A Couple Of Real Creative Mothers

Alumni Don Preston and Bunk Gardiner offer a purist’s perspective on the Frank Zappa legacy.

By John Collinge

Progression, Spring, 2010

Playing music with FRANK ZAPPA was such a demanding job that “graduates” of his bands are reverently referred to as alumni, by peers and fans alike. The prestige of having served under Zappa’s guidance is like a veritable PhD. in popular music: You had to be damn good to survive an audition and chances were that once you moved on, people knew your name. Among the many who launched careers from that exclusive club were guitarists ADRIAN BELEW and STEVE VAI, multi-instrumentalists EDDIE JOBSON, GEORGE DUKE and MIKE KENEALLY, drummer TERRY BOZZIO, and violinist JEAN-LUC PONTY.

Members of Zappa’s early MOTHERS OF INVENTION lineups still tour occasionally as THE GRANDE MOTHERS, and North Carolina based group PROJECT/OBJECT. This includes original Mothers Of Invention musos DON PRESTON (keyboards/electronics/vocals) and BUNK GARDNER (saxophone/flute) - both still performing at age 77 in alumni collaborations and together as avant-garde act THE DON AND BUNK SHOW.

Playing a blend of vintage compositions and original material, PRESTON AND GARDNER bring a freewheeling approach to the Zappa canon vs. the more studious ensemble style of ZAPPA PLAYS ZAPPA, led by the late composer’s son, DWEEZIL. Aware of Dweezil’s disdain for alumni projects featuring his father’s music, Preston and Gardner view their work as closer to the original style and spirit of vintage Zappa.

Consider it a clash of philosophies over how Frank’s music is best defined and presented on stage. “I don’t like what [Zappa Plays Zappa is] doing with this music either, because Dweezil is under the misguided conception that it has to be played exactly like it was on the records,” PRESTON says, bristling at Dweezil’s claim that elder alumni have exploited Zappa’s legacy. “Of course, Frank never did that. He was constantly changing things. From the minute you’d get into a rehearsal hall, he’d pick some song that was on a record and change it drastically. Then you’d go out on tour and play this music that was nothing at all like the record.

“So if you’re going to play Zappa’s music, especially if you’re an alumnus like I am, I’m going to follow in his footsteps. I’m going to change the music, and that’s what [Dweezil] doesn’t like about it.”

But what of Dweezil’s assertion that young listeners unfamiliar with the Zappa catalog need clear points of reference from which to explore recorded works? “That’s fine, that’s his choice. I’m fine with that, but that’s not what I want to do,” PRESTON says. “I want to introduce his music to young people, but I also want to introduce the way we did it originally. Which was to change things, and leave a lot of room for improvisation in the middle of everything.

“Keep in mind that when we were in the Mothers, sometimes we’d perform a three-hour concert and play only four songs. The rest of it was all improvisation. From the standpoint that we’re playing this music with heart and giving our all to it, that is what Zappa would want. We aren’t being disrespectful in any sense of the imagination.”

Creative imagination is what keeps PRESTON AND GARDNER active musically well beyond retirement age. That, and the challenge of performing what, historically, is considered among the most complex rock material ever written.

During a recent East Coast tour, the California-based duo relied on an unlikely source of digital technology to aid its impressionistic performances. “For me, the featured instrument of the evening is the iPod Touch, because I found there’s a couple synthesizer applications you can get,” explains PRESTON, who played with Frank Zappa from 1966 to 1974. “For 99 cents I bought an amazing synthesizer you can play on the iPod, because it’s a touch instrument. It gives you delay and reverb and all of that stuff. It’s mind-boggling how it works.”

PRESTON’S setup includes two conventional keyboards, one a controller for manipulating sounds from his laptop computer. “We’ve tried to bring out a lot of the improvisational, strange, weird electronic sounds that we did back in those early days and still do.”

Weirdness is in PRESTON’s DNA. The story goes that at age 12 he was expelled from school for hypnotizing fellow students and a nun. The nuns beat his hands with a ruler when he made mistakes playing piano. Because of this, he developed a fondness for strange and dissonant music.
GARDNER is his willing co-conspirator in bending the minds of unsuspecting concert goers. Of course, those familiar with Zappa’s work and especially the Mothers Of Invention era know to expect the unexpected. Nuggets from the duo’s set list include “Absolutely Free,” “Uncle Meat,” “Mother People,” “Zoot Allures,” and other curios from a cross-section of Frank’s career.

