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Zappa's son fights for father's legacy

Of the Oakland Press

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Zappa Plays Zappa, featuring Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa, Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio and Napoleon Murphy Brock, plays at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Meadow Brook Music Festival on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester Hills. Tickets are $45 pavilion, $20 lawn. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

"Authenticity" is the key word for Dweezil Zappa these days when it comes to the music of his late father, Frank Zappa.

It's what led Zappa's oldest son, a hot guitarist and ambitious composer in his own right, to spend more than two years putting together Zappa Plays Zappa, a tour that bills itself as the "first official presentation of Frank Zappa music" since his death in 1993 from prostate cancer. Posters and ads for the shows urge fans to "Accept No Substitute."

And Dweezil Zappa acknowledges that Zappa Plays Zappa is designed to reclaim the Zappa legacy from the myriad tribute bands and festivals that have surfaced around the world during the past 13 years but, he feels, have not matched the standards set by his father.

"I'd be the first one to tell somebody if it sounds good, but they don't, largely because people can't play it," says Zappa, 36. "Even if they are capable of playing some of the stuff, people find some reason to rearrange it or put their own spin on it.

"That's not what Frank's music is about. Frank is a composer -- a classical composer, really. He used a rock band to play most of that music, but these are compositions that are strictly written. For anybody to think they can add something to it, it's ridiculous to me."

Zappa pere was indeed an exacting and sophisticated artist, releasing nearly 70 albums during his lifetime and working in rock, jazz, electronic and classical forms, including orchestral and full-length symphonic pieces. With his Mothers of Invention and afterwards, Zappa was also known as a bandleader skilled in picking promising young players, including future Little Feat founders Lowell George and Roy Estrada, guitar aces Steve Vai and Adrian Belew, keyboardist George Duke, jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and drummers Terry Bozzio and Aynsley Dunbar. He also signed Alice Cooper to its [cq] first record deal and produced the group's first album, "Pretties For You."

Zappa's idiosyncratic muse and wry wit occasionally intersected with the pop charts -- "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" in 1974 and "Valley Girl" in 1982 with daughter Moon Unit, the oldest of his four children with second wife Gail. But mostly Zappa existed as an enormously respected cult artist who advanced the discourse of what pop music could entail -- and won two Grammy Awards along the way.

Dweezil recalls that his prolific father "pretty much worked in the hours that we were always sleeping. Both our parents were home all the time, so it was kind of a normal upbringing." Gratuitous visits to his father's work space were discouraged, but Dweezil says that "we always found some reason to visit the studios, even if we just wanted to hear what he was doing. We weren't bothering him for no reason."

Dweezil has released four albums of his own since 1986, including two for this father's Barking Pumpkin label and one for Vai's Favored Nations. He's also recorded and toured with younger brother Ahmet, who's part of the Zappa Plays Zappa project. Others in the Zappa Family Trust Band include drummer Joe Travers, who also serves as "the Vaultmeister," helping to catalog the enormous stash of Zappa tapes and plan archival releases.

Special guests on the inaugural tour, meanwhile, include Vai, Bozzio and Napoleon Murphy Brock.

"I chose the people we have now," Dweezil explains, because they, for me and probably for a lot of the fans, represented a specific period of time in Frank's music that really had some stand-out moments, and their contributions were part of the elements.

"Frank was always good at selecting people to be in his band and would give them the freedom to do what they did best. So I wanted to have some of that kind of stuff within this music."

Dweezil plans to make Zappa Plays Zappa a going concern -- hopefully, he says, an annual tour. But he adds that the music's complexity makes it hard to gauge how often he'll be able to take the show on the road.

"It always requires a lot of prep time before any tour, especially if we're going to be learning a bunch of new stuff," he notes. "Frank would typically rehearse a new band for three months before each tour. Not only is that time-consuming, but it's expensive when you're talking about a large band.

"But to do it, you have to do it right, and that's why I think it's going over as well as it is, because we have put so much time in, and attention to details. It's sounds authentic, the way it's supposed to sound."

Zappa Plays Zappa, featuring Dweezil and Ahmet Zappa, Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio and Napoleon Murphy Brock, plays at 8 p.m. Thursday (June 15th) at the Meadow Brook Music Festival on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester Hills. Tickets are $45 pavilion

Web Site: www.palacenet.com.

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