Voices of UH Hilo's Jazz Orchestra

Recreating the “Zappa” sound in the seventh annual Frank Zappa tribute concert

Text and interviews by Editor-in-Chief Rosannah Gosser
Photographer Emaje Hall
Photograph Courtesy of Trever Veilleux

In anticipation of the seventh annual Frank Zappa tribute concert, Ke Kalahea swung by the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Jazz Orchestra’s rehearsals to capture the band’s take on their upcoming show, some of their personal melomania, and what it’s been like working with the Zappa family. The jazz orchestra will be performing what many regard as a Hilo tradition on Dec. 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m. in UH Hilo’s Performing Arts Center.

The orchestra emulates the jazz, rock, and soul-inspired sound of the late instrumentalist, Frank Zappa. In 2017, they were joined by Dweezil Zappa, Frank’s son and a Grammy award-winning guitarist, and have been invited to perform in Germany during the summer of 2020. Often playing for sold-out crowds, the band’s timbre is said to explore the weird and wild ranges of the “Zappa” sound.

Pictured Asia Helfrich
Asia Helfrich | Vocalist, English major

Zappa music is reminiscent of parody music. It makes me think of Weird Al, like if he was in a jazz band and was cooler.

Trever Veilleux | Orchestra Director, guitar I always get excited for these shows. I grew up listening to Zappa so it’s always exciting for me to be able to share the music with the band and the audience. This show’s a bit different for me because I get to play more guitar.

Pictured Aunty Uluwehi on her drumset
Vanessa “Aunty Uluwehi” Winchester-Sye | Percussionist and featured soloist

I love to be around musical people. What’s exciting is that it’s fun as well. It’s not hard work but hard play, and that’s the only way I roll. Everybody in the theater knows that-- Aunty Ulu will definitely be there if it’s hard play and a lot of fun. We work as a unit here, and that’s why our productions turn out fantastic. We have to be that way to do what we do. I got warmed up to Frank Zappa when I came here to the jazz orchestra. It has touched my mind and expanded me so much because I’ve always liked all kinds of music.

The Zappa family are very welcoming. I’m just a musician at home learning all of the sheet music and it’s been really fun.

Sawyer Lewis on his keyboard
Sawyer Lewis | Keyboard
Heather Padilla with her trumpet
Heather Padilla | Trumpet, English major

I just hope the audience has as much fun as we do on stage!

Tash Zarate | Baritone, mathematics major This has been the first time I’ve really listened to Zappa’s music; it’s really fun and really free. That’s what jazz should be, so it’s the perfect combination. He was pretty legendary, so I hope other people have as much fun with it as we’ve been having.

This group is so interesting because Zappa’s music is pretty obscure to most people, especially people my age. He wasn’t big enough to be a really memorable name from the 70s, so it makes it even more special that we’re a group of people coming together to play something unusual and bring something different to the school and the community.

Lindsey Rohlf with her bass
Lindsey Rohlf | Bass, marine science major
Joshua Benevidos with his saxophone
Joshua Benevidos | Alto saxophone, English major

My first concert with this group was when Dweezil Zappa came down. I had never done anything like that before; after high school I took a break from playing but when I came to college I picked it up again. It’s been pretty cool.

Dustin Kneidl with his guitar
Dustin Kneidl | Guitar, performing arts and music major

Coming into this group was kind of rough; it’s not that it’s unwelcoming but to see the level of music being played here pushes you to work harder.

Sam Carlos | Trumpet I did not expect to be playing music when I moved to Hilo two years ago. I played at a weekly jazz night and was recommended to play here too. It’s been the better part of a decade since I played in a band, and it’s the thing I look forward to every week. It’s making me reconsider how much playing an instrument plays a role in my life.

Most of us have been here for years and we really are a family. We’ve seen each other’s growth and failures, and it’s been fun to watch everybody develop and mature.

Elizabeth Robinson with her electric violin
Elizabeth Robinson | Electric violin
Heather Sexton with her saxophone
Heather Sexton | Alto saxophone, recent graduate in geology

I hope that the audience has a good time and are entertained, and I hope that they really experience what Zappa had to offer-- a wild story along with a message that he was always delivering in his music. I think it’s really powerful and I hope they find it powerful as well.

Bridge Hartman | Vocalist The first semester I joined was when Dweezil Zappa came, and that was the first time I worked with someone who has that level of professional experience and skill. It was a really positive experience for the band because they’ve been playing Zappa’s music for so many years now to finally be graced with his presence was the culmination of everything we’ve been working towards these years. For most of us, we were doing music for fun and it’s cool to still get the recognition from someone who’s doing it professionally.

My favorite thing about the Zappa sound is that it incorporates odd time signatures in a really interesting and clever way, especially with vocal cues. Something I’m really excited for the audience to experience is the entire ensemble’s sound. This orchestra is like a big family, and they’re how I was introduced to this band, especially through my dad who loved to play Zappa’s music.

Stephen Kemp with his drumset
Stephen Kemp | Drums and percussion
Autumn Miyares-Thompson standing next to a microphone
Autumn Miyares-Thompson | Vocalist, performing arts and English major

The audience is always so excited. I work at the box office and we have regulars who always come. I hope they love the music as usual!

The “Zappa” sound is unlike anything else. He put all of the music into the music that other people don’t put into music. He did all the things that you’re not supposed to do and he made them work --that’s how I’ll say it. The one thing that I want people to get out of our concerts is I want them to have a great time.

Naom Akiba-Hajim with his saxophone
Noam Akiba-Hajim | Tenor saxophone and vocalist