Christmas came a little early for Frank Zappa fans here on the Big Island. The UH Hilo Jazz Orchestra (UHJO) normally plays a pair of shows at the University’s Performance Center in mid-December as part of their annual Zappa tribute, but they’re on a mission to raise funds to attend the Zappanale Festival in 2020. Zappanale is an annual three-day music festival held outside Bad Doberan, Germany, first held in 1990, and featuring various bands performing Zappa’s music. UHJO is attempting to raise $10k through a gofundme campaign from donations, concert sales, and merchandise found on their website. They still need a little over seven grand to make the trip, and are looking into several other Big Island venues to hold concerts like the one that took place at Hilo’s Palace Theatre last Friday.
Friday’s show featured a scaled down version of the UHJO – normally it’s a 20+ member ensemble. Trever Veilleux, UH Hilo Jazz Orchestra’s Music Director, assembled a tight ten-piece group with some new faces like Ed Bisquera on keyboards, Jacob Drucker on flute/sax, and Gary Duncan on bass. It worked quite well. Josh Timmons (trumpet) shared lead vocals with RaVani Durkin. Decked out in a red sequined “Jessica Rabbit” style dress and heels, Durkin cut loose on songs like “Doreen,” and “Willie The Pimp,” but really took command of the stage during “Whippin’ Post,” the classic tune by The Allman Brothers.
Electric violinist Elizabeth Robinson was the star soloist of the evening hands down. Her treatments of “Pygmy Twylyte” and “Willie The Pimp” were jaw-dropping. She even went toe-to-toe with Veilleux in a series of trade-off solos – ending with both of them playing their instruments behind their heads. Bisquera did a brilliant job playing three keyboards with solos on “Packard Goose” and “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy.” At times he sounded like Jon Lord from Deep Purple with his signature Hammond organ. Newcomer Drucker added a wonderful element with flute solos on “Holiday in Berlin” and “A Pound For A Brown On The Bus.” That last one got a little Zappa-esque with Veilleux bouncing around the stage, pointing at random musicians demanding a quick solo on the spot. He may have been a little hard to see behind the horn section, but you could certainly hear the talented drummer Zachary Var. I can’t leave out alto sax player Heather Sexton. Not only has her playing matured over the years with this band, but she’s nailed Dale Bozzio’s “Voice of Mary” spoken word part in “Packard Goose,” “…Truth is not beauty/Beauty is not love/Love is not music/Music is the best!”
Friday’s concert marked the band’s debut at the Palace Theatre, the same venue that screened the 2016 documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Most of the young musicians in UHJO came out to see it back then, partly because their only education on Zappa was through YouTube clips, and they weren’t even alive when Frank was still with us. Over the years, Veilleux has done a remarkable job working with his students. Some have been coached by former Zappa musicians like singer Ike Willis and sax man Lou Marini. In 2017, Frank’s guitar-playing son Dweezil joined UHJO for two shows at UH Hilo’s Performance Center.
Veilleux and the Palace’s Executive Director had hopes that concertgoers would take advantage of the Theatre’s spacious dance floor, and “get down to songs like ‘Muffin Man’ and ‘Willie The Pimp.’” Veilleux invited the crowd down to the main floor several times, saying their energy helps fuel the band. Only a handful took him up on the offer and stayed for a few songs. I do give credit to the faithful fan in the brown “Zappa For President” t-shirt. He knew the lyrics to every song by heart, played air drums and air keyboards on stage edge, and attached himself to the stage for the full two-hour duration of the show. For the most part, the audience seemed content watching the show from their seats, even though it was a little difficult to see all members of the large band. Many were buried behind sheet music and mic stands. Sound techs Rob Abe and Pepe Romero gave us pristine audio, and you could appreciate each note and vocal with clarity.
You really have to salute someone like Veilleux for his tenacity to keep Frank Zappa’s music alive on our island in the middle of the Pacific. Zappa compositions are complex with odd non-standard time signatures – not easy to learn for even professional musicians. At one point, the University wanted to end Veilleux’s Zappa course, but he successfully led a public petition to keep it going.
Even twenty-five years after his death, some still find Zappa’s song titles and lyrics a little too controversial for their tastes. “To my shock, one of the early songs in the concert was a public mockery of Christians and the Bible!” wrote Jonathan Cook of Kona, a 2017 concertgoer to the Hawaii-Tribune Herald, regarding a satirical song about TV evangelists. The following day another reader responded, “That’s the thing about our rights, Mr. Cook: They apply to everyone, at all times. Especially at institutions of higher learning, where open-mindedness and acceptance are paramount. And especially at jazz concerts.”
Here’s hoping that Veilleux and the UHJO make it to the 2020 Zappanale Festival. If you’d like to help, come out to a show, or drop a little something in their gofundme account at: https://www.gofundme.com/hilojazzo.
Andy | Peaches En Regalia | Sharleena | Holiday in Berlin | Packard Goose | Hungry Freaks Daddy | Enchinda’s Arf
Pygymy Twylyte | Doreen | Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy | A Pound For A Brown On The Bus| Camarillo Brillo/ Muffin Man
Willie The Pimp | Whippin’ Post (with “Gonzo” on bass)
Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and originally from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine. additionally he filmed/directed the UHJO documentary titled Zappa U.
Photos/Video: Steve Roby