Don Preston, Ike Willis and Project/Object bring sounds of Zappa to Jazz Cafe
With 2016 marking his 66th year of being a professional musician, it’s fair to say Don Preston is familiar with every phase of rock and roll. He was performing to live audiences from the time Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were introducing a new sound to mainstream America, and is still performing when acts like Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters and Coldplay are selling out stadiums with modern rock ‘n’ roll.
For 84-year-old Preston, his introduction to mainstream came in 1966, during the British Invasion when bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who were changing the landscape of popular music. A young composer, Frank Zappa, was leading a group of experimental musicians known as The Mothers of Invention and he asked Preston to join the outfit on synthesizers. It would be a nearly decade-long position regarded as some of the most daring work of Zappa’s career, and a tie-in that remains with Preston.
In 2016, Preston helps introduce Zappa’s music to new generations by performing with Zappa alumni under the appropriately-titled Grandmothers of Invention, and the popular Project/Object, who – along with long-time Zappa vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis – returned to the River Street Jazz Cafe Friday.
When Preston performs with Zappa tribute bands, he doesn’t look for a band to replicate the sound of Zappa’s records. For his tours with Project/Object, it’s the interpretation of music that draws him, rather than trying to be “authentic.”
“That sounds like a good idea, but in reality, there is no such thing,” he said. “There is no authenticity, because when you were touring with Zappa, he changed the song every day. How can you be authentic when he would change the song every night, or every other night? The only way you could be authentic with Zappa is to play it differently.”
The musicians in Project/Object have been superb in their delivery of Zappa’s compositions, mostly due to several members being graduates of the famed School of Rock. Whenever Cholmondeley asks Preston about a tour, it’s a relatively easy answer considering the caliber of musicians he’ll be playing alongside. Preston has already heard some recordings of the current lineup and is looking forward to sharing the stage.
For anyone doing Zappa’s music, being competent is an understatement. The timing, changes, and avant-garde structures of his compositions are some of the most grueling things a musician can try to learn.
Preston was not surprised to see the path Zappa’s career took in terms of grand orchestration and experimental sounds after the dissolve of The Mothers of Invention.
“Well, I was amazed for sure,” he said. “I don’t know if I was surprised, because I always knew Zappa was capable of writing more complex stuff than we were playing in the first band, or even the second band – you know, the one with Mark (Volman) and Howard (Kaylan). When it came to the third band, I noticed a distinct difference in his writing. Zappa was always trying to move forward. I don’t think he moved much farther after the third band. He just started writing really stupid songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Titties and Beer,” and I could go on forever.”
The change in Zappa’s music is something that left a lasting impression on mostly every alumni. Some compared it to military boot camp; others claim it as the most educational part of their careers. Preston – being a veteran of the progressive jazz scene – remembers it differently.
“I was already into and doing music that was complex and diverse … I may have taught him a few things, but I don’t know if he taught me anything,” he said. “I was always in that realm of music that he was because we both listened to the same composers and we were both aware of what was going on at that time, in terms of new music.”
The music and creative genius of Frank Zappa will be on full display Friday as Preston, Willis, and the rest of Project/Object bring another top-shelf performance to the River Street Jazz Cafe. There will be selections from his early years up to his material from the ’80s and ’90s, and Preston said, people should be ready for anything.
“I could guarantee a whole bunch of surprises,” he said. “Of course I can’t tell you what they are because it wouldn’t be a surprise. That’s just kind of the nature of the way I present a show when I’m in a show; I always try to do a few things that are surprising. I think that I can add to the current collaboration that Andre has, and I’m really looking forward to it. ”
Ryan O’Malley is a music writer and photographer who has contributed to the Weekender since 2007.
IF YOU GO:
What: Project/Object featuring Ike Willis and Don Preston
When: 10 p.m. Sept. 30 with doors open at 8 p.m.
Where: River Street Jazz Cafe, 667 N. River St. Plains Township