What’s in a name? Quite a lot if you happen to be a superb rock guitarist who performs the music of your late father, one of the 20th century’s most controversial composers and performers.
Dweezil Zappa, who also makes original music, is at the center of nasty intra-family squabbles over the rights and obligations associated with the music and estate of Frank Zappa. Under these circumstances, which are playing themselves out in a public fashion, it’s a challenge to stay focused on music. But that’s Dweezil’s objective.
The elder’s estate is run by two of his adult children, Ahmet and Diva Zappa. According to Dweezil, his siblings want a big piece of his monetary take from touring and merchandise sales.
“The behavior and the intent of the Zappa Family Trust is as it appears,” Zappa says. “I offered them the deal that going forward, if I was going to tour, that they could sell ZFT merchandise, and I would split it 50-50 with them -- which I didn’t have to do. They turned it down, favoring 100 percent for themselves. When you have negotiations like that, you can see you are not going to get anywhere.”
The disagreements extend even to the way in which guitarist Zappa brands himself and his tour. For several years he performed under the banner Zappa Plays Zappa. That didn’t sit well with Ahmet and Diva -- neither of whom tours or performs. So they demanded a name change.
“I changed to ‘Dweezil Zappa Plays the Music of Frank Zappa,’” Dweezil says. “They sent me a cease-and-desist letter. And rather than keep playing that game I changed the name of the project just to my name.” And in a move that might have brought a wry smile to his dad’s lips, he’s calling the current tour “Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F@%k He Wants: the Cease and Desist Tour.”
While the tour will include a few tracks from Dweezil’s latest album, “Via Zammatta,” most of each show centers on performances of his father’s challenging material. And Zappa’s band follows his father’s onstage approach of building improvisation into the songs.
“That’s one of the unique things about Frank’s music,” Zappa says. “He actually created spots within the songs for improvisation. If you play that same song a hundred times, it would be different every time. A large part of his catalog was created that way.”
Now, as then, that guarantees concertgoers never see the same show twice. Zappa characterizes his live set as a balancing act. “A lot of the people coming to a show are predominantly interested in hearing Frank’s music,” he says. “This particular tour set list is comprised mainly of early Mothers stuff,” with a particular emphasis on music from the Mothers of Invention’s debut album, the 1966 double-LP, “Freak Out.”
He says there’s a large chunk from “Joe’s Garage” (1979) and other music from the ’80s. “But,” Zappa says, laughing, “we don’t ever try to create a greatest-hits kind of thing. ’Cause there isn’t really anything like that.” Zappa says his guitar abilities grew from studying his father’s music.
“The hardest part was to develop a vocabulary that allowed me to speak in some of the same [musical] sentences that he would create himself,” he says. “I had to find ways to trick my brain into thinking that way.”
Many artists would find it difficult living in the shadow of their famous parents. You need only look at the careers of Alexa Ray Joel or James McCartney. But Zappa isn’t intimidated by the prospect of comparisons with his father.
“I think it’s something that other people try to place on me as a weight around my neck,” he says. “I’ve done something that has put me in direct comparison with my dad’s work. And through doing that, that’s how people become interested in what I do.”
What Zappa does -- beyond performing his father’s music and recording and releasing rock albums of his own -- is quite ambitious.
“There are a lot of things in the works,” he teases. “I’m planning an event in Europe where I will debut some orchestral works of my own.”
Dweezil Zappa performs at the National on Nov. 6.