Part 4 of 4
I'm in the midst of 2013 pre Fall Tour preparation and I thought I might take a moment to share some thoughts with you about the plenitude of processes that we as a band must navigate during rehearsal time. I thought I might also share some of the similarities between what we experience and what I witnessed my father experience while preparing for tours himself.
Now that we have an entirely new rhythm section in Zappa Plays Zappa the core sound of the band has evolved into something different. You may be asking, "How different?" Well, the differences are actually subtle and based on hard to describe esoteric human performance nuances. I'm mostly referring to the difference in the time feel of Ryan Brown the new drummer. Much can be said about how humans respond to rhythm and how they feel their way through it. I suppose an analogy could be based on linguistic vocabulary. If the first version of the ZPZ band had its own vernacular and colloquialisms then the next version would ideally become familiar with that phraseology and incorporate it into its own new dialect and uniquely continue from there. Until this year the changes within the band were more ornamental and less to do with the foundation. In other words each time there has been a personnel change it has been a fairly mild one in terms of its affect on the sound of the band instrumentally. Having a new drummer "drive the bus" is a bit of a larger leap for us. In our first week of rehearsals I felt that the language of the music was very much understood by the new incarnation of the band. There is also a level of excitement and anticipation to hear what new accents will be used and what new words will be formed.
You can hear this process in Frank's music across all of his records. His music had different inflections from many musicians over the years and the different eras have their own sound. As we all know there was a bit of a revolving door in the band, many turnovers in relatively short periods of time. To illustrate my point of how the drummer specifically altered the musical possibilities in Frank's music let's examine the changing of drummers in his bands (I won't list all of them). The rudimentary playing of Jimmy Carl Black was taken to another level (like adding more words to your vocabulary) by Aynsley Dunbar. A completely new language with a lot more words was introduced with Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson and then again a whole new thesaurus was filled when Terry Bozzio joined the band. Many fans thought, "How can this be topped?" ( all very subjective, mind you) and then poof, a new and barely understandable language was introduced when Vinnie Colaiuta joined the band. At that point the complexity of the rhythmic language was so intense it was really difficult to imagine where it could go from there. Frank was often exhausted by the prospect of forming entirely new bands because it required so much extra time, effort and capital to get the news bands up and running. Choosing the material, rearranging songs, writing new music with the new band in mind... all of this was constant especially from 1973 to 1983. While there was new inspiration to be had there was also a lot of constant learning and relearning to be done by all involved. This is what ZPZ is in the middle of right now.
The vocabulary is well understood and recognized within the band and Ryan Brown (the new drummer) is fluent in "Zappanese." As a band we find ourselves reexamining parts of songs we've played many times on past tours and infusing them with the details and folklore from specific eras as Frank often did. Choosing new material for the band is always a challenge, mainly because we have performed such a wide range of material over the years, more than 250 songs since 2006. Much of what we have yet to learn is from the 80's as well as a few significant orchestral works.
I have spent a lot of time focusing on my favorite era of my dad's music, the 70's. In my early childhood this is what imprinted on me the most. This year THE ROXY AND ELSEWHERE album is reaching a surprising anniversary - 40 years. In honor of that record we are performing the entire album live on stage in sequence. We will of course perform many other tunes as well and we are in the process of choosing/learning them. One in particular has never been performed live. It is so obscure that I am not sure how many folks will know this tune. It does come replete with a very funny story of its inaugural playback at the UMRK. It has always been a favorite of mine and that is why we are playing it. As always there are many great tunes to choose from but time is the enemy.
Since there always seems to be less and less time to prepare it becomes harder and harder to do. Each tour we endeavor to present several new songs. When it comes to orchestral tunes, they take up the most time. One of those takes up the amount of time that 5 -8 other songs would take.
For example when I learned G-Spot Tornado on guitar it took me more than 5 months to be able to memorize and play it. We played it many times on tour. I have absolutely zero recall on that song at this point. It wouldn't take 5 months to get it back to playable but it would take a significant amount of studying to make that happen. Such is the case with the hardest songs. In the off season I don't have time to practice and those songs fade from my memory quickly even though I work very hard to learn them.
Then there is the whole sound design element. Researching what equipment was used and recreating the sounds to be evocative of the era is an integral part of what ZPZ does. This can be as time consuming as learning some of the hard songs. Testing gear, making sure it can be used on tour, reconfiguring and reprogramming pedal boards and presets. This all takes time... a lot of time. Slightly off topic yet still related to gear etc, At the end of 2012 I had done a lot of programming of my guitar rig. I spent more than 2 weeks of long days and then a bit of corrupt data messed up all of the presets. The gear had to be shipped to Europe and it was not in working condition at all. The day of the first show I had to go to the venue at 8am and try to reprogram a basic version of things so that I could get through the show ( which we were filming for a possible DVD) and I sat there without a break until 6:30PM for a late sound check. I ate quick bite of food and then did the show with fingers crossed. It was stressful to have to start a tour that way. It mostly worked out fine but I did have a few issues with levels not being right etc. All of those things affect the performance as well as the final recording. Anyway, the point is that learning the music is only one piece of the puzzle.
As I mentioned before another challenge is keeping the music playable in the off season. That is even more difficult now than it has ever been. In between tours I balance my time with my daughters who are very active and I often have zero time to practice. It's only when it becomes time to tour again that I begin playing again. This was actually pretty common for my dad as well. He never played guitar at home unless he was getting ready to tour. His guitar preparation was very different than mine. He didn't play much rhythm guitar during his concerts and he rarely played integral melodies on guitar. He used his guitar for total free expression, air sculpture time. I have chosen to use the guitar as a larger part of the ensemble and play many of the main melodies on guitar. This has been the best thing for me in terms of learning all of the details within my dad's music but it is always quite daunting since the parts are so hard to memorize and play. I do enjoy the air sculpture as well though. Incidentally I have learned a lot of new stuff from my time at Dweezilla this year. Oz Noy's classes and Tom Quayle's classes were particularly inspirational. I am looking forward to putting some new ideas to work in my lead playing.
In closing I would like to say that Zappa Plays Zappa has been an amazing project to be involved in. It has given me the opportunity to continue a relationship with my father through his music. It has also given me a musical education that I am extremely grateful for. As a kid I saw my father at work on stage and at home in the studio. It was fascinating to watch. As an adult it's even more fascinating to me. For me there is an unending supply of mysteries to uncover in the music. I'm curious about all of the details. How he came up with the ideas for the compositions, orchestration, production and sound design, guitar choices, and everything in between. That is why I take the time to inspect all of the details in what we as ZPZ do. I could make it easier for myself and the band and do far less. I could decide to quit paying attention to the details, use the same sounds over and over, etc, etc... but I believe the music deserves more than that.
That said, I'm heading back in the rabbit hole to get my fingers working on the Be-Bop Tango melody. See you all out on the road soon! DZ