Project Object carries Frank Zappa’s legacy to River Street Jazz Cafe with alumni Ike Willis and Denny Walley
More than 20 years after his death, Frank Zappa’s music, ironically, is reaching a much wider audience than it had during the three decades he toured. While most of his new fans can credit the Internet as the basis for discovering music that flew under the radar of the mainstream for decades, many of Zappa’s former musicians are thankful the music was discovered, and those fans are embracing the opportunity to see his musical partners carry on his legacy.
One outfit who has been using Zappa alumni since the mid ’90s is the insatiable Project/Object, which will finally make its return to the River Street Jazz Café in Plains on Oct. 23. Throughout the last 20 years, Project/Object has played with Zappa legends like Don Preston, Napoleon Murphy Brock and Ray White.
One of the heavyweights on this current tour, guitarist Denny Walley, was just a teenager when he met Zappa in 1957. From the start, Walley and Zappa shared a common respect and admiration of the blues and doo wop, two elements that defined most of Zappa’s career. Forming a bond with Zappa before he put out records and being looked at as one of Zappa’s go-to guys for many lineups, Walley is cautious when a Zappa band asks him to play with them, unless it’s Project/Object.
“One thing about expectations: if you have them, you’re bound to be disappointed,” he said. “Anyone wanting to play the music, I champion them … the short answer is, I’ll go out and jam with some bands, but I won’t go out for an extended tour with a group, unless it’s with someone like Project/Object who always has alumni and real quality players.”
Another Zappa heavyweight on tour – who has consistently toured with Project/Object – is the legendary baritone vocalist/guitarist Ike Willis, a fixture of Zappa’s bands from 1978 to 1988. Willis and Walley had a unique connection before Willis was formally a member of Zappa’s band. He saw what Walley is capable of, and is enthusiastic about the current tour.
“Denny will surprise you,” Willis said. “You’ve got to remember: Denny and Frank grew up together. He knew Frank since he was a teenager, and he knows a lot more material than people give him credit for. The thing about Project/Object is, we play every genre of Frank’s music; we don’t leave too much out. Sometimes it depends on the other personnel – who we have on keys, drums, bass, etc. As long as we have a strong keyboard player and a strong drummer, we could pretty much hit anything out of the park. With Denny, it gives us a little more versatility as well, vocally, but it gives us another guitar player who could throw stuff in as well. It’s also his attitude, sense of humor, and approach to the music that I love too. Denny kind of took me under his wing before I even got hired by Frank. He’s my adopted big brother; he took me under his wing when I was 20 years old.”
When it comes to material Project/Object covers, the band is capable of picking cuts from any of Zappa’s material from the mid ’60s to the early ’90s. It’s a testament to the appreciation and understanding of the music the band uses, and is something Walley relishes in every time they take the stage.
“We’re covering a lot of territory,” he said. “We’re covering the stuff that’s rock oriented, and the fun lyrical stuff, as well as some real ball buster songs that are not easy. Somehow they don’t seem that complicated. I mean, they are when you first start playing them, but somehow they just become natural.”
The tightness of the band will be on full display this Friday, and for Willis, the band’s understanding of the way Zappa wanted his music to be treated should be the highlight for long-time fans and newer ones who are just discovering the compositions of a man who was decades ahead of his time.
“There’s just a certain thing about certain musicians or composers that stands the test of time, and that’s the most important thing,” he said. “It’s something you can’t force something to do, and that’s just what Frank was. What he told me a week before he died, the main thing was, ‘play my music the way I taught you. Don’t try to change it or anything.’ He spent years of his life writing it, composing it, and performing it for people. That’s the reason people love our band – if we tried to change the music, the people would know. I guarantee it. I’m playing my parts the way I did when I was 20 years old.”
Ryan O’Malley is a music writer and photographer who has contributed to the Weekender since 2007.
If you go:
What: Project/Object featuring Denny Walley and Ike Willis
When: Friday, Oct. 23 9 p.m.
Where: River Street Jazz Café, Plains
Tickets: $15 at the door
More info: www.projectobject.com