By Ken Clarke
“The present day composer refuses to die.”
With over 75 albums still available to enlightened listeners, the music of Frank Zappa lives on despite the eclectic composers’ untimely death in 1993. Unfortunately, live performances of Zappa’s music today are about as rare as finding a watermelon in Easter hay.
Local fans however, can get their live Zappa fix courtesy of The Whip It Out Ensemble who are returning to the Calgary stage. The brainchild of One Yellow Rabbit’s co-artistic director Michael Green, this group has been periodically performing Zappa’s music since 2002 and have maintained the same 14 piece personnel since their inception. Tackling the intricate compositions of the late legend does come with inevitable complications.
“The biggest challenge is finding the confidence to go forward with a project I knew was, in all likelihood, beyond me and beyond any group of people I could get together,” explains Green. “Once I got over that hurdle and settled on a way to approach the material and attract the right musicians to the project, I started to feel it was actually possible to learn to play the music. The hardest part once I got over the idea that we were really going to do this work was actually learning to play the music, because it’s so difficult.”
There is no denying the complex nature of Zappa’s enormous repertoire. Despite their efforts, The Whip It Out Ensemble are still labelled by some as a ‘cover band,’ a term Green finds irritating.
“If we were playing Stravinsky, no one would call us a Stravinsky tribute band,” he argues. “Because we’re playing Frank Zappa and so much of his work was in the pop music or R&B domain, it’s considered a tribute band or a cover band if you play his compositions. It’s not so easy to so-call, ‘cover’ Frank Zappa. We actually learned to play his compositions note by note, and we learnt them by ear. I think we’re good enough to fool a lot of people. I think if you come to our show with your eyes closed, you might actually be fooled into thinking you were really listening to Frank Zappa.”
As for the actual pieces to be performed, the show is divided into two acts. The first hour or so is devoted to The Mothers Of Invention’s 1967 release, We’re Only In It For The Money, the cover of which parodied The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s album. Mixed into this set are other Zappa works lending themselves to inclusion such as “The Orange County Lumbertruck,” “Oh No,” and “Lumpy Gravy.”
The second act is based around Zappa’s 1988 live album, The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life. Some of the pieces chosen include “Zomby Woof,” “Sofa,” “Call Any Vegetable” and “The Illinois Enema Bandit.”
“We used that album as a template,” says Green. “We were looking to make a similar musical statement.”
Zappa’s reputation as a highly critical cynic is well-known, but Green feels even the man himself would appreciate the efforts of The Whip It Out Ensemble.
“I think he might be flattered,” he remarks. “I hope so. I don’t think we’d be doing this if he were alive. We would be waiting for Frank to come through town so that we could go listen to him play. We got this idea to do the project when he died. We were sitting around at a wake 13 years ago, half way through our bottle of scotch and we thought, ‘Well who’s going to play Frank Zappa’s music now? We must! We must find a way to do it because the music must not die! We must keep this music alive for other people to listen to, it’s just too much fun to ignore.’ No one else is going to play it, most people can’t. I hope he’s up there smiling when we careen through some of his numbers, they’re so beautifully crafted.”