I HAD THOUGHT MOST OF MY EXPOSURE TO DON PRESTON came from occasional dips into the dogmatic world of Frank Zappa, with whom he keyboarded and sang on dozens of albums. Then I started looking at his credits, and realized I was wrong. Oh, Preston was on that Gil Evans record. And that one by Carla Bley. And those others by the Residents, John Carter and John . . . Lennon. And the score to Apocalypse Now. He'd been in my ears a lot, and I hadn't realized it. Typical: Preston isn't the kind of guy who runs around yelling, “Look what I did!” He just does it.

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)?

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“You haven't seen Blood Diner?” Preston jokes over lunch recently. Well, actually, I think I did catch that one.

“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.

Preston was equally irreverent toward Zappa; in 1991, he sued his primary collaborator over royalties. The statute of limitations rendered the suit toothless with regard to past distributions, though Preston did end up getting more checks from then on — at the cost of estrangement from Zappa and his family. Nevertheless, Zappa's 1993 death from cancer had an impact.

“I felt very moved. Because there was still a lot of history between us — not that we agreed on everything. I was sorry to see him go, even though I probably could have saved his life.”

Preston is referring to the healing methods of self-help maven Louise L. Hay, which, despite a lack of any Big C scares in his own life, have been a guiding influence on him. Diagnosed with cancer a couple of decades back, Hay sidetracked the Reaper with her own program, and is still writing books and passing the word. “You can't drink a gallon of cappuccino every day,” Preston says of Zappa's usual practice. “You have to change everything — your living habits, your thinking habits.” Regardless, he says, “I still have a hot fudge sundae occasionally.”

Aside from his music, Preston has been doing yoga for 35 years, attends the nondenominational Agape Church, plays tennis almost daily, and has a sideline selling the eggs of praying mantises — insects he raises just so he can observe their dining rituals and specialized movements.

“It's the only insect that can turn its head,” he marvels.

Preston also admires some of the current electronic music, much of which he feels wouldn't exist without his old correspondents Throbbing Gristle, avatars of noise from the mid-'70s till 1981.

Asked the difference between noise and music, Preston takes a stance worthy of his borderless career. “There is no such thing as noise, is there?” he says. “It's all music.”


Don Preston's jazz trio, featuring drummer Alex Cline and bassist Joel Hamilton, plays on the patio of the L.A. County Museum of Art, on Friday, August 20, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., absolutely free.

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