Chatting With A.Wing And A Prayer

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By Fred Banta
T'Mershi Duween, #63, March 2000
© Crap Headlines


Last year marked the ten year anniversary of Frank Zappa's 1988 band for the 'Broadway the Hard Way' tour. This particular touring outfit is featured on the following Zappa records: 'Broadway The Hard Way', 'Make A Jazz Noise Here', 'The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Life' and 'You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 4 & 5'. (If you do not have these records, do yourself a favor ... at least buy 'Make A Jazz Noise Here'.)
Members of what Frank dubbed The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life have been playing around as Banned from Utopia. Recent gigs in Los Angeles have included: Ike Willis, Tommy Mars, Mike Miller, Walt Fowler, Bruce Fowler, Paul Carman, Albert Wing, Kurt McGettrick, Tom Fowler, Arthur Barrow, Chad Wackerman, and Ralph Humphrey. Banned from Utopia also has a record out on Muffin Records entitled 'A Tribute To The Music Of Frank Zappa', a digital recording of an earlier incarnation of the band from their performance at the 1994 Stuttgart Festival in Germany.
So here follows an interview with Albert Wing conducted on Tuesday February 17, 1998 by Fred Banta.

First, I just wanted to say, as a Zappa fan, I know you through the 1988 tour. And looking into your background, I see you've been a session musician for a good number of other popular artists. That is, you probably are the only Albert Wing ...
Probably (laughs).

Could you tell me about any formal training you've had?
Well, I started out at the age of nine on clarinet, then switched to saxophone about when I was thirteen. From there, around eighteen, I went to Cerritos Junior College in Norwalk. From there, at nineteen, I went to Salt Lake City where I met the Fowler brothers. And I met their dad, Bill Fowler; he helped me out and got me some scholarships to go to school. So I went for a couple of years there, and we kind of formed a little group. It was the Fowler brothers and I and a couple of other guys from the University and we gigged around town ...

Is this Airpocket?
This was before Airpocket. Then this group became Airpocket later on, when we moved to LA.

I had never heard of Airpocket before Ike (Willis) started talking about it from the stage (at the Banned From Utopia gig in North Hollywood on 1/31/98 where he spotted in the audience some fans from long-ago Airpocket gigs in Salt Lake City).
There are some CDs: we have 'Breakfast for Dinosaurs' and 'The Hunter'. (Note: I'd thought these were Fowler Brother records. (That's what the covers say-Ed)) And a very obscure album called 'Fly On' which is not even available anymore. It was recorded, I believe, in '73, maybe 74.

Okay, let's go back to your musical training. Who are your influences?
Well, I listened to a lot of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane ... a lot of the artists from the Bebop days. And then ... I checked out some Yakety Sax stuff just for fun. Boots Randolph, he was kind of cool (laughs). I checked out a lot of groups like Spike Jones ... just comedy too.

Speaking of Coltrane, I'm not really a jazz guy, just stuff that I've picked up. But Milt Jackson, the vibraphonist, is going to play down at Union Station in a few weeks, he played on the 1959 Atlantic recording of Coltrane, and his band is going to be playing inside Union Station, so it should be kind of an interesting ambient concert ...
Yeah it's pretty cool, man. I played there.

Oh you have?
Yeah, pretty out-there.

Was it with the Da Camera Society?
No, it was casual, I don't know ... very obscure, you know. I do those too.

I'm a volunteer for the Da Camera Society, I'm like an usher for this Milt Jackson concert, and a couple of other concerts this season that have been real good. One notably was Pancho Sanchez, saw them at the Mayan Theater ... It was so good, it really reminded me ... I really thought of Frank's '88 band when I saw them ... because they were really tight. The music wasn't nearly as complex, you know, as Zappa (in fact it was downright conservative in comparison), but it was really fun. It was great to listen to. So was your family influential on your musical upbringing?
Yeah, kind of. I had an older brother that played trumpet and another little brother that played trombone. And my brother that played trumpet, we played in various groups together, all the way until I left for college. Then after that he kind of went his way and I kind of went my way. I occasionally played with him when I got back, then after that I basically was into a different scene at that point. But then musically we kind of went our different ways. Plus he was doing really good, and I was still in college scuffling, you know. Then I moved back to LA and started scuffling here for a while. About '76, I started a few road gigs here and there. Then in '77, it got a little better. It kept getting progressively better and better.

