Zappa Preys Zappa

Still the King.

Last night was a great musical treat in our fair city–the return of Return to Forever.  This edition was not the original edition that appeared at the Paramount Theater two years ago, but an all-star lineup nonetheless–the nucleus of Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White were joined by Jean-Luc Ponty and Frank Gambale in place of guitarist Al Di Meola.  They played a meteoric and generous two-hour set, and were just as astounding live as they have been on recordings over the years.

Opening for RTF was Zappa Plays Zappa, a tribute band to the music of Frank Zappa led by his son Dweezil on guitar.  Now I’m a big Zappa fan, saw him live on three occasions, own many of his recordings, and without a doubt–nobody has more of a right to carry on the tradition of FZ than his own son, right?

Well…maybe.  The crowd ate it up, but the set was pretty lackluster by Zappa standards.

Don’t get me wrong, Dweezil continues to grow into an impressive guitarist.  But at this stage of the game at least, he cannot command the presence to put forth a band with musicians of the caliber that Frank used.  And without that, it’s  Zappa Lite.  One vocal impersonator plus walls of amps and percussion doth not a world-class ensemble make.

Maybe it’s unfair to expect that of Dweezil, or anybody else.  By all accounts, FZ was a stern taskmaster who expected the world of his musicians, and got it.  I can’t think of another unit, save Miles Davis, where the expectations were so unforgivably high and failure to adhere to the highest standards could land you out on your ear so swiftly.

Oh wait a minute.  There was also James Brown.  And Ray Charles.  Probably Buddy Rich too…

OK, so a lot of bandleaders are like that.  But they deserve to be, because it’s their name on the marquee and their reputation on the line.  On the other hand, when the child performs the legacy of the parent, that’s a bit different.  Now you have the situation of somebody shrouded in another’s mystique, and the blood ties make them more or less invulnerable to criticism.  Unless you’re Frank Sinatra Jr., and there were probably some issues there.

Anyway, back to the show.  Dweezil’s band had a few outstanding players–the drummer, percussionist, and bassist were top-notch.  Rhythm guitar and keyboard were no doubt competent but not given much to do, probably to give more space to Dweezil’s FZ-inspired leads.  At two members, the horn section was thin–Zappa’s music requires at least three–and seemed to be there for their vocals as much as their playing, which I gotta say did not knock me out.  When you’re following folks like the Fowler Brothers and Albert Wing, you’ve got to bring the goods.  Sorry, but they didn’t.

And speaking of vocals–that was the real gaping hole of the set.  FZ had Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Adrian Belew, and Captain Beefheart, among others.  Dweezil had trumpeter Ben Thomas, who does a passable FZ impression vocally, but let’s face it–Frank was always smart enough to have a vocal powerhouse or three on stage with him, understanding that his own range was limited when things needed to soar.  Without somebody to pump up the soul, the audience is left with riff-heavy, sodden plodding–like baking bread but leaving out the yeast.  The Music of Affliction, and we got 75 minutes of it last night.

An interesting side-note–at one point in the set, the band played ‘King Kong’, an instrumental originally recorded by Frank Zappa on 1969’s Uncle Meat that featured a young Jean-Luc Ponty on violin.  Ponty re-recorded a shorter version a year later on his own release, King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa.  So when they announced that they were about to play ‘King Kong’, and that they were going to be joined by a special guest from Return to Forever, expectations were high.  And out strolled from the wings…Chick Corea.

I love Chick.  He’s the real reason I was there.  And true to form, his playing on that number elevated the entire band.  But it makes me wonder about the conversation in the green room right before he appeared onstage.  Was Jean-Luc just busy smoking a Gitanes?  Or had he had enough Zappa for one lifetime?  Supposedly, he had sat in on some other dates on the tour, so that probably wasn’t it.  But I could see how an old warhorse like Ponty might occasionally take a pass.

Without a doubt, Dweezil is a talented musician, and I know he has done other projects.  My suggestion would be to step out of his father’s long shadow and continue with his own vision.  But hey, what do I know?  It was a near sellout on a Tuesday night in Austin Texas.

Another chorus of ‘Willie the Pimp’, anyone?



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