Monday, September 13, 2010

LIVE REVIEW: …For The Love of Don Preston: A Tribute Concert (South Pasadena Music Conservatory, Los Angeles, 9/11/2010)

Can’t think of a better date to have a BIRTHday celebration on what’s become the American Day of the Dead. Don Preston’s real birthday isn’t until 9/21, but Walter Zooi of the South Pasadena Music Center decided to have this tip o’ the hat to one of the few remaining original members of Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. (They’re becoming like WWI survivors.) Mr. Preston, of course, is so much more than just his affiliation with that gang of monster cross-dressing players: a perpetual self-educator who, as friend/colleague Alex Cline noted in a moving verbal tribute Saturday night, “always manages to stay up on his game in current music and technology.” This reminded us of a time last February when we saw Mr. P preside over an impossibly abstract concerto of electronic squiggles from various laptops while percussionist Andrea Centazzo closed in for the mind-meld.

Don Preston (left) f*cks sh*t up with Andrea Centazzo (Feb. 2010)

Whether it be classical, jazz, electronic music, new music, rock music, the man’s talent is simply, as pianist Ben Rosenbloom put it, “protean – able to take on different forms.” The point was punctuated by the art hanging just across the street at the funky new SPACE gallery…by Don Preston! Or the booklets of stories and poems sitting by the SPMC’s entrance…whoa and behold, by Don Preston! Or the jagged, experimental film playing onstage before the concert…

The Ugliest Band in the World: Don Preston (top, second to left) with the original Mothers

The 3 hour concert featured just as many verbal memories as musical odes, mainly from letters read from friends who couldn’t be here (like Preston's Project/Object bandmate Robbie “Sea Hag” Mangano) and MP3’ed shout-outs (like a hilarious greeting from Preston’s fellow Mother Roy Estrada, who sounded happily stoned). Zooi started the evening off with a story who’s gist basically described Don Preston’s slow, creeping takeover of the South Pasadena Music Center, first offering to teach, then offering to curate an adventurous music series that has become a new haven for L.A’s perpetually-struggling new music scene, and lastly, physically putting up curtains behind the stage so the polished brick-and-exposed-duct space wouldn’t look so much like a cavernous barn. The 78-year-old Preston, clad in his usual flowing silken robe and tunic, introduced himself by getting purposefully caught in the curtains before playing three separate piano pieces from three successive generations of the Preston family: an autumnal parlour reel written by his grandmother; a florid orchestral tune by his father, Don Sr.; and a piece that incorporated both those styles with jarring blops of abstract-impressionist paints all over the keyboard from Don, Jr. It was a remarkable lesson in musical genes. One could almost hear a “Preston Family Style” emerging, sounding like music to accompany nonexistent silent films, with abrupt but seamless shifts in mood and narrative underscored by doses of lyricism.

(Grand)mothers Bunk Gardner & Don Preston smell their instruments

Zooi stepped aside to let percussionist Christopher Garcia become the de facto Master of Ceremonies, who peppered the evening with many “Don Stories” that testified to the man’s restless musical spirit as much as his terrible memory. “I didn’t know this was gonna be a roast!” Preston called out from his pimp-seat in the front row (next to his ex-wife Tina). Vinny Golia answered from the stage, “Seventy-seven years old and the guy is still naïve!” before bringing up elder paterfamilias Bobby Bradford for a testy anti-duet the two dubbed “Sergeant Preston.” Before they played, Bradford told a short-but-suite Don Story from the days when they used to play avant-garde jazz together in SoCal penitentiaries: “In Chino prison, they guys in there, all they wanted to do was get out. Well, Don is the only guy I ever knew who they wouldn’t let in.”

Pianist Ben Dowling took the stage with bassist Putter Smith and drummer Alex Cline for an old school bebop tune “Stella by Starlight” featuring the ghostly wrists of Mr. Cline, whose wire brush strokes sounded like breathing, and the hard Irish knuckles of Mr. Smith, whose solo turned his head beet red and shifted the song into different time signatures at least twice. If that wasn’t enough, a beaming, obviously pleased-to-be-here Smith stepped up to the mike with memories of playing Chavez Ravine and an old L.A. dump called Via Frescate with Preston and Paul and Carla Bley, making a bold statement by deeming his old friend “the most talented person I have ever known.”

Even though Preston is primarily a pianist, the night seemed dominated by percussionists (at least three separate drum kits were set up onstage). Next up was a trio of Brad Dutz (drums), Tom Rizzo (guitar) and Bevan Manson (piano), who performed a percussive improv. Then came violinist Harry Scorzo with Ken Rosser (guitar), Putter Smith, Alex Cline and a just-added Michael Pierre Vlatkovich, whose unmiked trombone runs threatened to blast the other musicians out of earshot. Then Mr. Preston returned to demonstrate three different magic tricks which he used to do onstage with the Mothers, before inviting fellow Mother Bunk Gardner onstage for a few duets. Pianist Ben Rosenboom offered a rambling homage before sitting down to perform a Prestonian song he called “Thelonious Monk Meets P.T. Barnum and They Go Have a Hot Dog Together.” Alex Cline recalled the glorious debacle that was a 1970 show pitting the Mothers of Invention versus the L.A. Philharmonic and the experience of going to the Whisky to see Preston’s group Ogomoto open for George Clinton’s Funkadelic. Cline offered an Eastern-flavored solo percussion piece before bringing up Chris Garcia for an amazing “singalong” drum duet on Zappa's “Uncle Meat” and “Mother People.” Harry Scorzo returned with Mike Vlatkovich for a run through Preston’s metrically and emotionally difficult “Dead Children,” which prompted Scorzo to just hang his head and ask its composer from the stage: “Don, seriously why did you name it that?” Preston jogged back to the mike to explain that the song was written after a rash of local children were killed in drive-by shootings and was meant to "express my anger about it. I mean, get angry, people!”

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