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."
Although his CD, Hear Me Out (Echograph, 1997) regularly shows up at Amazon.com for more than fifty dollars, his Cryptogramophone session remains close to his heart. "I did a great trio album," he said, "Transformation (Cryptogramophone, 2001), and I only say that because it got picked album of the year by National Public radio, and it got five stars in Downbeat, and it's one of the best sounding albumsif not the best sounding albumI've ever done. It's remarkable how the recording's so good. It's with Alex Cline and Joel Hamilton. Joel is great and Alex is amazing so it was a wonderful day we spent recording it. All of us were in good shape, we all knew all the music, and we just went through it. I don't think we took more than two takes of anything, and mostly everything was one take. It was really a treat; we did it at Chick Corea's studio."
From left: Bunk Gardner, Don Preston
In addition to solo projects and recording several sessions with the ultimate Zappa veterans' band, the Grandmothers, Preston has been invited to lecture on music at such institutions as Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Sarah Lawrence, and ..."a lot of schools back east, a few out here, a couple schools in Europe. I had about four different lectures I would do. One was the creative force that we deal with when we try to create something, write something, or improvise, and that we have to get in touch with that part of ourselves that helps us. That's what I do. So I try to convey that in words, and it's not easy. That's one lecture I was giving, another is on the history of synthesis, mostly analog synthesis. Some early digital which disappeared.
"One of those things had the biggest advertising campaign, gorgeous brochures and everything, and this guy who created it, there's this big picture of him with his glasses held together with a safety pin, and underneath it says, 'genius.' I thought that was hilarious. I found out where this guy was, it was outside of Vegas. I was going through there at one point, so I got the guy's address and called him and asked if I could come over because I would be interested in buying one. 'Oh yeah, come right over.' So, I went over there, and the picture of the synthesizer was this sleek modern design like a Porsche with keys. When I got there, it was like the inside of five computers and they're all bread boarded together. Then, there was like the inside of some keyboard he'd gotten hold of, and I will say it was impressive, although it only had about three or four sounds that you could get out of it. But, they were digital sounds, and at the time there wasn't anything digital out there, except maybe the DX 7.
"But first you see the brochure, then you go to this hotel room, or motel room, and what it was, one of the big hotel chains was getting rid of all their old computers, you know, the ones they use at the front desk. He was turning them into synthesizers, but he hadn't even gotten to that point yet. He was still trying to figure out how to make it work. It was just all this stuff that didn't look like anything, that could work. And he did have quite a few problems just getting a sound out of it. And it never went anywhere, it just kind of disappeared after awhile. That was kind of a strange experience."
Preston created his first synthesizer in 1965 and it looked like an old phone switchboard, with a web a cables and cabinets. Preston reflected on changing technologies. "I think it happened like that because it was logical step," he said. "I mean look at computers, they've gone so far in such a short amount of time. They keep going leaps and bounds every year. You buy a computer, two years later it's obsolete.
"There's a great movie, Our Man Flint (1966), and the first 15 minutes of that movie is in a huge room full of electronic equipment and huge spools of tape. Huge room full of computers, and all they come up with is one little card with holes punched in it that says, 'Yeah, Flint is our man.'
"I had a Pet computer made by Commodore. It was quite large, but it only had 8K memory. It had a cassette interface. If you wrote a program, because you couldn't buy one, you could store it on a cassette. It was amazing what you could do with just 8K. I mean 8K, I've got more memory in my watch. It's ridiculous.
"It's kind of ruined the record industry. But, there's plus and minuses with that. I have a fairly sophisticated studio, although it's outmoded by at least five years. My board is getting old and starting to make its own sound. But I have produced some pretty good stuff in here, and then you can burn your own discs. Io Landscapes (Landscape, 2004) has never been pressed, I just burn them when I need them. Having them go through CDBaby, people can just buy a track, or just [spend] nine dollars if they want to buy the whole CD."
After the East Coast run, there's talk of a European tour. Preston's ready. "I've said it before, people are more intelligent in Europe. I don't know if that's true. There's a much bigger Zappa following there than there is here. Way bigger. I mean, it's never big anywhere. But if you play here you get 100 people, you can play there and get 500 in the same type of venue. It's just a little easier there than here. And people put you up in class A hotels, they treat you like kings. Here, you're just another musician/slave.
From left: Bunk Gardner, Don Preston
"Not only that, artists are supported there, by the government. Here in America we have to do other things to make a living. At one point I had a couple of other jobs, but I said, no I'm not going to do that anymore."
Finishing up their rousing set with an original, the hilarious, "What Was Zappa Really Like?," Don and Bunk began breaking down their self-contained musical unit. Preston seemed eager to hit the road. "I'm still here, and I feel great. I am 77," he said.
Don Prestson, Works (Crossfire, 2007)
Don Preston, IO Landscapes (Brain, 2004)
Don Preston, Transformation (Cryptogramophone, 2001)
Don Preston, Vile Foamy Ectoplasm (EFA, 1994)
Grandmothers, The Eternal Question (Inkanish, 2001)
Grandmothers, Eating the Astoria (Obvious, 2000)
The Mothers of Invention, Weasels Ripped My Flesh (FZ/Ryko, 1970)
The Mothers of Invention, Uncle Meat (FZ/Ryko, 1969)
The Mothers of Invention, We're Only In It For The Money (FZ/Ryko, 1968)
The Mothers of Invention, Absolutely Free (FZ/Ryko, 1967)
Courtesy of The Don and Bunk Show