Given the singularity and popularity of the late Frank Zappa, it’s surprising how little has been done to keep his music alive since his passing in 1994. There have been several post humous Zappa albums released by Rykodisc, a couple of all-Zappa tribute CDs by European chamber-music groups, a few well- intentioned “Zappa’s Universe” orchestral concerts supervised by conductor Joel Thome, and not much else.
Why so little? It’s certainly not due to lack of interest. Frank Zappa was a touring fiend for over 20 years; if you lived in a major city, you could expect a Zappa revue to roll through town once every year or two. The Gordian knot of themes in his body of work, musical and verbal, became a kind of iconography to fans, who turned out with a loyalty comparable to that of Deadheads.
For this legion of Frankophiles, the void left since Zappa’s last tour in 1988 has been enormous. Here was perhaps the most riotously colorful and inventive rock-based road show in history, music that seemed a permanent part of the American and European artscape — and it simply vanished.
“It’s tragic,” says guitarist Mike Miller. “Nobody in the world is playing this stuff, and without somebody playing it, it’s just going to fade away. The idea of nobody playing this music is just terrible.”
There are two main reasons that this terrible idea has taken root: expense and degree of difficulty. Zappa charts are infamously complex, and the group-size and rehearsal-time requirements are prohibitive. But not so prohibitive as to stop Miller and a band of some of the greatest Zappa alumni from doing an occasional stint as Banned From Utopia (a play on the Zappa album title Band From Utopia).
Begun in 1994 by Zappa bassist Arthur Barrow and carried on by longtime Zappa lead singer/guitarist Ike Willis, the current Banned lineup is a Zappa-band dream team: Willis (guitar, vocals); three of the venerable jazz-veteran Fowler Brothers — Bruce (trombone), Tom (bass) and Walt (trumpet, flügelhorn,
synthesizer); Albert Wing (tenor sax); Tommy Mars (keyboards, vocals); and Ralph Humphrey (drums). Lest there be any talk of sacrilege, consider that Willis has the composer’s blessings.
“I feel good about doing the music because, basically, I’m just doing my job,” says Willis, a 17-year Zappa veteran. “Frank and I had our last meeting a week before he died, for the purpose of me getting my ‘final instructions,’ as he called it. And he gave me his imprimatur to go ahead and keep the music alive.”
Willis, perhaps most memorable for having uproariously essayed the title role in Zappa’s musical Thing-Fish, occasionally guest-stars with a few of the Zappa tribute bands that have popped up, notably Project/Object in New York, Bogus Pomp in Florida and an 11-piece group called the Central Scrutinizer in São Paulo, Brazil. “They were great,” says Willis, “but these [Banned] are my guys, my fellow veterans. The music feels different. You know where it comes from.”
Bruce Fowler, a veteran of Zappa bands and recording sessions from the early ’70s and 1988, says, “It’s different than playing with people who have only listened to the music. There’s something organic about having had Frank drilling the music into us day after day. It feels a part of us, physically. The first time it was incredibly hard, but once we did it so many times — well, we just remember it.”
Principal guitar soloist Miller has the most thankless part to play: A South Da kota transplant who fell in with the Fowler brothers’ old band, Air Pocket, in the mid-’70s, Miller doesn’t perform note-for-note copies of Zappa’s complex excursions, opting to solo in his own style.
“If I completely nail a [Zappa] solo, play it perfectly,” he says, “the best anyone can say is, ‘Well, he did a good job. He didn’t write it.’ It’s a no-win situation, as opposed to just playing, which is extremely demanding and more rewarding. Frank certainly wouldn’t have played the same solo he did the week before.”
Zappa tribute groups, Fowler says, take recorded versions of songs as gospel. Not so with Banned: “The recordings were just a snapshot of a living, breathing thing. We don’t want to be bored doing the same thing the same way forever; that’s not in the spirit. And Frank always had his pulse on the times, so one thing we’re trying to do is to change the lyrics a little bit to fit 1998.”
Fowler and some Banned members met with Gail Zappa, Frank’s widow, when the group first started, and she approved changing the name from “Band” to “Banned,” according to Fowler. (She was unavailable for comment for this article.) Whether or not Banned has her blessings is an open question. The Zappa Family Trust has maintained strict control of Zap pa’s name and music, rarely granting approval to new Zappa projects. When a slightly different Banned lineup played the Baked Potato last September, Willis & Co. held up a sign that half-jokingly proclaimed, “Please Don’t Sue.”
The status of plans by the estate to mount tribute concerts or tours of Zappa music is unknown. For the moment, hearing Banned From Utopia is as close as Zappa fans can get to experiencing some of the most remarkable live music of the century.
Call it “An Evening Without Frank Zappa.”
Banned From Utopia plays at the Baked Potato, Friday–Sunday, January 30–February 1.