Dweezil Zappa brings dad’s music to Colorado


By Quentin Young

The Frank Zappa song “Big Swifty” is a shape-shifting, rhythmically complex piece of jazz-fusion composition from the 1972 album Waka/Jawaka.

Frank’s son, guitar virtuoso Dweezil Zappa, has made a career in Zappa Plays Zappa out of re-creating the music of his father, who died in 1993. When Dweezil sat down to suss out the various parts of “Big Swifty,” he came upon an instrumental harmony that left him stumped.

“In the stereo mix it’s hard to distinguish what’s happening,” Dweezil said during a recent phone interview. “We had to pull the master tapes out of the vault and listen to the individual tracks.”

What he found was somewhat astonishing: The harmony was craftily structured so that every one of the 12 tones on the musical scale sounded at once, but it was still “a melodic thing,” Dweezil said.

“That’s the kind of detail we get into,” he said.

That’s the kind of detail audiences get to experience during the current Zappa Plays Zappa tour, which stops at Denver’s Boettcher Concert Hall on Thursday, April 23. The Zappa Plays Zappa band will re-create Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention’s last album, One Size Fits All, on its 40th anniversary, as well as perform more than an hour of other Zappa music. Dweezil Zappa, a two-time instrumental Grammy winner, will lead a guitar masterclass before the show.

Growing up in Frank’s house, Dweezil had an advantage over other aspiring young guitarists. When he was 12, his mother answered the phone and said, “This guy says it’s Eddie Van Halen.” It actually was the Van Halen guitar wizard on the other end, and about 20 minutes later, Van Halen, a hero to the young Dweezil, was in the Zappa house. Not long after, lightning-fingered Frank Zappa guitarist Steve Vai came over, and next thing he knew, Dweezil was sitting in a circle with Van Halen, Vai and his father trading licks on Van Halen’s purple Kramer guitar.

Dweezil said he was really into baseball at the time, but he eventually got serious about learning guitar, and in the 1980s his career as a performer and studio player took off. Music fans also knew his sister, Moon Unit, and him as guest VJs on MTV.

He expresses great respect for his father’s music, and despite its rock instrumentation, Dweezil approaches it as a form of classical music. Frank started as a classical composer, Dweezil said, and Zappa Plays Zappa is essentially a “repertory ensemble,” not a cover band.

“It the most fun music to play, but the most terrifyingly difficult,” Dweezil said.

Dweezil is a songwriter himself, but it has been 10 years since he put out an album of his own music. That will change in May, when he releases Via Zamatta. The solo album took more than 1,000 hours to record, Dweezil said, adding, for context, that he has been told it took The Beatles more than 800 hours to record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The album will include new songs, as well as material that goes back 20 years. One of the tracks is “Dragon Master,” the only song Dweezil ever collaborated on with his father. Frank came up with the seed of “this hilarious heavy-metal song” in the 1980s and suggested Dweezil complete it, he said.

“I wanted to make that song into something that certain fans would immediately see as a joke and some wouldn’t,” Dweezil said.

Metal in the ’80s had developed certain conventions that, to some listeners, were inherently funny, he explained. The word “light,” for example, would take on two syllables — “light-tah.” Deliver the material straight and some fans will throw up the devil’s horns. Others will giggle.

Details about the Denver show and ticket information can be found at the Colorado Symphony website.

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