Project/Object’s Frank Zappa repertoire nostalgic for Swarmius’ composer Joseph Martin Waters and old high school buddy

Friday night’s (Oct. 21) Cutting Room pairing of Project/Object—The Music of Frank Zappa, featuring Ike Willis and Don Preston with San Diego electronic ensemble Swarmius was a dream bill—but only for two dreamers in the room.

That would be me and Joseplh Martin Waters, the professor of music composition and computer music at San Diego State University—and the acclaimed composer-performer who conceived Swarmius. For the Cutting Room gig Swarmius was made up of conductor/programmer Waters, saxophonists Todd Rewoldt and Michael Couper, pianist Geoffrey Burleson and guests Gene Pritsker (guitar) the artist Mark Kostabi, whose artwork graces the Cutting Room walls, and who also composes and plays piano.

The term “trans-classical” has been created to describe the music of Swarmius, and it does in fact serve up a singular multicultural, multi-genre musical mix-up, heavy on classical, jazz, rock and electronics and performed by the monster musicians the concept requires. His Cutting Room set focused on new material from the forthcoming album Swarmius III—Trans-Classical, and like preceding Swarmius recordings, is surprisingly accessible, with Joe’s conducting (without a baton) while programming from an Apple laptop onstage with his instrumentalists: You can actually follow the development of his complicated compositions easily just by watching the emotional drama and intensity in his hands and face as he conducts, said compositions including, at the Cutting Room, Trans-Classical‘s “instant gratification single” “EeOoEe,” which has just been released digitally ahead of the album.

That’s right, I still call him Joe, because he was just Joe Waters back at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, Class of 1970, albeit a musical whiz kid even then, when his band was Spindlebean—a loose aggregate of musicians, and friends (and at least one stoner) who sang along to Joe’s Zappa-like lyrics and melodies. So it was extraordinary indeed to be sitting next to Joe at the Cutting Room, 46 years later, listening to longtime Zappa band veterans vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis and keyboardist Don Preston, now 84, play the music of Frank Zappa.

“The first Zappa album that really caught my attention was Uncle Meat,” said Joe afterward, referring to the 1969 double album. “This I listened to obsessively with my friends while we were experimenting with marijuana and psychedelics in high school, and it became a central playlist of our little community. But my all-time favorite was We’re Only in It for the Money [1968]. I found the album cover and the title shocking, and was incredulous that it could be lampooning the gods of popular music–the Beatles–jabbing and belittling their generation-defining album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which had already achieved iconic status.”

He continued: “The first time I heard We’re Only in It for the Money I was tripping on acid, and the ‘through-composed’ album structure, where one song seamlessly merged into the next, and where text and composition, social commentary, acoustic instruments and electronics all swirled around together and through each other, was a deep aesthetic revelation.”

Joe recalled attending his first Zappa concert sometime around the release of his classic 1969 Hot Rats album.

“I remember sneaking into a big music festival, climbing over the fence to see the band! I found the music on Hot Rats to be generally intriguing and aesthetically challenging, in places puzzling, and inspirational. I think my favorite work was ‘Peaches en Regalia.’ But otherwise, I had not attended a Zappa concert since seeing the original band sometime in the early ‘70s at a music festival in Milwaukee. It was the second time I had seen them, and the period when they were doing pieces like ‘Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,’ so it must’ve been somewhere around 1974 [when the song was released as a single]. It was in a big auditorium, and I was seated far away from the stage–and, frankly I didn’t really like that music very much: I found it mildly funny but musically uninteresting compared to the earlier music that I had loved and listened to incessantly. And I didn’t particularly like the virtuosic, modal-based guitar solos that Zappa was putting out in those days. I found them harmonically uninteresting and long winded.”

Indeed, after that Milwaukee Zappa show, Joe’s interest in Zappa waned. “Soon after I was pursuing my own formal music education, which took me far away from popular music for the better part of the next decade.”

