Guitarist Neil Zaza left his last fulltime band — popular Cleveland hard rockers Zaza — in 1992. By normal expectations, his music career should have long been history. Yet Zaza — probably one of the best rock guitarists the area has ever produced — has forged an alternative career for himself that has included teaching, hosting clinics, touring internationally, releasing more than a dozen CDs and producing a series of successful Christmas shows called One Silent Night, which fill PlayhouseSquare theaters, despite the heavy seasonal competition. After taking a break last year to regroup, he's back to do another edition this weekend.
As in previous years, the program will include an array of familiar carols arranged in rock 'n' roll style, augmented by a small orchestra and some special guests. This year's guests include Cleveland-based children's show chorus the Singing Angels (who also performed in 2006) and Akron singer Tim "Ripper" Owens (Judas Priest, Iced Earth, Yngwie Malmsteen). It's something of a return favor since Zaza played guitar on Owens' debut solo album, Play My Game, released earlier this year. Brian Marshall, singer for Akron-based band Aevory Nash, will also join the band onstage for a tune.
One Silent Night debuted in 2002, after Zaza had been mulling over and developing his take on holiday music for five years. Six fellow rock musicians joined him and the orchestra for a show initially intended to be a one-time thing. But its success and the enthusiasm of PlayhouseSquare's management encouraged him to do it again in 2004.
After that, it became a sort of tradition, returning in 2005, 2006 and 2007 with a slightly different song list and cast of players (only bassist Ray Liptak, who's played with the guitarist since their days in the band Zaza, has performed at each show). Zaza did a major overhaul for the 2006 edition, which rocked harder and had a stronger classical component. That show was recorded and released as a double-CD set, One Night at the Palace. In 2007, he brought over a band he'd worked with in Italy and added a gospel choir. But, he says, while things sounded great onstage, backstage they were a mess.
"The show was good, but the machine behind the show was not good," says Zaza. "I said, it's crazy to put all this work into it and kill myself to put on good show and when I get offstage, the whole business thing is hanging by thread. I said, I want to take some time off, regroup and get new business team. We have an office with interns who are street-teaming, people getting on phone, people doing video and graphics. I'm so glad we waited, got it right and drove it out of the garage."
As for the show itself, Zaza says they won't be doing anything radically different but rather streamlining the concept he's already honed, with a smaller band and orchestra.
"It's really a polishing of what we did before," he says. "There's a few different songs. We went a little deeper and we tie different elements together more. We've been tying elements of classic rock into the songs, like we'll superimpose 'Baba O'Riley' over 'Hark! the Herald.' I feel it's all cover music anyway, so if you can melt them into something different than what they are, you're doing something unique with it."
Liptak, Zaza's Italian drummer Fabio Colello and rhythm guitarist Nick Greathouse, who played the 2006 and 2007 shows, will join him.
"When we started out, we had two keyboard players — it was like P-Funk onstage," says Zaza. "But we realized we didn't need it. A tighter, leaner machine sounds better to me."
It's a lesson he's learned in his career and playing too. A guitarist with a reputation for speed and flash, Zaza has become more focused and musical. And while he's expanded his career dramatically — doing tours and clinics in countries from China to Italy — he says the past year has been a time for taking stock.
"This past year has been a rebuilding year for me," he says. "The few previous years I've been gone a lot. This year, I opened a studio in Akron called Audio Kitchen and started a new record. I've laid down some drum tracks. I'll have guests; I don't know who yet. My view of the next record is that it will be a concise, strong 10-song record with no marginal songs. I think some of these new records are too long. You look at some of the greatest records, from [Fleetwood Mac's] Rumours to [Deep Purple's] Machine Head. They were eight to 10 killing songs. That's the goal: the best of the best — a knockout punch, as opposed to a wandering opus."