By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Sure, I've seen him play beautiful jazz piano in clubs -- standards, even. And he's well known for some Zappa-moonlighting projects with the Grandmothers, and as a pioneer in electronic music. But I didn't know he'd been one of the first to play synthesizer in a band, before Moog went public. And won L.A. Weekly Theater Awards for music in a bunch of plays. And how about all those film scores (even if I didn't recognize most of the titles)?
|Listen to The Don Preston Trio:
"Now I'm very relaxed, because I'm 'retired,'" says Preston, who'll be 68 next month. With his placid demeanor and essential sureness, he could pass for a monk. "I get a Social Security check, I get a check from the Musicians Union, I'm getting royalties from films and records I've done. The money is not a worry anymore. I'm just relaxing, and I play what I want to play."
Of course, he's not really retired. And he's always played what he wanted, the jazz trio being a format he's returned to lately, building on tunes by Lee Konitz and John Lewis as well as writing new stuff, such as an individual take on the sonata.
"I just improvised it and recorded it on the sequencer. Then I had to go in there and change notes, change rhythms, until it's finally right, and now it's a beautiful piece. There's hardly any resemblance at all to what I started with. But the spontaneity of improvising is still there. It has a shape, especially if you think, when you're improvising, that you're writing a song."
When he's on synthesizer, Preston is one of the few musicians who doesn't make you painfully aware that he's Playing the Synth, an instrument that too often serves as a crappy substitute for an organ. You're more likely to wonder where that roiling cloud in the music came from, or notice that the ground seems to be moving.
Those are a couple of sides to his approach. Other times, Preston lets go and allows the music to come out, almost unconsciously. The ideas flow fast onto the piano and nearly bump into each other, calm beauty competing with passionate seizures.
"When I play a concert, my primary goal is to be open to whatever spirit resides in me -- in each one of us -- to take over, do the playing for me. It's a separate entity that's not part of our mind. That part of myself can come up with things that are so complex, so interesting, so fantastic, I'm totally surprised. It's thrilling when that happens."
Not everybody thinks like that. Maybe we forget how. Preston is grateful, sort of, for the way the nuns tried to make him forget. At the Catholic boarding school where his folks parked him as a child while they were divorcing, the brides of Christ used to slap his hands when he made mistakes on the piano. The discipline backfired.
"I probably would have been a studio musician," he says. But thanks to the intimidation, "When I start to sight-read music, I panic, and my eyes cross. I can't see the notes."
So Preston was forced to fall back on the natural improvising and writing ability he discovered while listening to his pianist-composer father. After finding a compatible teacher, he eventually started his music career in the military, while stationed in Trieste with Herbie Mann.
"I really didn't choose to be a musician. I just was a musician. And unfortunately, I didn't learn any skills about how to make money or how to further my career. Lee Ritenour once told me, 'The only reason I made money is I went to business school and learned how to operate a business.' I didn't even know what a business was. I haven't made a lot of money, and I've been ripped off, but it's made me kind of lean and hungry, and my playing reflects that. At least it gives me a lot of energy."
ONE THING PRESTON NEVER LACKED WAS CONFIdence. In 1962, he had the balls to approach John Coltrane after hearing the saxophone god in a Detroit club. "I told him, 'It's your duty to progress beyond where you are, and lead the people who are following you into new realms of music.'" Not long after, Coltrane began venturing into the explosions of multiphonic sound that would characterize the middle '60s. No doubt Eric Dolphy, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman and Pharoah Sanders had more pull than Preston, but there can't have been many white guys advising the king of the tenor to shred his meal ticket.