’ with Ruben and the Jets?), collage, experimental pieces, all jammed together in an ever-exploding matrix of Weird.

Dweezil gets that and makes it work for him, demonstrating that the work has a much longer half-life than most people think it does. Frank Zappa was a notorious perfectionist, but even music as challenging and idiosyncratic as his will only survive if people take it, play it, and by playing change it. As the Borges story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” story illustrated, even the most rigorous attempt to recreate a creative experience is doomed and blessed to be something new and different.


We accrete cultural layers everywhere we go. We track our past, our mind, our style in with us, always, like mud on our shoes. Even when playing the unplayable, or bringing the unreproducible back to life, we are keeping it alive, and adding a little of our DNA to it as well. It’s Dweezil Zappa’s unique privilege to point out some gems to us and put new luster on them.