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By Mike Seeley
I've had little use for the Frank Zappa-themed tribute bands and side projects that began popping up even before Zappa died, concentrating as they largely did on his later oeuvre, such silliness as "Valley Girl," "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and "Disco Boy"—fun stuff, but entirely lightweight when held up to the incandescence of his Mothers of Invention output. That earlier work remains the most subversive in the rock & roll canon, each song an artifact of America in its creative glory years: brainy cynicism, conceptual body-fluid n'yuk-n'yuks, razor-honed cultural satire and genius musicianship undiminished by time.
But now Zappa tributeers Project/Object includes original Mother Don Preston, a.k.a. Dom DeWilde, a brilliant, resourceful composer/keyboardist and pioneer of the synthesizer.
The core membership of Project/Object includes dedicated Zappaphiles Andre Cholmondeley on guitar, Jordan Shapiro on keys and Rick Bartow on bass, excellent musicians all, with the frequent addition of latter-day Zappa alums Ike Willis and Napoleon Murphy Brock, both vocalist/instrumentalists.
Preston is best known for his stint with the Mothers, but his pre- and post-Zappa career has been staggeringly prolific. Before hooking up with Zappa in the early '60s, Preston, now an exceptionally youthful 71, toured and/or recorded with a stunning litany of heavies, including Nat King Cole, Charlie Haden, Elvin Jones, Paul and Carla Bley, and Herbie Mann. Concurrent with his Mothers stint, Preston worked with John Lennon, the Residents, Gil Evans, John Carter and John Patitucci. He has scored 23 feature films (including Apocalypse Now); performed with the Los Angeles and London philharmonics; formed original Zappa alum band the Grandmothers; continues to lead several other groups in the jazz, modern classical, electronic and Musique Concrète fields; has been active as a stage and film actor; and netted a boatload of awards from entities including the jazz bible Downbeat and our sister pub, LA Weekly. Preston's résumé is so overwhelming it would take the entire space allotted for this feature to do it full justice. Write a book someday, Don. I'll buy it, I promise.
There was much bitching from all concerned when Preston and several other disgruntled Zappa sidemen formed the Grandmothers back in 1980. Zappa was severely displeased that his ex-band mates continued to exploit their past association, while the word most frequently used by Zappa cast-offs to describe their former employer was "asshole." With time, however, Preston's take seems to have mellowed.
"I wouldn't go so far as to say he was an asshole," quoth Preston. "In that sense, everybody's an asshole. The thing is that he was under a lot of stress, and he wanted his music to be perfect. He was very demanding in that sense, but along with that, he had a tremendous sense of humor, and it was always a pleasure to work for him. I had my reservations in the past, but I'm not going to voice them now. He's been dead for 10 years; let's let bygones be bygones. The thing is that right now, I'm enjoying playing his music tremendously."
But would Zappa tremendously enjoy Preston and company's continued coattail surfing, seeing as how he was quite clear about his disdain for the Grandmothers while he was still alive?
"I personally believe that he felt okay about it, but he was prodded by [wife] Gail Zappa to resent us because they didn't have control over what we were doing," says Preston. "Once in a while, he would resent something. Like one time I had a Raggedy Ann doll, but it had Zappa's face, and we would do performances with that onstage. I got a call from him one time saying, 'Get rid of the doll.'"
And whither Project/ Object? Checking out a live promo CD, it's clear the band in fact seems to focus largely on later Zappa material, from a time when Willis and/or Brock were in the fold. Mostly, they do a great job of it, particularly on the material that Willis/ Brock originally performed. That said, the smarmy readings of songs such as "I'm the Slime" and "Montana" lose much in translation, lacking the dry, narrative wit Zappa infused into the originals. Still, these boys can really, really play. Cholmondeley, in particular, does a spiffy job of re-creating Zappa's difficult, signature guitar style.
Preston concurs with me, however, that the original Mothers of Invention was Zappa at his peak as he fondly reminisces over the old days. "Some of his later stuff was a little on the mechanical side, and I do like the first band more than just about all the others," he says. "In 1961 or '62, Zappa used to come and sit in with the band I had that performed electronic music or experimental music, and I think you could hear that [in the original Mothers]. Plus, with myself and Bunk [Gardner] and Ian [Underwood] and Art [Tripp], I think we all knew where Zappa was coming from. We had all experienced playing music by modern composers, and we listened to that music all the time. I think with a lot of the later bands, the people knew of the music, but they didn't actually listen to it, and they didn't really know where Zappa was coming from. But, you know, Zappa kind of changed, too. He started out with many references to that kind of music, and then later on, he kind of changed into a more funk jazz-oriented approach. There have been many great times in my career, but one of them definitely was when the Mothers were just starting out. The enthusiasm was tremendous, and the band was very, very close in terms of camaraderie."
Taking Zappa's career as a whole, what does Preston see as his ultimate legacy?
"I have a number of takes on his legacy because there were a number of things he was trying to do," Preston opines. "As a rock & roll musician, he surpassed just about everybody in the business. I don't think there's another person who even came close to his writing ability in rock & roll. As a classical composer, he fell kind of short of other modern composers that are around now in terms of the overall scope of his work. But let's face it: he was a rock & roll musician, he was unschooled, he did the best he could, and he was actually quite good—but he just wasn't quite as good as Boulez, Stockhausen, Penderecki, Takemitsu and people like that. He falls just a little bit short of that. But he did write some great music."Project/Object performs at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 496-8930. Thurs., Nov. 6, 7 p.m. $16.50. All ages.