My own interest in Frank Zappa, however, only increased around this time, especially since I began writing a couple years later. I’d see him many times after moving to New York in ’82, including his annual Halloween shows at the Beacon Theatre. I even met him a few times, interviewed him on the phone, got to know his late wife Gail a bit, and son Dweezil—for whom I wrote his first Zappa Plays Zappa tour bio. I met his younger brother Ahmet, too, when he and his wife signed children’s books at New York’s BookExpo last year at the Javits Center.

But back to Joe.

“I never lost complete interest in Zappa,” he said, “and especially became reinvested when he achieved recognition by the esteemed French avant-garde classical conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, the brilliant, belligerent, influential and outspoken champion of, and contributor to, the notorious mid-century genre of classical music that came to be known as ‘post-World War II integral serialism.’ This genre involved the application of Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘twelve-tone’ method to every musical parameter. Literally every note in these compositions had a complete and individualized set of performance instructions, which resulted in intense gibberish for both performer and listener. The aesthetic philosophy underlying this music was Schoenberg’s dictum ‘If it’s art it’s not for the people, and if it’s for the people it’s not art,’ which dismisses all of the music beloved the world over, including the Beatles, Gershwin, and Dylan. Dylan’s recent anointment with the Nobel prize in literature is a repudiation of this snobbery, but the fire still rages in the forests of academia.

“Boulez, in the early 1950s, with his sharp tongue eviscerated and destroyed any composer who dared to stray outside integral serialism’s incomprehensible non-melodies, non-harmonies, and non-rhythms, which were the result of overthinking and misunderstanding not only the neurophysiological mechanisms by which organized sound accrues meaning and emotional agency, but also the role and responsibility of the artist in the context of a majority proletarian culture. So his recognition of Zappa represented a turnabout of sorts, though of course Zappa had since childhood always had one foot in the classical avant-garde: On his early albums he had a quote from Edgard Varèse, another French composer from earlier in the 20th century—‘The present day composer refuses to die.’”

Joe himself had been “drenched in classical music of the 20th century, a large body of work which by and large has and had been completely ignored by the listening public as well as the community of professional classical musicians and conductors, but which was promoted exclusively by the composers employed as professors in the academies of music throughout Europe, the U.S. and all western looking music institutions throughout the world. By then I was already struggling to reconcile my populist rock band roots with the ivory tower aesthetic vested on me by music school. I listened to The Yellow Shark [Zappa’s 1993 avant-garde classical album with the German Ensemble Modern, his last album release prior to his death that year, for which Boulez was among those thanked in the liner notes] a few times and put it aside, planning to revisit it later–but still haven’t gotten back to it 23 years after.

“So all this was my mind set when I sat down after our set at the Cutting Room, to listen to Project/Object, fronted by the great vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis, who joined Zappa in 1978, and Don Preston, who played with Zappa from 1966 to 1974–the years during which I was a rapt teenage fan. In short, I didn’t know what to expect. And what I discovered, to my delight, was a huge range of repertoire that spanned about 20 years as far as I know of the Zappa catalog, all played extremely well by an ensemble of eight musicians, who had been on tour for the past month or so and were super tight, and at the same time, super relaxed.”

Yes, it really was a great show. They did one of my faves from Frank & The Mothers of Invention’s 50-year-old 1966 debut album Freak Out! —“Who Are the Brain Police?”, also “Down at Joe’s Garage” from Joe’s Garage and “Call Any Vegetable” from Just Another Band in L.A., which had my pals Flo & Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) from The Turtles on background vocals.

Special mention goes to Don Preston, who has 20 years on me, somehow. Just so great on “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” from We’re Only In It for the Money, even playing a solo by tapping on his cellphone—a solo so hot his phone erupted into flame. Joe Jackson was in the house and seemed impressed, though I wasn’t, since my Samsung Galaxy Note 7 can do the same thing.

