Aaron Arntz had a difficult homework assignment, as did everybody else auditioning for the job.
Dweezil Zappa was forming the group he would take out on the road to perform the complex, genre-blurring compositions of his mad genius of a father, Frank, in the touring ensemble Zappa Plays Zappa.
To separate the wheat from the chaff, Dweezil made up a test, and Arntz passed.
“I hired Aaron because the requirement for the audition was to get whoever the keyboardist auditioning was to transcribe ‘Black Page’ and ‘Inca Roads’ without us giving them any music on paper,” relates Dweezil. “I wanted to be able to see their ability to transcribe, to see how well they could hear and interpret the rhythms, and then come in and play it.”
All they had was two days to complete the task, “ ... and I know that to learn and be able to play that in a two-day period, those two songs, is next to impossible,” says Dweezil. “And I knew that it would be like 18-hour days ... to be honest Aaron was the only one that transcribed both songs and made it through both arrangements.”
Only the most committed, most technically proficient musicians made the cut. Frank wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I think Frank has talked about it in interviews with people who were auditioning for him, a lot of people would just try to take it as an opportunity to have it on their resumé,” says Dweezil. “If you say you auditioned, people think you already are a certain caliber of musician; whether they even come close to anything is not the point. To the people who thought they could fool Frank, he’d give them a piece of music paper with the stuff on it to read and say, ‘All right, play this.’ And then, they’d play something that had nothing to do with what was on the page, as if Frank wouldn’t know. It’s like, ‘Ah, you can’t read, can you?’ ‘Oh, no, no. I just played it.’ ‘No, no you didn’t.”
It wasn’t any easier for Dweezil, who conceived of Zappa Plays Zappa a few years ago. Before embarking on his mission to reheat the uniquely diverse flavors of Frank’s funky fusion of jazz, ’70s guitar rock and classical music — cooked with Frank’s famous satirical flair — for a public that was perhaps beginning to forget just how great they tasted, Dweezil needed to reacquaint himself with his dad’s work.
“I began this whole project by choosing songs that I needed to specifically work on to see if it was possible for me to do this at all,” says Dweezil. “And that sort of led me to believe that I needed to do a massive overhaul of my own technical ability to do what I wanted to do on guitar.”
A new double-disc DVD set titled “Zappa Plays Zappa,” out now on the label Razor & Tie, shows the result of Dweezil’s labor.
“The things you see (Dweezil doing) on the DVD are things that were never done on guitar before,” he says. “I’m playing ‘St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast.’ I’m playing some of the figures in ‘Inca Roads,’ the really fast septuplets. That was never played on guitar by anyone in Frank’s bands. The reason I wanted to do it was to show people my dedication to this music and this project, because that was an inordinate amount of time to spend to learn that