“Air Traffic Control” started as a 60 second piece that was commissioned by Lee Abrams (Co-Founder of XM Radio) to have Emmy-nominated composer Sean McKee write a piece of music in the style of Frank Zappa, and produce a video to commemorate the 20th anniversary of his passing. McKee wrote and performed all instruments, including recording the keyboard parts using a then-prototype MIDI guitar from Inspired Instruments.
Besides being a musician, McKee is known as a pioneer in the field of image processing, creating technology used for new movies and classic film restorations, along with 2D to 3D conversions, with the technology he led development on being used daily in Hollywood. For several years, one of his clients was Gail Zappa, Frank’s widow, and he worked on restoring film elements from Frank’s archive, and also helped to recover lost video masters that Gail hadn’t seen in years.
According to McKee, “When I heard the news of Gail’s passing last October, I was deeply saddened, she was very kind to me, and an incredibly smart woman who pioneered the concept of artists’ retaining the rights to the master recordings. I decided to take the 60 second piece and finish it as a proper song, as a memorial to Gail and tribute to Frank, who was a big influence on my playing.”
McKee crafted the song starting from the existing 60 second guitar solo, building a complete song around it, similar to methods Zappa incorporated. He then contacted Ike Willis, the voice on numerous Zappa albums, and asked him to sing on the track and add another guitar solo. Die hard Zappa fans will also notice a lyrical reference to the infamous ‘White Zone’. McKee continues, “The original solo I wrote is what ends the song, and Ike takes the first guitar solo. If you close your eyes, you can see Frank and hear the lineage. When Frank got sick, he asked Ike to carry on his music, and while this is a new, original song, his playing and voice carries the torch for both the legacy fans as well as a new generation of listeners.”
McKee then asked Grammy-nominated bassist Chip Z’Nuff (Enuff Z’Nuff, Missing Persons, Adler’s Appetite) to play bass on all parts except for the bass under the solos, which McKee had recorded originally.
The end result is a modern interpretation and homage to a timeless and unique style.