Project Object Tour Preview
by Ryan O’Malley
Coming from a long tenure of being a member of Frank Zappa’s last incarnation of the Mothers of Invention – and remaining for some of his most adventurous work – it’s a safe bet that famed multi-instrumentalist Napoleon Murphy Brock is deservingly a bit selective when it comes to lending his talents to Zappa tribute acts. After all, we’re talking about music that became some of the most technical and challenging compositions to come out of the 20th century.
When he does join up with other musicians it’s with bands like Project/Object, a long-running tribute act that has been delivering Zappa’s music to both new and old fans for the better part of two decades. The band is the brain child of Andre Cholmondeley, a multi-faceted music veteran who not only plays guitar in Project/Object, but is also a member of several other projects and manages other artists when they’re on the road. Cholmondeley’s experience in the music business has helped him assemble a tight list of musicians in Project/Object who get to play with numerous Zappa alumni on each tour the outfit does.
For this run – which will include a return engagement at the River Street Jazz Café in Plains, Pa. on Saturday, December 15 – Cholmondeley has invited Brock and long-time Zappa friend and band member, guitarist Denny Walley, to join the outfit for its annual winter jaunt. Having played with the outfit in the past, Brock looks forward to the tour as the band gives him the luxury of simply performing rather than making sure a band really understands the complexity of the music.
“Andre always finds very fine, very intelligent, and very good musicians,” Brock said. “They actually know what they are doing. They can play…for Denny and I, it’s really a blessing because we don’t have to teach; we can just perform.”
After his time with Zappa, Brock had several jobs including warehouse gigs. Coupled with a busy work schedule, he found himself taking a break from composing music for several years. Having not taken part in Zappa related shows for a decent stretch of time, a phone call from Cholmondeley (who is also Brock’s personal manager) in 2000 brought him back to the stage with the music he helped create.
“I stopped playing for a while,” he said. “I took about eight to ten years to compose music, because I hadn’t had time to compose music. I started working for the Bekins corporation. They took me out to Chicago for about two months and trained me…I was doing that since 1994, and then in 2000 I got this call from this guy, Andre Cholmondeley, and he told me they were doing a benefit for Frank Zappa. They were going to do a benefit for prostate cancer, and donate the money they earned from it to prostate cancer research, and they were going to do it in Frank’s name. They asked me if I wanted to be a part of it because they were trying to get together as many Mothers’ alumni as possible. I said ‘sure. I haven’t played Zappa’s music in a long time, but I practice all the time.’
When I came home from the warehouse at 4 in the afternoon, I practiced all the time, and played on the weekends. When it came up at the theater, it was sold out – there were at least 150 people outside who couldn’t get in. We had a couple rehearsals, and then it was time for the show. I walked out on stage, and the people basically spoke to me and said ‘it’s time for you to come back’ with the way they responded to my appearance. I went back to my company (Tyco Circuits) and said to them ’02-02-00,’ that’s my last day. So, find someone and I’ll train them, but that will be my last day. So I hooked up with Andre, did a couple shows with him, and basically got back into the business.”
That initial appearance with Project/Object lead to a continuing friendship between the two, and saw numerous tours with Brock. For this outing, the band will be performing two sets of Zappa’s music, with one set dedicated to Zappa’s landmark album “Bongo Fury” which was a collaboration between he and his friend and sometimes rival, Captain Beefheart. The album was recorded live in May of 1975 while on the road with one of Zappa’s strongest lineups. The group included Beefheart, Brock, Walley, keyboardist George Duke, brothers Bruce and Tom Fowler, and marked the debut of drumming beast Terry Bozzio, who would remain a prominent member of Zappa’s band for several years. With such a talented lineup, it’s no surprise to hear Brock talk fondly of the 1975 tour, which was known for standout performances along with the spontaneity of having two larger than life band leaders.
“It was great,” he said. “You know, Ruth (Underwood) had just retired then, but it was fantastic. Also, playing with Captain Beefheart was really excellent. That really added something special to the group because he was such a character – a brilliant character. Him and Frank together, man, it was just like watching a Looney Tunes cartoon to see those two guys together.”
Aside from “Bongo Fury,” Brock was a constantly recurring player in Zappa’s lineups, including masterpiece albums like “One Size Fits All,” “Apostrophe (‘),” “Sheik Yerbouti,” and ”Sleep Dirt.” The lineups for the albums may have changed a few times, but Brock knew that regardless of the players, the music they were creating was revolutionary and is still viewed as being ahead of its time 25 years after Zappa’s death.
