Back to Essays
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
find a way to bring the enjoyment of listening to new music to the
Back to Essays