Nearly five years after an honorary bust of his father was installed outside a Highlandtown library, Dweezil Zappa is still working to change the perception of Frank Zappa's characterization-defying, decades-spanning musical legacy.
Too many cursory listeners, he said, try to pigeonhole Frank — a Baltimore native with a diverse catalog of more than 60 albums to his name, all before he died at 52 in 1993 — as a silly, guitar-wielding absurdist, and not the multitalented composer and songwriter who eventually made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
"What tends to happen is anyone who has casual exposure to the music, they think, 'Oh yeah, I get it. I've heard '[Don't Eat the] Yellow Snow,'" Zappa said last week on the phone from a tour stop in Austin, Texas. "So he gets relegated to the novelty act, and that's not at all what he's about."
For the past 12 years, Zappa has tried to expand the collective lens his father is viewed through by fronting Zappa Plays Zappa, a tribute act that plays Rams Head Live on Sunday.
Zappa and his five bandmates will perform the entirety of "One Size Fits All," the final album Frank — whose statue sits outside the Southeast Anchor Library today — recorded with the backing band, the Mothers of Invention. The record turns 40 years old next month, and Zappa said, based on tour reaction thus far, the album holds a special place with fans.
"There's a certain excitement factor that happens when you play that whole record in sequence," Zappa, 45, said. "For some reason, it feels like more of a high-energy impact response from the audience because I guess they connected with this one more."
When it comes to Frank Zappa records, accessibility is a relative term. Surreal, unpredictable and difficult to play, the nine songs of "One Size Fits All" pack many of Frank's eclectic styles into 42 minutes. Zappa hopes the audience picks up on the record's challenging arrangements and other "fine details."
Album opener "Inca Roads" is "one of the hardest songs to play in Frank's repertoire because there's things that I've learned to play on guitar that are not meant to be played on guitar at all," Zappa said. "Those fast, septuplet interlude sections were written for marimba and keyboards. They're not easy on those instruments, but they're far easier than on guitar."
Zappa said he has learned nearly 500 of his father's songs since starting Zappa Plays Zappa. Tracing Frank's mostly self-taught footsteps made Zappa look at guitar composition differently, and he hopes to pass the acquired knowledge to aspiring Baltimore musicians before Sunday night's show. For $75, fans can sign up for "Dweezil Zappa's Master Class," in which Zappa teaches some of the unorthodox guitar concepts his father utilized.
"It's a class that's designed for players from beginning level to intermediate," Zappa said. "It takes what they already know, but then gives them a new perspective on how to use it. ... It's just a strategy and techniques, but it's through more of a mental approach and a new visualization of the guitar neck."
While Zappa Plays Zappa will continue to tour for the rest of the year, Zappa said, the Los Angeles resident also plans to release "Via Zammata," his first album of original music in nearly a decade. The album — which features a conceptual, Plato-referencing collaboration with actor John Malkovich that would likely make Frank proud — is being mixed now, and will be released in July, Zappa said.
Zappa is excited to finally follow up 2006's "Go With What You Know," but still considers Zappa Plays Zappa a significant priority. Through a dozen years of professionally playing his father's music, Zappa said, he is encouraged by the response he sees from audiences each night, especially from listeners who discovered Frank after his death. For Zappa, new generations connecting with "One Size Fits All" hopefully means Frank's further removal from the novelty tag.
"We've been seeing a lot more younger people at the shows, and they know it, too," Zappa said. "There's just something about this record."