“There was a wonderful warm, friendly vibe that exuded from the band as a whole and from the individual members, who were open and welcoming, supportive and curious about Swarmius,” said Joe, and sure enough, Project/Object’s vocalist/guitarist Andre Cholmondeley gave the band a big plug at the start of their set.

“I also discovered myself liking a lot of the repertoire that I had been so dismissive of in the mid-‘70s, such as Joe’s Garage. I think I was too young to understand the understatement and artistic brilliance underneath the overt sarcasm, humorous allegory and punchy rock grooves. All in all I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening: I found myself grinning ear-to-ear with the pleasure of hearing fine musicians deeply committed to music that came from a singular genius. I have a newly deepened respect for Zappa, and I am looking forward to revisiting, and re-listening to—finally!—Yellow Shark!”

And I’m looking forward to seeing Dweezil’s 50 Years of Frank: Dweezil Zappa Plays Whatever the F @%K He Wants show Sunday night, the night before Halloween, at, where else? The Beacon!

Tales of Bessman: Bruce Lundvall and Anne Meara

The older you get the more friends you lose—and at a faster pace.

Bruce Lundvall died last week (May 19), a few days after Ren Grevatt (May 16), whom I knew better and wrote about here shortly after. Then Saturday Anne Meara died.

Ren and Bruce were old school music business guys, Ren in PR and Bruce in record label operations, mostly at prestigious jazz labels. I won’t say I knew him well, but we were very friendly and I knew he would always take my call, even when he was a record company president. But I only really spent quality time with him once, shortly after I came to New York and landed a job at Cash Box.

I’m pretty sure it was ’84, when he created the Manhattan adult-contemporary label and revived the historic Blue Note jazz label for EMI, but it could have been before that, after he launched the Elektra Musician imprint for Eletkra Records in 1982, after leaving CBS Records, which he had headed and signed the likes of Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock and Wllie Nelson. He would go on to work closely with other varied artists including Richard Marx, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Stanley Jordan, John Scofield, Bobby McFerrin, Rubén Blades, Wynton Marsalis and of course, Norah Jones.

In other words, Bruce was a big deal when I met him, and remained one long after. But he never acted like one, especially that day when I went to his office to interview him.

It was probably a general what-are-your-plans type story, and we were well into it when he was buzzed and decided to take the call. He started talking to the caller, and it became clear that it was an artist he was wooing. Feeling awkward, I waved at him and whispered that I could leave if he wanted to conduct business in private.

Bruce just waved me off. I just sat there, enrapt, listening to him tell the potential signee what he could do as the head of a small, independent label, who cared about his artists and could give them full and individual attention–unlike a huge, major label like CBS, from where he came. Sure enough, his entire career was marked by that kind of hands-on, personal commitment in support of his artists.

Anne Meara wasn’t a friend, but she made me feel like one the first and only time I met her.

I think it was around the same time as I met Bruce, or a little later, at a Broadway show opening party at a Midtown hotel. I recognized her immediately, having been a big fan from seeing Stiller & Meara on Ed Sullivan so many times.

She was effervescent, to use a word maybe for the first time. Starstruck, I introduced myself as an editor for the music business trade magazine Cash Box.

“Oh, Jerry couldn’t be here tonight!” she responded, almost apologetically—as if I’d been close pals of Stiller & Meara forever.

That was pretty much it, but when I saw from Howard Kaylan’s tweet that she had died, I felt like I had lost someone I knew that long and that closely.

“I can’t picture a world without her,” tweeted Howard. “Stiller and Meara/the Sullivan Show RIP sorry B”—“B” being Ben Stiller.

Ben Stiller, my co-star in While We’re Young—though the scene we were in, at the same coffee shop that I’m in with Naomi Watts and Adam Driver, but immediately after, was cut. Sorry B.

But I did see Anne one other time, at Mary Travers memorial in November, 2009. She recited “Conscientious Objector,” by Travers’ favorite poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. The poem refuses to assist Death in taking other lives by violence (“I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death”).

