Saturday, July 13, 2013

One On One With Don Preston

He's a legendary jazz musician and has been part of the Detroit jazz scene back in the 1950's gigging with the likes of Charlie Haden in Los Angeles ...has done experimental music in the 1960's and performed with a band called Aha!. This artist has played and recorded with other artists such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Peter Erskine and John Carter as well as Chicago's very own Lou Rawls, Al Jarreau, Nat King Cole, Connie Francis, Leo Sayer and the list goes on and on. He has scored more than 20 feature films (including a part of the Apocalypse Now soundtrack) and 14 plays and has been confused for the lead guitarist of Joe Crocker and Leon Russell because they share the same name, blogspot readers. Besides collaborating and working with Frank Zappa, his long and extensive music career includes performing with the Los Angeles and London Philharmonics to acting in films like Forbidden Island (1944), Ogo Moto (1969) and 200 Motels (1970). 

Who is this mystery musician you might ask?

If you've guessed keyboardist Don Preston, then you're absolutely correct, blogspot readers. And recently while he was traveling to his next gig, SouthSide had the extreme honor of chatting with Don about his extensive music career (including that infamous scene in Apocalypse Now), how he met Frank Zappa, his likes and dislikes for modern music in general, his current project Grandmothers Of Invention and doing magic tricks.

From Don's biography, Crytogramophone Records, he has been compared to Cecil Taylor because of "...his style of attacking the keys with intense passion ...his solos also reflect intellect, technical skills and a storyteller's way with a line..." and "...his playing, like his compositions, ranges across panoramas of mood and emotion ...all colored with the freedom that comes from possessing remarkable facility..." SouthSide while asking Don to describe his vast music career that spanned over six (6) decades somewhat stumped him but then he answered with "...age begets life and fame ...that's how I would sum up my life..." She wondered if he meant with age does he feel he gets better with his musical craft to which he said "...I don't think I'm better..." In fact, Don believes that he has harder challenges to meet as he grows older. For example, he has listened to older recordings from 40 years ago and compared them to what he can and/or cannot do today. "...Now, I'm facing challenges I wasn't able to do then but able to do..."  During the course of the interview, this reviewer wanted to know if Don has ever considered returning to his Jazz roots in which he answered that he never left it. He did tell SouthSide that as soon as he's finished with this tour that he along with the drummer will be performing with Bobby Bradford in his band. Don also mentioned that he's always writing Jazz songs and performs once and  a while at Jazz clubs.

Then, she asked him for his opinion about today's modern rock music wondering if it lost its creativity and/or artistic symbolism. Don doesn't know if it lost its symbolism however he has noted that something should be done about the music writing and has heard people singing the same one note. "...rock music has lost [its] creativity and [become] too commercialized..." says Don. He also made reference to the rap/hip hop music scene mentioning it as "...people talk..." in which he said "'s not music..." and it's boring. On the flip side, blogspot readers, he has seen a rap group during one particular evening and commented that they were good. Getting back to his original point about rock music and due to its limitation to the same 4 / 4 beat count, Don stated that was the basic reason why he doesn't listen to modern rock music much. Yet, there were couple of bands which he likes - Throbbing Gristle (one of the first bands to perform industrial music) and  Henry Cow (it was rumored the band took the name for an American composer Henry Cowell but the band members have denied it) featuring Chris Cutler who was also part of Art Bears with Fred Frith (a multi-instrumentalist i.e. piano, guitar, violin) to which he likened to Frank Zappa for his composition writing. As far as modern rock goes, Don does like the Chicago indie band called Yellow Jacket saying "...they're amazing ...very good..." after seeing them perform at one of their recent performances.

So how did Don Preston and Frank Zappa meet? According to Don, it was around 1961 when both were performing a concert inside a huge concert hall that had about 5 to 6 stages of live performances. He said they exchanged phone numbers and that was it until later he (Zappa) called for Don to do an audition. "...I came to his house..." says Don telling SouthSide Frank had a basic band set up - organ, guitars and drums as well as a record collection almost similar to him ...classical composers to which Don calls his "...kind of music..." Back in those days, blogspot readers, Frank Zappa was experimental with music and Don had a group of his own scoring art films and movies. "...sometimes Zappa would jam with us if you could call it that..." Don states, "...[it was] mostly metallic..." then adding that "...Zappa  would show up at my house  with long hair and a monkey coat couldn't tell where the hair ended and the coat began..." Don told this reviewer that original name for the band was Mother but since in those days the word "mother" was meant for something else (think one of those 7 words you can't say or use), the record company came up with the band name Mothers Of Invention. However, Don couldn't join the band because according to Frank "...I didn't know anything about rock-n-roll..." So in order to "know rock-n-roll", blogspot readers, Don began working with a lot of rock bands before auditioning for Zappa's band again. By this time, Mothers Of Invention was working a little more and gaining more popularity with Herb Cohen as their manager. And the rest history.