I know, it takes time ... Do you prefer soprano or tenor sax?
I like them all. Actually in college I played a lot of baritone sax. Right now I don't play quite as much, but I do play mainly tenor and soprano and then occasionally I'll pick up my alto. I have equal facility on a lot of my instruments, it's just that I kind of prefer tenor and soprano.

Do you teach at all?
Very rarely (laughs). If I see some promise in somebody that wants to learn something, then I'll take them on and go yeah, I'd like to see them develop. But as far as a total beginner ... it's hard for me to take that on because, I mean, where do you start?

Let's talk about your projects. I got a whole list of everybody from Ethyl Meatplow to Paula Abdul that you've played session for ... You also played on Michael McDonald's 'Blink of an Eye', The Fowler Brother's 'Breakfast for Dinosaurs' and 'The Hunter', and Tom Fowler's 'Heartscapes'. Ethyl Meatplow, Diana Ross, George Benson, a record called 'Music Inspired by The Lion King' ... I guess that was with the Fowler Brothers as well?
Right. That was a hot summer project, I believe.

Impressive resume you have, I'll tell you. Well, how did you get in Frank's bard?
I'd known Frank for quite a long time through Bruce and Tom. Originally I'd auditioned for Frank's group back in'73 or'74. And actually he said that I had the gig. And I auditioned on the 'Be-Bop Tango' and played the 'Be-Bop Tango' for him, and nailed that. And he said, 'Wow, pretty impressive'. Then I waited around for a half hour at the Sunset studios where they were rehearsing. And Frank came back and said 'Sorry about telling you you're in the band, but we really can't afford you right now, you know'. I don't know what all that was about, but I guess he'd had a meeting with his management, but he'd already had a sax player anyway, Napoleon Murphy Brock. So I guess they were looking for something else because eventually he got Don Preston and Walt Fowler to do the gig, so I felt it was probably just a combination of a horns thing because if he already had a sax player, why have me, you know?

So anyway, we kept in contact throughout the years until 1988. I mean we had meetings and he'd send me literature, this and that saying 'I'm thinking about doing these pieces'. I'd always take them and learn the pieces, or try to learn them. Some were so hard, you know what I mean. It was like 'Wow, I think I need a rhythm section on this one'. But I got them basically down and I'd try get them as good as I could without sitting there with the band. But nothing really ever happened until late '87, I mean when we started rehearsing. That's when it happened, so you know I was ready (laughs).

So were you a Zappa fan prior to your '73 audition?
I listened to Zappa quite a bit, yeah. I wasn't a quote-unquote big fan, you know what I mean. He was one of the people I'd listen to, you know. As I got older I got more into his music. I guess in '73 I was a pretty big fan; yeah I'd say so because at that point I had learned a lot of the songs, so ...

That was the 'Over-Nite Sensation' tour, correct?
Well, yeah I was checking those albums out and was going 'wow, this sounds cool'. So, yeah, at that point I was pretty into his gig, and I wanted it, you know. I wanted to be in the band and part of the whole thing, but it just didn't happen then.

In late 1987, the pre-tour rehearsals were some four or so months, correct?
Yeah, around three or four months.

Eight hours a day, six days a week, which is similar to what I've heard concerning preparation for other Zappa tours. Have you ever seen anything like that since then? I mean that kind of investment in preparing a band for tour?
Not since ... Frank's the only guy that I recall that put us through that. That's a lot of training. But his book requires that. I mean, Frank's stuff was like, you couldn't just walk in, well some guys probably could, but I couldn't just walk in and play the book.

I think it was Bob Dylan who toured that same year, and I heard his pre-tour rehearsals went on for like a week or two. Such a contrast to Frank's four months, eight hours a day, six days a week ...
Yeah, it was gruelling.

