For the seventh year in a row, the UH Hilo Jazz Orchestra has provided an insightful and entertaining presentation of the music of Frank Zappa for the community of East Hawaii. Given the complexity and nuance of this music, this is no small feat. Consisting of 23 musicians and vocalists, the ensemble took the stage Wednesday, December 11 for the first of 2 performances. From the opening bars of “Peaches En Regalia,” one of Zappa’s most classic and accessible instrumental compositions, it was clear that this was going to be a good night.
The material performed was a representative of much of Zappa’s career, one that was unparalleled in its productivity, and cut short in 1993, just weeks before the composer’s 53rd Birthday. After “Peaches En Regalia,” the band reached farther back to the song “Hungry Freaks Daddy” from the 1966 Freak Out LP. Payton Meyer embellished the piece with a tenor sax solo that was well received. Other highlights of the night’s first set included a few songs from the 1979 LP Joe’s Garage, including the often-quoted salute to “Catholic Girls.” The audience was also treated to a return performance of “Packard Goose,” with its tricky time signatures and extended solos (showcasing recent addition to the band Ed Bisquera on keyboards followed by Trever Veilleux on guitar). Special guest Justin Chittams provided a surprise vocal performance on “Cosmik Debris,” a favorite from 1974’s Apostrophe. One of the highest peaks of the evening came in the form of the instrumental “Echidna’s Arf (of you).” This piece would be a challenge for any musician to master due to its complexity, however, the band pulled it off amicably with stealth, heart and precision. The end of the first set was punctuated with the classic “Pygmy Twylyte,” an extremely jammable song with thought-provoking lyrics and a beautiful violin solo by Liz Sekona-Robinson. Every note Liz plays turns to gold.
Set 2 kicked off with “Doreen,” a song from the You Are What You Is LP. The strength of this song is the thick chorus of vocal harmonies, over which Ray White originally sang lead vocals. Vocalist Asia Helfrich belted out lead vocals, and the audience was not disappointed. Similarly, “Sharleena” (Them or Us) highlighted a sweet blend of vocal harmonies. In contrast to some versions of this song in which FZ would provide screaming guitar solos, tonight’s version had keyboard and trumpet solos from Sawyer Lewis and Sam Carlos, respectively.
In preparation for next year’s highly anticipated journey to Germany, the band gave a repeat performance of “Holiday in Berlin” (Burnt Weeny Sandwich), with the masterful contribution of solos from Heather Sexton (alto sax) and Josh Timmons (trumpet). The accessible, singable and very jammable “Carolina Hardcore Ecstasy” (Bongo Fury) featured a sweet blend of vocal harmonies as well as solos by Ed Bisquera on Melodica and Veilleux on guitar. Back in the early days when Zappa was touring with The Mothers, a crowd request for the Allman Brothers classic “Whipping Post” prompted Zappa to subsequently record it on the Them or Us LP, and he later performed it live many times- a testament to the strength of the piece. Wednesday night’s incarnation included solos by Sexton on alto sax, Noam Akiba-Hajim on tenor sax and Dustin Kneidl on guitar. The icing on the cake was in the soulful vocals provided by lead vocalist Autumn Miyares-Thompson. Another highlight of the evening was the instrumental “Pound for a Brown,” which demonstrated the potential spontaneity of the band with Veilleux directing band members both individually and collectively into previously unexplored compositional realms. After that, we got a rocking version of “Andy” (One Size Fits All), and a standing ovation called the band back for an encore.
The parting shots in the encore consisted of “Willie The Pimp” (another Hot Rats selection) with Uluwehi Winchester-Sye channeling Captain Beefheart whose appropriately raspy vocals appeared on the original version. Then there was another elegant and powerful violin solo from Liz Sekona-Robinson, followed by a version of “Camarillo Brillo” that blended into “Muffin Man,” similar to how FZ performed it in 1977 as seen in the film Baby Snakes.
It is a noble challenge to attempt to perform the music of Frank Zappa, and all in all, this was an honest portrayal of Frank’s music that was well received by the audience. For seven years now under the leadership and discipline of Trever Veilleux, the UH Hilo Jazz Band has presented this music to our East Hawaii community, breathing life into the composer’s dots that otherwise sit quietly on the page. In doing this, the music of FZ has been introduced to many young people, often for the first time, and also performed to the delight of many who have a long-standing intimate connection to it. In doing so, this has given richness to the community that would not otherwise exist. This has not gone unnoticed by people in the larger community of the Zappa Universe, and this band has been invited to perform at an international festival of Zappa’s music that happens yearly in Germany. If any of you feel that your lives have been enriched by these performances in our community over the years, and you want to support the band, please explore the webpage www.hilojazz.com. Consider contributing to help cover expenses for the band performing in Germany alongside Dweezil Zappa and many others who celebrate Zappa’s musical legacy.
Remember that the music we enjoy around us in our daily lives has a price and the generosity that the artist shares is a luxury that we must support and cultivate if we want it to be there in the future when we need it. So please support your local artists and musicians.
Originally from North Carolina, Stephen Smith has been a resident of Hawaii for over 15 years, and with a great fondness for the community of East Hawaii works as a pathologist/medical doctor in Hilo. He is a guitar player with a long-standing passion for music, often traveling to experience live performances. In addition to medicine and music, Smith is a cave enthusiast and has been exploring caves for over 30 years at home and abroad and has caved on 6 of the 7 continents. When not at the hospital, in a cave or playing/listening to music, he fondly embraces the ocean realm and is an avid scuba diver. When not engaged in the above-mentioned activities, he enjoys being at home in the peace and solitude it affords.
Photos: Steve Roby