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Frank Zappa needs no introduction . . . or does he?
Though considered one the 20th century's greatest composers by critics, much of his music, wasn't accessible to mainstream audiences. Songs like "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and "Valley Girl," a duet with daughter Moon Unit, broke through, but only enough to present Zappa as a novelty act. His passion for composition that pushed the boundaries of modern rock by incorporating elements of jazz, rhythm and blues, disco, and electronic and classical music was lost on most ears.
That, however, is changing though a series of Zappa Plays Zappa tours orchestrated by his son Dweezil, who is determined to preserve his dad's legacy while simultaneously introducing it to a new generation of listeners.
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"People under the age of 30 didn't really know that much about my dad's music," Zappa says by phone from his Los Angeles studio. "They might have known his name, might have heard the kids' names, but the majority of what his music represented was lost on that generation.
"I'd like to see that change," Zappa says. "I always felt that his music and his contributions to music were underappreciated, so I thought it's worth embarking at least on some journey to present the music to new generations to see what this music is like performed live. It makes a really big difference seeing it performed live as opposed to just listening to it."
Zappa sees his role as an educator as well as entertainer. Frank Zappa's music was never popular in the traditional music sense: selling millions of copies and getting heavy radio airplay. What airplay he did receive for the aforementioned tracks only distorted Zappa's musical genius, leaving many to think his forte was comedic songs. Far from it, of course.
Since 2006, Zappa has been explaining and performing his father's music to audiences worldwide. However, before stepping on stage and showing everyone what they were missing, Zappa spent two years brushing up on the elder Zappa's catalog. This included learning not only the often-unusual arrangements that seem to dart about uncontrollably, but also the non-traditional guitar techniques required to get the right sounds.
"It really was the equivalent of getting a lobotomy and then training for the Olympics. A crazy, crazy process," he says. "I had to reprogram all my instincts for playing to learn a new technique."
The current tour features a complete tribute of Roxy & Elsewhere, a live recording from 1974 by Frank Zappa and the Mothers. "This one happens to be 40 years old right now and feels like it's from the future," Zappa says. "It's also a particularly good record to introduce an audience to the music if they've never heard it before . . . It's really one of the most diverse records he made, but the core of it is funky and groovy, and that makes it fun to play for an audience."
The audience will hear the album practically verbatim. Unlike a band such as Dark Star Orchestra, which plays live Grateful Dead songs similarly to how the Dead might have played them, Zappa Plays Zappa adheres to the notion that Frank wrote his music to be performed a certain way.
"It doesn't do anything other than say, 'Look what I can do to this music,'" Dweezil says of altering someone's music. "And that's not what I'm trying to do with Frank's music. I'm not trying to change it."
Zappa plays Zappa, nothing else.
"Generally speaking," he adds, "when we pick an arrangement, we stick pretty close to it."