But I'll tell you what, the product really shows that investment. The CDs Frank has out from that tour are probably the best music in my catalogue of four or five hundred CDs. It's not just the musicians' execution of tile material, but the overall dynamics of the sound of those records, it just sounds so good to me. And I'll tell you the jazz element that came out of that band was just the best. Was that the first time you played with Banned from Utopia over at the Baked Potato? (N. Hollywood 1/31/98)
Well, I jammed on the very first time they played there, last year some time'? I walked into the second set and jammed on 'Echidna's Arf and 'Village'.

I missed that. I only saw the 1st show. That's why I got tickets for both shows this time around. I saw both shows on the 31st. I really loved it.
Great! Yeah. Did you see Paul Carmen? I think he came in.

No, I didn't.
He came in the second day, I guess. So we had the full-on tour-de-force there for the horn section.

At the show we went to, my wife overheard Ike Willis telling a fan that Vinnie Colaiuta was going to sit in on the next night's show. Did that happen?
No, he didn't come in. I was expecting him to come in, but you know. Yeah, it would have been great to see him. Vinnie's a guy, like I say, that could walk in and play the book (laughs). He's just one of those kind of drummers, you know?

I've seen Banned from Utopia with Chad Wackerman and with Ralph Humphrey on drums, and I enjoyed both of them. I'm a bit partial to Chad. He played some licks that just knocked me out of my seat practically ...
Yeah, I think Chad could walk in and nail the book too, you know.

Incredible talent. So do you keep in touch with any of the other 1988 Zappa band alumni?
Well, you know, me and Walt Fowler; we do Diana Ross' gig. I still do sessions with Bruce (Fowler) and Walt (Fowler) a lot, and occasionally Kurt (McGettrick). But that's about it. Everybody else kind of went their separate ways. I don't know where everybody else went, but they're apparently doing their thing.

I hear Robert Martin is the musical director for 'Cybil'.
Yeah, he's hanging. They're also an item, I think. So that's nice work if you can get it. (laughs)

I'll tell you. Mike Keneally is banging away with his band. He's transcribing his audio journal from the '88 tour on the Internet. He's putting it out on his web page on each day's prospective ten year anniversary. One of the things that struck me was when he was talking about the memorisation required to play in that band. It was in my view, almost superhuman. To recall all those songs. You guys rehearsed 75 or so songs for the tour ...
And I think probably, we were maybe up to one hundred and twenty that we were capable of playing at any given point.

Absolutely incredible.
Yeah, that was amazing, I tell you. The real amazing thing was that (Airpocket & Banned from Utopia guitarist) Mike Miller called me up a couple of weeks before the Utopia gig and asked me to do the gig. So I ran out to the garage and got my book (laughs). And I started rifling through, trying to get everything together, you know. So, I mean we did a few rehearsals and a lot of it came back. Then all of it came back on our first gig, so the first night was really good.

Yeah, I REALLY liked it. I wanted to get your perspective on the gig ... I was thoroughly entertained, and there were several passages that just really moved me.
Yeah the first night was good, I mean for me, because it was the first official night that I was back in the band, you know what I mean. So I was really excited. My energy level was way up there.

Yeah, it was. You played some sweet solos.
Thanks.

That was really good. And you know it was so nice to hear that band play in a little dinky club with the members of (what Frank dubbed) The Best Band You Never Heard in Your Life. That was just beautiful.
Yeah that was a lot of fun. We're trying to get some other bookings.

Any plans on getting any other Zappa alumni for vocalists?
I'm not sure. I think Ike's our main guy pretty much right now. He's great. I mean, he knows gobs of material. Robert Martin did a lot of it, a major part. We actually asked him to come down and sit in and sing Zomby Woof. So, you never know, things might change, maybe there might le some musical chairs happening, I'm not sure. But I think Ike's the main staple for our vocals Maybe they might add another vocalist just to make it, I don't know, you never know. Cause, I kind of like Frank's doo-wop scene ... with the three-part harmony, you know and all that. That was, like, cool.

