Five years ago, Dweezil Zappa, eldest son of Frank Zappa, envisioned a series of concerts designed to expose the almost supernaturally challenging compositions of his late father. The hook in this project would be that Dweezil’s presentation of Frank’s music would be note-perfect recreations, a daunting clause that essentially required Dweezil to relearn his fingering and picking techniques to more accurately convey Frank’s sinewy precision and lightning-fast execution.
Populating his touring bands with a variety of highly skilled musicians well versed in playing Frank’s music, including a handful of rotating guests who actually played under Frank back in the day, Dweezil hit the road as Zappa Plays Zappa and found himself performing brilliantly faithful renditions of Frank’s music to ecstatic older fans who wanted to relive his magic and a new generation of young fans who wanted to experience Frank’s genius for the first time.
Each iteration of ZPZ was more rehearsed and able to dig deeper into Frank’s impossibly complex catalog, and each successive tour brought more acclaim to Dweezil and his cast of Frankophiles, including a 2008 Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.
For his latest album, Return of the Son of..., Dweezil has opted to set aside the ZPZ moniker and release the two-CD set under his own name. That decision may well be explained in the brief liner notes that accompany the album, specifically where Dweezil explains that the lengthy guitar solos he plays on some of these songs are combinations of his father’s work and his own improvisational inspirations, all of it filtered through Dweezil’s interpretations of Frank’s distinctive and quirky technique.
And while the Zappa Plays Zappa banner would still hold true in that instance, Dweezil might well have thought that he inserted enough of his own musical personality into the exquisitely conceived solos in the 20-minute opus “King Kong,” the serious novelty of “Montana,” the jazzy “Inca Roads” and the epic “Billy the Mountain” to warrant releasing it under his name alone.
For what it’s worth, these superb performances, culled from ZPZ shows over the past two years (particularly a three night stand in Chicago two years ago), do tend to exude a little more of Dweezil’s inner light. Perhaps Return of the Son heralds the eventual and welcome return of Dweezil Zappa as an original artist in his own right. As much as we’ve all enjoyed his loving recreations of Frank’s monumental catalog, it would be great to hear his newly rewired playing style applied to his own compositions, which have generally been pretty spiffy themselves.