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What's It Like to Meet and Play for Frank Zappa?

In 1992, the Meridian Arts Ensemble started developing an interest in the music of Frank Zappa. One of our trumpeters, Jon Nelson, became
so enthusiastic that he made some arrangements of Zappa's music (these first arrangements can be heard on our second CD, Smart Went Crazy).
Meridian was founded in 1987 (I joined in 1989) with the goal of playing and commissioning serious contemporary brass quintet music. By 1992,
we understood that this category, for us, included jazz, rock, and any kind of world music that captured our interest. Playing Zappa's music was a
big step toward our concept that any music being written now is contemporary music, and that the categories used to bundle and sell different kinds
of music were not so meaningful to us.

As we began the long process of learning to play the Zappa tunes properly (the first two were T'Mershi Duween and Dupree's Paradise), we realized
that we needed a drummer. Ray Stewart, our tuba player, knew a great player named Mo Roberts, and we invited Mo to join the group. We started
recording cassette tapes of our versions of these tunes, and Jon started mailing these tapes to Frank Zappa. After a few such mailings, Jon's phone rang,
and it was Frank Zappa on the line. He said he loved our arrangements and our performances, and invited us to play for him next time we were in
Los Angeles.

As it happened, we were in LA for a concert within two months, and we arranged to go to the Zappa house. We were shown into the studio, and
Frank came in and shook our hands. We immediately got to work. Frank was already sick with cancer, but he was full of energy, and spent around
two hours coaching us on his music. As a coach, he was all business and very serious (I am sure he was this way as a band leader as well). He wanted
the songs to be played right, but he also wanted the character to be “goofy” (his word).

I believe that Frank was trying to lead us into a more exuberant performance style. Classical musicians usually sit stolidly in place or sway in a serious
fashion when they perform. There is little feeling that the ensemble “owns” the stage. Most ensembles (including ours) sit when they play, and there is
very little to see at a classical music concert. Audiences who are trained to appreciate classical music like it this way, but general audiences find it strange
and off-putting. Zappa was extremely supportive of how we played his music, and was interested in helping us find a better way to perform it.

Part way through the coaching, Frank's wife Gail came into the studio to offer us margaritas. Frank's comment: “First they'll learn their parts, then they
can have a margarita.”

After the coaching, margaritas in hand, we listened to some of Zappa's synclavier pieces (he would have thrived in the midi era, but died too soon). We
talked a lot about music. Frank liked the fact that we played his music on concerts with other contemporary pieces, in the context of new, mostly American
music. We had sent him our first CD (Winning Artists Series), and he thought that Ira Taxin's Brass Quintet was the best brass piece he had ever heard.
He encouraged us to arrange any of his music that struck our fancy.

We were back in Los Angeles around nine months later, and were again invited to the Zappa house to play our new set of tunes (this set can be heard on
our CD Prime Meridian). Frank was bedridden, but he wanted us to play. We were nervous about hurting his ears; he seemed weak and frail. He encouraged
us to play at full volume, and he gave us his full support for these new arrangements, again encouraging us to play any of his music. This was a moving vote
of confidence from a dying man.

Frank Zappa died three weeks later. We went on to record two more sets of his pieces. One set, with the addition of piano, is on Anxiety of Influence, and
the other is on Ear Mind I.

Zappa's music is by turns funny, beautiful, exciting, funky, sophomoric, satirical, complex, and bluesy. His guitar solos are instantly recognizable – he had
an incredible improvising voice on the guitar, on top of his obvious mastery of the instrument. His bands' performances, in which each song ran into the next
without a pause, were more like theater events than concerts. Zappa as a composer was a great American master, and to our group he was and is an inspiration
to find a way to bring the enjoyment of listening to new music to the everyone.

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