“I think what really makes people happy is doing some of the early stuff and doing weirdness on stage where they get a kick out of strangeness, avant-gardism and whatever,” says BUNK, who played with the Mothers from 1967 to ’70 and still answers to his childhood nickname. “Just playing the music alone doesn’t totally cover what people would enjoy at Frank’s concerts, which were always very novel in producing weirdness from the band. The Mothers provided a lot of humor for Frank and at the same time provided material for him to write about.”

GARDNER tells of drummer JIMMY CARL BLACK daring him to moon onlookers from the group’s tour bus before a late-’60s Mothers gig in England. “He bet me a pound, so I pulled my pants down. And a couple weeks later, Frank came up with [the tune] ’A Pound for a Brown on the Bus.”

Three years shy of octogenarian status, GARDNER continues to relish new experiences on the road (while careful to keep his trousers on). “Going out and doing a duo for me is a first. Don and I have been playing together since 1960, but it’s really a challenge to do something with two people, for which you’d normally need four or five. Believe me, even after all these years, playing Frank’s material still requires total concentration and one helluva lot of practice to execute.

“I love that challenge. It can be a very powerful thing, after all these years, to go back on the road again as a duo. Not that we’re old duffers, but the older you get physically, being out on the road is not like it used to be. It’s a mental and physical challenge going out there to play and play well, making people laugh, and putting on a show as a real entertainment package. That’s not an easy task.” The same can be said for pleasing Zappa’s demanding muse even back in the ’60s. The memories that PRESTON AND GARDNER share from those early days reflect a time when experimentation ruled.
“Frank used to come to where we were rehearsing and sit in with us,” PRESTON recalls. “We’d be improvising to films of microscopic life, about trains, etc. - all of them being abstract films. Frank would bring some of his own films to the rehearsals and we would jam to them.

“When he started the Mothers and I joined the band, I was really struck by the uniqueness of his music and the complexity of what he was writing. I had just been in a different band and all we did was play uneven time signatures like 5/8, 7/8, 9/8/ 11/8, even up to 19/8. This gave mean education that set me up for Zappa’s band. When we came to time signatures like that it was a piece of cake for me, whereas even a lot of jazz musicians didn’t know what to do with that stuff. “One of the things that surprised me about Frank stylistically was his interest in rhythm & blues, which at the time I didn’t care for. But little by little I grew to see what Frank liked about it. I always wondered how someone could like [modern classical music] and also like R&B, it didn’t make sense to me. “One of the things that surprised me about Frank stylistically was his interest in rhythm & blues which at the time I didn’t care for. But little by little I grew to see what Frank liked about it. I always wondered how some one could like modern classical music and also like R&B, it didn’t make sense to me. But the songs he liked in R&B were very strange, weird songs. They always had some strange character about them that really attracted him. That was one of the things I had never done before but I grew to like it a lot.”

GARDNER, who remembers jamming in a basement alongside Zappa and CAPTAIN BEEFHEART with tape rolling — “Frank recorded everything” -- says he came to the Mothers well prepared from studies in classical and jazz.
“I could be very excited about listening to the latest CHARLIE PARKER or DIZZY GILLESPIE and MILES DAVIS, or listening to STRAVINSKY, BARTOK and the classical composers. I was in awe of that. From the beginning, my main concern with Frank was how incredibly technically difficult playing the music was and how much I had to practice to memorize everything. So my mind wasn’t in that area of, ‘Wow, this guy is a genius,’ because the rehearsals were endless -- anywhere from six to 14 hours, and it changed every day. Frank would sit around and play a line and tell me to play it. I would write it down and maybe a half hour later he would change the line and I’d change it, then maybe the next day again. So it was always a continual process of having to go with the flow, as it were.
“Really, what was intriguing to me was Frank’s love of avant-garde and classical music. You normally don’t find rock people with that depth of interest. Frank covered quite a bit of territory in his approach and it was along the same lines as Don’s and mine.

“I thought it was very unusual to be playing a quick theme from Stravinsky or CHARLIE IVES in the middle of a song, then looking at hand signals and making weird noises. This was unique in my life as far as never hearing other groups play that wide a variety of music. And we went even a little further as far as sometimes ignoring the audience and rehearsing on stage, or getting the audience involved in what we were doing. Those were aspects you never saw before, and not much since. It was entertainment for me in its highest form, although I didn’t recognize that at the time.”

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