He's the one that made me come out of the closet about doo-wop, I love doo-wop!
Yeah, I mean I'm a closet doo-wop guy. I dig that stuff. I don't want to admit it, really, but I like listening to it cause it's cool (laughs).

I know. One of my favorite albums by Frank is 'Cruising with Ruben and the Jets'.
(laughs) Yeah, that was cool.

So, do you want to share any anecdotes from the 1988 tour?
Let's see ... I had a lot of fun, I'll tell you that.

You know, I have about 20 different audience recordings of shows from that tour. One of the things that strikes me on a lot of the shows was the joviality. Frank seems really happy. I've also heard of moments that Frank was singing to his daughter, Diva; and his kids were doing cartwheels on stage.
That would be like the Philadelphia, DC show, around there. I think that was a real good part of the tour, at the very beginning. Then toward the middle and the end of the tour, of course you heard what happened about ... you know. Just that, it was kind of falling apart as far as personalities, I guess. I mean I didn't have any problem with anybody. I mean I straightened it out with everybody. There was a little friction in the band between certain members, I mean I was not without friction, but I resolved most of my stuff before I got on the road with who ever I had a problem with. I would just talk to him and see what was up.

So like in the middle of the '88 tour, I mean, I understood everybody's side, you know, and I just let Frank know that whatever happens, I'm still ready. I still want to go on the road and play because I'm playing with him, you know what I mean? Whoever, whatever happens, you know, I'm on his side, totally. And that's what I let him know. That's what I felt ... because I wanted to play like ... you know you wait that long to play with Frank, I just wanted to continue. I was just getting started on this gig and I was like the new kid on the block basically, or one of the new kids on the block. I just still had a lot of that energy ... to be used, you know.

Also, it was cool because I met a lot of interesting people on the road, you know. A lot of different types of characters that would follow the band around from gig to gig. Kind of like a lot of Dead-head types that would manage to scrape up enough money to get to the next gig. It was cool! You get to know a lot of people on the road and you see them at every gig. It made life interesting, and it made the tour go a lot easier because it became more of like ... you felt like you had a road family (laughs). It was great.

Definitely, Frank has that contingent of hard core fans.
You know we had regulars and once in a while he'd invite them up on stage and like do what they do. I mean you probably already know about, I guess it was in Musician's Magazine? Frank gave that interview about why the band broke up?

Yeah, I've read some of that. My understanding is that Scott Thunes (who was managing the pre-tour rehearsals in LA while Frank ran around town to promote the tour) was a little overzealous during rehearsals and that caused some resentment and misunderstanding and it kind of deteriorated into that. And I also understand that Frank had mentioned during the tour, in the middle of it, that he was going to hire another bass player to replace Scott. And I think that when Frank came around and polled the band, 'Will you continue the tour with Scott?', it seems that the band members who voted against Scott figured that Frank would say, 'Okay, we'll just hire another bass player'.
Right. That was the best case scenario to continue the tour, I thought. But then Frank decided that well, you know, hey. And it's his band; he decides who's going to be in the band. And that's basically what happened. He said we're going to continue with this band, and then left it at that.

One of the things that struck me the last time I saw Banned From Utopia; I was watching Arthur Barrow. And I thought, you know, he would have been a great replacement for Thunes, but ...
Yeah, Arthur's a very great player.

I agree. You know the last I heard of Scott was that he was working last year in a club in San Francisco as a doorman ... And that he's out of the music business.
Yeah, I heard he quit playing completely. That's amazing. But that's like his personality and temperament. He runs hot and cold, maybe he'll pick it up again eventually.

Yeah, that's what I hope too.
But to sum it up, it was just a groove to work with and be around Frank. You know, being on the road is tough, but it was just ... considering you're working with Frank and hanging with him, it was really cool. That's what I dug.

The wonderful moments that Frank's 1988 band created ...
Yeah. I can look back and say you know what? I had a great time. I wish it hadn't of stopped so soon.