Don Preston: Just Another Duo From LA
Just a few miles east of the Whisky a Go Go, where they stunned the world over 40 years ago with the classic Mothers of Invention, keyboardist Don Preston and saxophonist Bunk Gardner returned to Sunset Blvd. as The Don and Bunk Show, reviving their duo homage to the early music of Frank Zappa. Dolores Petersen Productions brought the terrible two to the Hollywood Studio Bar and Grill to warm up for their east coast tour, which may jump the ocean and go all European. Despite busy solo careers, Preston and Gardner still love the old master, and play wonderfully concise and updated versions of Zappa classics from Freak Out! (FZ/Ryko, 1966) to Zoot Allures (FZ/Ryko, 1976).
From left: Bunk Gardner, Don Preston
But The Don and Bunk Show avoids mere cover band status by expanding on Zappa's complex themes, both musicians seasoned improvisers, and as it turns out, lifelong friends.
"We started The Don and Bunk show around 2002," Preston said. "Of course, Bunk and I have been playing together since 1960. We knew each other quite a long time before the Mothers. In fact we had a band that was very experimental and Frank played in that band. He was actually in my band first. I didn't even remember that till about ten years ago. I went to a bassist's house and he reminded me that he was in that band, too. We actually went to CBS to audition for something, I don't even know what. The studio musicians who worked there couldn't believe it, because we had brake drums and drive shafts and all kinds of junk like that, we were playing with all this stuff. I don't know if we ever played a job, but we just used to play all the time."
The show features enough sonic manipulations to effortlessly and convincingly recreate a multimember band sound from the two cagey audio wizards. This much you would expect. After all, Preston may be the first synthesizer player to record with a rock band, the Mother's sublime 1967 release Absolutely Free (FZ/Ryko). Gardner's blistering processed tenor solos on "King Kong," from 1969's Uncle Meat (FZ/Ryko), remain breathtaking, and a very early example of electrified reeds.
No, visionary sound treatments come with the territory, but you won't see the cool vocal arrangements coming at you. A carefully choreographed chorus of non sequiturs and incomplete words that would sound impressive looped, but obviously well-rehearsed and delivered live as off hand as an improv follows Captain Beefheart's "Neon Meat Dream of an Octofish," rendered with spooky authenticity by Preston. As they riffed on original surreal lyrics, mutations like Preston's "Help I'm Iraq," grew on Zappa's original, "Help I'm a Rock. "
When I contacted Preston, he was in rehearsal with Gardner, but with fifty years of playing together, did they need to rehearse? "Good question," he laughed. "The only thing is, Frank's music is so difficult, and not only that, we're playing stuff all the way from Freak Out! to Zoot Allures. And since Bunk never in that band, and neither was I, we have to learn all this stuff. We're playing "Zoot Allures" and we're playing "Mammy Anthem," and a few things like that. He wrote so many songs that you could go a long time without repeating yourself.
"We're going on tour and we've really put together a dynamite show. We're using a lot of electronic stuff that's going to make it way bigger than it looks. Since we're just a duo we have to utilize a lot of other technology in order to make it sound like a band. We're using a drum machine, bass and drums playing in the background. I put a lot of that in my iPod and play it, and we play along with it. Bunk has an electronic saxophone that he can play some really huge sounds with, electronically."
Post-Mothers, Preston wrote film scores, and recorded highly regarded solo albums. Born into a family of musicians, his father was composer in residence for the Detroit Symphony. He sat in with Elvin Jones and Yusef Lateef. In Los Angelese, he worked with Paul Bley and Charlie Haden, eventually playing with Carla Bley and Michael Mantler. He spent many years with jazz legends John Carter and Bobby Bradford.
"Oh yeah, till his [Carter's] death," he said, "and I still play with Bobby Bradford. Played with him last week at this little place in Pasadena called the 322. It's kind of a big restaurant; it's got a stage and lighting, sound system and everything. They have a grand piano there, so it's a real nice place to play. Especially with Bobby, he has a following there, people like [legendary sculptor] George Herms comes there. Years ago, he and I lived in the same loft building together. I got to know him back then, so when I started seeing him showing up at Bobby's gig, that was amazing."