The memorial ended with everyone–also including then Sen. John Kerry, George McGovern, Max Cleland, Pete Seeger, Whoopi Goldberg–singing along on “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “This Land Is Your Land.” It was an evening of unabashed liberalism, a throwback to when the word “liberal” was a badge worn proudly and sung loudly.

And I sang along with Anne Meara.

Click the link for my examiner.com appreciations of Bruce Lundvall and Anne Meara.

Concert Highlights–Colin Blunstone at City Winery, 5/13/14

Every song Colin Blunstone sings live is a concert highlight—which is my cop-out way of saying that I got to his Tuesday night show (May 13) at City Winery late after Tammy Faye Starlite’s Broken English/Marianne Faithfull presentation at Joe’s Pub, then spent most of it standing in the back hearing it with one ear, the other catching up with old friend Deb Hastings.

I can tell you that “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” which he was singing when I walked in, was a revelation. But you knew that.

Same with “I Don’t Believe in Miracles,” which ended with a high note held long and steady, Blunstone exuding a joy in singing rarely seen—Tony Bennett coming to mind.

“That’s the difference between falsetto singing and singing in full voice,” said Deb, Bo Diddley’s longtime bassist/bandleader, whom I’ve known since she was my photographer at the Madcity Music Sheet in Madison, Wisconsin, many eons ago.

The only other singer I knew that can approach Blunstone in this or any regard, I told her, is Howard Kaylan of The Turtles. I then related how several years ago The Zombies and The Turtles were on the Hippiefest bill and shared the same dressing room trailer at Coney Island.

Old friends with The Turtles and friendly with The Zombies, I stood back and took in maybe the most relaxed and fun backstage scene I’d ever witnessed: Here were two bands who’d done it all, one British Invasion, the other an American one that had followed shortly in its wake, both with historic hits—and both with extraordinary lead vocalists. Both were 40 years or so past their prime, yet you couldn’t tell the difference, eyes closed.

And when The Turtles played, Colin and Rod Argent watched from the wings. And when The Zombies played, Howard and Mark Volman did the same.

After The Zombies’ set, Howard came over to me, clearly overcome.

“I can’t do it now,” he said, gravely, “but toward the end of the tour, I’m going to tell Colin how much he influenced me.”

Now I was overcome. I mean, here was one of the greatest singers in the history of rock ‘n’ roll confiding in me how he was so in awe of another one of the greatest singers in the history of rock ‘n’ roll as to be unable to approach him without weeks of preparation.

Making it that much more compelling, for me, was the fact that up until this moment, I never saw the connection, realizing now how obvious it was and is.

Meanwhile, I did make note that Blunstone was singing “Any Other Way” at City Winery—accompanied by a fabulous acoustic guitar solo from Zombies guitarist Tom Toomey (Zombies drummer Steve Rodford was also in Blunstone’s band, which also included, during a brief interlude, a string quintet). He explained that the song, which he wrote, fit in with his preference for story songs.

“I love songs with story lyrics,” he said. “It makes it more interesting if you know the story in the song.”

He then introduced one from his new solo album On the Air Tonight, “So Much More.”

“This one is a deep, emotional, strip-you-naked type thing, about a person who was so courageous and inspirational, who arose out of awful trouble–and then it all went completely wrong and she married me! This song is for Mrs. ‘B.’”

And then he retold the wonderful story of his supernatural vocal quality, where he had learned “voice tricks” from his singing teacher, including “lifting from your pelvic floor” (or in less technical terms, “singing from your ass”), projecting one’s voice from the back of one’s neck, and, in a more arcane tip directed primarily toward female vocalists, presumably, singing “tits over shoulders, girls!”

These applied to specifically “Time of the Season,” which with “She’s Not There,” were the only two Zombies songs Blunstone sung. Closing with the latter, he bore out Toomey’s intro as “one of the greatest voices to come out of the U.K.”

And after being made aware of his effect on Kaylan, Blunstone, with all modesty, said, “He’s so wonderful.”