Zappa Returns!

Frank Zappa was well known for a lot of things—his sharp satiric wit, his virtuoso guitar improvisations, his excellence as a bandleader, his fearlessness in combating hostile political forces and crooked record-industry executives. But Zappa is all too rarely given credit for his status as one of the most creative musical imaginations of the 20th century, regardless of genre.

Zappa's real legacy is as a composer. He is one of those historic figures who takes on a new life after death, when the details of his personality are sublimated by the resonating impact of what he has left behind. He was the most prolific composer of the rock era, although his initial background and creative instincts are rooted in the 20th-century "classical" iconoclasts. Edgard Varèse was his childhood hero, and Zappa often invoked Varèse's slogan, "The present day composer refuses to die." Other elements that contributed to his worldview included the Dadaist movement in art and literature, the theater of the absurd, science fiction, Alexander Calder's moving sculptures, big-band jazz orchestration, 1950s vocal-group R&B, and the raunchy gutbucket blues of Johnny "Guitar" Watson.

Zappa composed at a furious pace throughout his life, famously never leaving his hotel room during tours as he constantly worked on new scores—some written for hybrid jazz-rock bands, others for string ensembles and symphony orchestras. He left hundreds of unperformed compositions behind after his death. He wrote screenplays and operas, Broadway show treatments, and unusual scenarios for live rock-concert performances. Zappa took his compositional approach into the studio with him, constantly revising elements of already existing works. He developed an approach to composition that he called xenocrony (strange organization), in which he would take existing performances, such as a favorite guitar solo from a particular concert, and write new music to accompany it in a completely different context. He was fascinated with the one-man-orchestra possibilities offered by the Synclavier, and wrote over 300 pieces for the instrument but only a handful of them has ever been released. And throughout his career he experimented with sampling and tape manipulation, work that had an immense but uncredited influence on hip-hop producers.

The restlessness of Zappa's compositional imagination extended to his own previously recorded work. In the final years of his life Zappa went back and tinkered with everything he had released up until that point, erasing performances he didn't like and replacing them with new tracks, remixing and remastering, in an alchemistic attempt to make these recordings match the ideal he envisioned. He made a deal with the CD-only company Rykodisc to issue his remastered catalog on CD.

In addition to the Rykodisc reissues, Zappa started a mail-order business in 1985 to release albums directly to his fan base. In the years just before his death, Zappa personally oversaw the preparation of numerous titles that would be released posthumously by Rykodisc (London Symphony Orchestra, Läther, Lost Episodes, Have I Offended Someone?, Mystery Disc), or his mail-order business (Civilization Phase III, Frank Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa, Everything is Healing Nicely).

When he died in 1993, just 17 days short of his 53rd birthday, he left behind a treasure trove of finished, partially finished, and unrealized projects and compositions in his Los Angeles home studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen (UMRK).

The reworked reissues, all under the Zappa imprint, were bought outright and continue to be distributed by the independent Rykodisc label. At the same time, the release of more than a dozen titles on his mail-order distribution system, and numerous projects were in various states of readiness when he died. But Zappa's lone-wolf method of making all the production decisions himself left his catalog in disarray after his death.

Any posthumous release of material from the UMRK must pass the standard set by the Zappa Family Trust to maintain one of Frank's main directives: conceptual continuity. Zappa drew from an immense wellspring of inspiration and source material, all of which made some kind of sense to him in the context of everything else he'd ever done. In some ways, the releases from the UMRK vault continue Zappa's own methods—many of his solo releases were live recordings and/or pastiches of recordings made at different times with different bands. A number of the posthumous releases had actually been produced all or in part by Zappa, but were then lost in the chaotic aftermath of his death.

Zappa did leave one final piece of direction regarding his catalog for his wife, Gail, before he died. "He told me to sell everything and get out of this awful business," Gail Zappa says, with a burst of wistful laughter.

But Gail has since had other ideas, and has guarded her husband's musical legacy with determination and ingenuity, nurturing it with help from their oldest son, Dweezil, and Dweezil's close friend and bandmate Joe Travers, the "vaultmeister" in charge of archiving Zappa's recorded legacy. Gail Zappa has continued the mail-order business begun by Frank. Meanwhile, Dweezil decided to put together the ultimate Frank Zappa tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa, in which Travers plays drums. By taking on some of his father's stiffest musical challenges, Dweezil has built the band into a successful touring group, drawing rave reviews at Bonnaroo and other festivals, and introducing a new generation of fans to his father's eccentric vision. The DVD Zappa Plays Zappa is proof of Dweezil's outstanding achievement, a venture he felt compelled to undertake to offset what he thought were misrepresentations of his father's music by various cover bands.

"Frank's music is much more like classical compositions than standard rock fare," Dweezil explains. "The cover bands that attempt to do it don't do it well because they're changing things in the music to avoid the difficult parts. Most guitar players have a pattern-oriented mentality, and there's nothing about Frank's music that is pattern-oriented. It's really hard to learn, especially if you're learning things on guitar that were never meant to be played on guitar, like 'Inca Roads' and 'St. Alfonzo's Pancake Breakfast,' things that were written to be played on marimba and keyboards, instruments that are laid out very differently than guitar. It required a complete physical transformation in terms of what I was capable of. I had to change my picking technique. It's sort of like training for the Olympics."

During the live shows, Dweezil gets to "play" with Frank again as Zappa père appears on a screen behind the band. "One of the personal benefits for me is that it's a continuation of a relationship with Frank," says Dweezil. "I get to spend time with him on a daily basis. For me, it's great, and for the fans, they get a chance to hear him—especially when we use video and he'll be singing and playing guitar and we'll be there backing him up. It's a bit surreal, but it's cool."

Frank Zappa's musical legacy has turned into a thriving family business. The well-designed website has numerous releases for sale, ranging from Zappa's archival documentaries of his own recording sessions, demo tapes, and previously unreleased oddities, to a slew of live performances, some on DVD, by Zappa's original groups as well as Zappa Plays Zappa. The catalog has reached the point where it has taken on a life of its own, and Gail now has big plans for the operation to start regularly releasing recordings.

"I own the vault material outright," Gail points out. "Basically, what I decided to do was put together two labels, Vaulternative and Zappa, so that I could start releasing stuff. It was not possible for me to do that through Ryko because I've spent 14 years now working with Joe Travers, our vaultmeister, and when we started way back when, we had no idea what was in the vault, and now we have more clues, although we're still not completely sure. We can't find all the things that we're looking for, but we find things that we're not looking for, so it kind of works out. My idea would be to get at least eight releases out a year, and at least one or two of those would be DVDs."

Gail explains that even though Frank spent a lot of time organizing his archives before he passed away, he didn't leave specific instructions about posthumous releases. "If you went by what Frank said," she says, "well, what he said one day was the complete opposite of what he said another day. Not to be confusing or arbitrary, but he would have a very fixed idea about something for a period of time, and then it would change. When it changed, he was not one of those people that held onto things. He was constantly reworking everything all the time.

"I don't want people to think that he doesn't have the right to have his final word be his music. I don't care what other people say about him, but when it gets too extreme, you can always go back to his music. And then you know exactly who he is. And that's the important part of his legacy for me. So that's still my job."