SouthSide wanted to know what was it about Frank Zappa as a musician that had Don collaborating with him. " a musician, he [Frank] couldn't read simple music..." answers Don, "...[but] as a composer, he wrote complicated pieces..." which Don cannot explain why that was. He did state saying over the years, Frank became a fairly good reader of music that Don found his solos interesting even though Frank thought he was inadequate. "...reading music is a skill not a talent..." Don told SouthSide while describing that Frank was exceptional as a writer to which likened Frank's style to Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Since Don has worked with many ...the best of the best within the music industry, this reviewer wondered if there was anyone he would like to work with and/or collaborate. Well, blogspot readers, "...that's one of the problems when getting older ...a lot or people you want to work with end up dying..." He would like to work with progressive rock musician Tony Levin (of King Crimson) as well as do a duet with jazz pianist Paul Bley (who plays with saxophonist Sonny Rollins). And the name dropping continued when Don told SouthSide a story about the time he had dinner with Paul and Carla Bley - his close friends since 1955. He told her that she was very innovative back then and wrote most of the music for him as well as writing Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra.

Remember when SouthSide mentioned earlier that Don Preston was an actor? She, then, asked him if he had the chance to portray anyone or any character in a movie who would it be. There are several he would like to play but he chose astronomer Carl Sagan (believe it or not, Don has an interest in astronomy) and swashbuckler legend Errol Flynn to which he and SouthSide having something in common - their favorite Flynn movie, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Don even gave her some movie facts about Flynn's role as Robin Hood because it's widely known the studio thought he (Errol Flynn) wasn't a good actor. So to prove them wrong Errol did his scene separately from his co-star the lovely Olivia de Havilland. Now if there was going to be a movie on his life story, SouthSide wanted to know who would Don like to have portraying him. It was a tough question for this jazz legend to answer, blogspot readers. " would take a week to go through all of the actors..." who would audition for the role. Don did mention seeing Burt Lancaster portraying him because he's "...a dynamic actor ...did so much with his characters in his movies..." and the late comedian Richard Pryor or an actor with "...a combination of the two..." About Richard Pryor, Don called him one of the funniest people on the planet and then began telling SouthSide a story about the time when he saw Pat Collins the Hip Hypnotist hypnotized a little boy into being Richard Pryor after asking him along with others what they wanted to be. "'s a white boy without any color prejudice became Richard Pryor..." he said stating the boy was good as he could be especially when telling the audience a classic Richard Pryor joke!

As a member of the Grandmothers Of Invention, Don explained to SouthSide the difference between them and other Frank Zappa tribute bands. "...we're older now so we can't be called Mothers Of Invention..." Don laughs, but the "...main difference is that with Napoleon Murphy Brock and myself are the only members of Mothers Of Invention today [still] performing..." since they were with Frank Zappa when he was creating and teaching the music. One thing she didn't know about the original band set for Mothers Of Invention, blogspot readers, was that they were all equal members with rights and privileges to the band. By the time it was 1974, Frank Zappa's writing not only got better but also weirder with songs like Don't Eat The Yellow Snow, The Booger Man and Po-Jama People. Don also mentioned that most fans have probably been to a previous Grandmothers Of Invention show " they know our level of musicship [and] where it should be..." Don called a live performance of Grandmothers Of Invention show to the level of music theater. It's "...full of surprises..." says Don before adding "...a lot of things are going on ...not your run of the mill [Frank] Zappa band..." During this tour, Don and the band are featuring the CD in its entirety, One Size Fits All which was one of the more popular Zappa albums than Live At The Roxy and Burnt Weeny Sandwich. He encourages fans to sing along with the Grandmothers Of Invention especially when they perform Sofa (that's only sung in German).  Oh, be on the lookout for Don doing magic tricks while he's playing the keyboard like eggs coming out of his mouth. Yes, you heard right, blogspot readers, eggs coming out of Don's mouth.

Sadly, as the interview came to a close, SouthSide relied a message of "hej" ("hi" in Swedish) to Don from her friend Jessica and Don responded back that they might be bringing Grandmothers Of Invention tour there. He had more parting words about Grandmothers Of Invention for fans "...hear the music the way Frank Zappa wanted it to be played would be the way he wanted us to play [with long instrumentals and extra bridges] ...he would never wanted us to play like the record..." also adding "...[we] try to make it [live Grandmothers Of Invention performance] a very exciting show..." Oh, SouthSide did ask about his contribution to the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now and Don told her it was music to the head tossing scene. Lastly, Don wanted all of Chicago to know that he loves our city. "'s one of the beautiful cities in the states..." SouthSide in turn invited him to attend the annual food event - Taste of Chicago to sample the city's culinary best if he had time.

Thanks to Billy James of Glass Onyon PR for setting up this interview and to Don Preston for taking time out (while on the road) to chat with SouthSide.

For more information, visit Grandmothers Of Invention at

Until next time, support your local scene,

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