“We were making history,” he said. “We knew we were putting together music that was so far ahead of its time, that there’s a possibility time will never catch up to it. It’s proven to be a fact. This is why I still do it, because there’s no better music…when jazz players of classical players start to find jazz and classical music mundane or normal or everyday or whatever, they move to Zappa. Zappa will challenge you as a musician. There’s no music that will challenge you like Zappa music. You have to practice it. You can’t play Zappa music from the era that I was there if you don’t practice. I still have to practice it. This is why I’m always on the move, playing this music with as many groups as I can because it keeps you sharp. It’s difficult and it’s complicated. It’s not like James Brown, or Fleetwood Mac or the Rolling Stones. It’s something completely different. It was ahead of its time. You know, Frank was from another planet. He wasn’t from here. He came here in the body he was in to come to this planet and do what he had to do.”
The sentiments are spot on as Zappa’s music is notorious for complex arrangements and unorthodox timing changes. To be able to understand the directions Zappa would want to take the music, it took not only a thorough knowledge of music theory, but you needed to try to enter the thought process of the musical genius. It was a trait not everyone possessed, but for Brock, it was one of the reasons Zappa kept utilizing him as a go-to guy for his performances.
“I recognized him and he recognized me,” he said. “We had a communication that we called ‘thought transference’ that we used to use on stage. George (Duke) was in on it sometimes, but Frank and I had such a unique thing with thought transference that sometimes Ruth and the rest of them would just be cracking up watching us…I’ll give you a small example of thought transference. You’re sitting and you’re talking with a small group of people – maybe four, five or six people. You’re talking about a program change, or maybe something you want to do differently with your radio show, or something like that. You’re trying to figure out what to do, and in your mind you say ‘wow. We should do this, and that, and that. That would work.’ You’re thinking it and you’re putting it in the air. Then someone says it – exactly what you were thinking. Word for word. You say, ‘wait a minute. I was just thinking that.’ It’s called thought transference. You believe in a thought and project it with your mind by saying ‘ok, I believe this is solid. I believe this is viable, and I think I should add this to the conversation and see what everyone thinks.’ Then someone says it…we would throw a thought out there and we would have fun watching each other grab it out of the air and say what the other person was thinking or what the other person was going to say.”
Having first hand exposure to the way he arranged compositions, Brock noticed that Zappa would write specific music for specific members based on their personality. For example, “The Black Page,” – a notoriously difficult arrangement with a barrage of non-stop notes – was originally written as a drum solo for Bozzio, but eventually morphed into a band composition.
“The norm was for you learn it and memorize it,” Brock said. “When he would write a composition, he would tailor the composition to the individual. Terry Bozzio is a busy drummer; he plays a lot of notes. That’s why Frank said ‘no, you can do it in two days.’ It’s because his ear is tailored to your personality and the person that you are. ‘You play a lot of notes, that’s why I put a lot of notes in it.’ That’s why they call it “The Black Page” because there’s so many notes that there’s barely any white paper. He composed that for Terry Bozzio because Terry Bozzio is very busy. Chester Thompson was a pocket drummer, Ralph Humphrey was a technician. Terry Bozzio was a busy drummer.”
Those years of not only performing Zappa’s music, but also understanding how he composed and fine-tuned his creations, are what helps Brock appreciate a band like Project/Object. The group is meticulous in its learning of the material, and has to look no farther than to the people next to them if they need any help or advice from the artists who originally performed it. It’s a perfect environment that helps the band have as much fun as the fans that come out to their shows. As for their show at the River Street Jazz Café and others on the itinerary, Brock is happy to be part of an outfit that not only pays tribute to the genius of Frank Zappa, but takes a fun yet respectful approach to some of the most complex music of our lifetimes.
“Zappa music played pretty much at its best,” he said of what’s in store for this tour. “What we do is, we have fun with it because we enjoy doing it. You’re going to enjoy it, too, because we enjoy it. We’re going to feed your itch and ours at the same time. You’re going to see and hear Zappa music performed with joy, love and happiness. By two people that were there with him and did it then, and we can still do it now. It’s a lot of fun because what we do is we make it inclusive. You’re a part of what we’re doing. Your presence is going to be recognized because we’re going to do it in a way where you feel included in what we’re doing on stage. That’s our mission because it’s the truth, and the truth is absolute. The truth is always the same because you don’t have to make it up. The truth is always readily available.”
Project/Object Tour Dates:
Saturday, December 8: Stone Church, Battleboro, VT
Sunday, December 9: The Acoustic, Bridgeport, CT
Thursday, December 13: The Saint, Asbury Park, NJ
Friday, December 14: Golden Nugget, Atlantic City, NJ
Saturday, December 15: River Street Jazz Café, Plains, PA
Sunday, December 16: Cutting Room, New York, NY
For more information, visit www.projectobject.com