Remember high school or college band, when you casually switched instruments with someone across the room, squeaking out a few notes and then quickly scrambling back and hooking on your saxophone before the teacher noticed? Now imagine doing this on stage in front of thousands of people, playing in 21|16 time, and having each instrument actually sound good!
Meet Scheila Gonzalez, an amazing jazz musician who plays tenor saxophone, flute, keyboards, and sings background vocals — often times all within a single song, for Dweezil Zappa’s tribute band, Zappa Plays Zappa. She belongs to an all-star lineup including the late Frank Zappa’s son Dwezil as band leader and on guitar, Pete Griffin on bass, Billy Hulting on marimba, mallets, and percussion, Jamie Kime (who worked with Jewel and Michelle Branch) on guitar, Joe Travers on drums and vocals, and Ben Thomas singing lead vocals.
Gonzalez was trained on classical piano from ages 4 to 18, but she found her true passion in playing the saxophone at age 12 (her transition to the saxophone was made significantly smoother by her piano experience). After high school, she continued her education at Fullerton College and later transferred to Cal State Northridge. She received her Bachelor’s Degree, studying improvised and classical playing.
From 1995 to 2000, Gonzalez played in a cover band, an experience that she sees, in retrospect, as on-the-job training for her current gig. “It’s really what got me prepared to embark on something like what I’m doing now. Even though I had technical facility on piano, it [became] an entire other skill set to play keyboards and sing at the same time and then turn around and grab a saxophone and then sing harmony and then sing lead… [Zappa Plays Zappa] is that, blown up exponentially.”
When Gonzalez auditioned for Zappa Plays Zappa in 2005, she was unfamiliar with the vast musical catalogue of Frank Zappa and had only heard a few of his songs. She recalls hearing Joe’s Garage for the first time on her way to a gig in Northern California. “I remember having heard the recording at the time, just being blown away, laughing so hard at a lot of the lyrical content and the subject matter, and then also being blown away by the musical content and everything that was going on, all the odd meter and all the crazy changes within the songs and the arrangements which are mind-boggling. I was just thinking to myself at the time, ‘Can you really do that? Did someone really do that? This is amazing.’”