An Interview with Peter Boothman
Jan.s: Peter I noticed a post recently of yours on one of your sites mentioning Frank Zappa and my response to you was 'Oh I love Frank...in fact it's so funny you should put this up as I have a reference to one of his songs in a script I'm writing'!!!
Peter: One day Jan I'll tell you my Frank Zappa story. I spent some time with him and also played with the guys in his band (including Jean Luc Ponty) in Sydney mid 70s. Frank invited me to his rehearsal the next day....that was a real eye opener!! A musical genius, absolutely no doubt about it...unbelievable talent.
Jan.s: Thus begins a journey with the delightful and soulful Peter Boothman...and how he met up with Frank Zappa... Peter, I believe we met in the late '70's when I was working with either Tony Ansell in 'Three's a Crowd' or with Dave Fennell in 'Power Point'...The 1970s and 80s were a great time for jazz in Sydney. Would that be about the time that you started playing ?
Peter: There was so much going on in Sydney then Jan. I seem to remember that our paths crossed when you were singing with Tony Ansell, George Golla and Stuart Livingstone, but I could be wrong about that. I started playing guitar professionally around 1968, 4 or 5 years before the "jazz explosion" hit Sydney. I was mainly doing weddings and restaurant work at first and by the time the 70s arrived I was starting to get into playing some jazz. So I was very lucky, because that era brought so many opportunities...the 1970s were a special time in Sydney for the Arts in general.
Jan.s: My observation is that whilst you've played with the major players you're a quiet achiever who has found their own path without calling a lot of attention to themselves.
Peter: That probably applies to the large majority of jazz musicians in Australia. Most Sydney people have little if no knowledge of their local jazz scene, even though the standard here is world class. This is generally the case in most countries worldwide. We do it for the love of the music - fame and fortune are elusive beasts in the world of jazz. Yes I think jazz is about finding your own path, you learn the language through studying the great players, then you make your own personal statement.
Jan.s :You've worked with so many great players there must be some musical highlights for you during those years Peter? Peter B: Being asked by Roger Frampton to join his band Intersection was a major highlight for me in the early 1980s.
There were many fine players around Sydney during those years but I think most local musicians would agree with me that Roger was way ahead in the areas of creative output and musicianship. And with Lloyd Swanton on bass and Phil Treloar on drums the standard was very high indeed. I learnt a lot from that year with Roger.
We had a regular Tuesday gig at Jenny's as well as performances at the Manly Jazz Festival and other major concert venues. It was a great loss to the Australian music scene when Roger tragically passed on in the year 2000. He was highly respected by the students at the Conservatorium when he was Head of Jazz Studies there, and his influence can still be heard in improvised music that is played around Sydney to this day. Another of many major events for me during the 1970s, even though it was short and sweet, was the night I got the chance to play with Jean-Luc Ponty and most of Frank Zappa's band.
Jan.s: Can you recall what year that was? Were they doing a concert tour here.? How did that come about?
Peter: It was around 1974...I was working with Col Nolan's band at the New Push nightclub in Pitt St....I would play till midnight and then Johnny Nicol (who was Col's regular guitarist at that time) would turn up after another engagement he had and play till 2am. Usually I'd stay on after my gig to relax and listen to the band.
On this particular night I was there after the band had finished when in walked most of the guys out of Frank Zappa's group...Frank was in Sydney doing some concerts at the Hordern Pavilion. The guys wanted to play....there were still quite a few people in the club and the manager of the place was delighted so he found a spare amplifier for Jean-Luc Ponty to use and away we went.
Jan.s: Can you remember who the club manager was Peter...names of any of the band members?
Peter: I think the guy who ran the club at that time was John Szangoles but I'm not 100% sure. The Frank Zappa band members were most of the Zappa regulars from around that time...Ian Underwood (sax), Bruce Fowler (Trombone), Tom Fowler (bass), Ralph Humphrey (drums) and of course Jean-Luc on violin.
Jan.s: So all of those guys sat in with you? Col also?
Peter: Yes they all played, but Col and the other guys had left the club by then. I was the only Aussie guy up there playing, although maybe there was one other local guy, a pianist, I'm not sure, that was around 35 years ago.....
We played a number of jazz standards like Miles Davis' "So What" and Herbie Hancock's "Canteloupe Island" and I clearly recall standing on the stage next to Jean-Luc and thinking "I really must take a mental snapshot of this moment to be sure to remember it clearly".....
It was only a year or so previous to that that I'd been dazzled by his playing when he was here with John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. So that was a big buzz for me, and on that night at the New Push Jean-Luc was (as they say) playing his ass off.
Jan.s: I've only ever had a few occasions to jam with someone. I always found it overly confronting but you were familiar with these standards yes and can you recall how playing with Jean-Luc and in fact any of the other players might have taken what you were doing in any different directions or were you just at home...
Peter: Learning certain tunes in the jazz repertoire is an important part of becoming a jazz musician. Jean-Luc called the tunes that night and yes I knew them all.
Playing with those guys was just like playing with any Sydney jazz musicians, they were all good players of course but Jean-Luc stood out. He was playing with a lot of energy in those days, really going for it. In fact he eventually ripped the speaker to shreds in the small amplifier he was using when he did one of his spectacular glissandos. So he just moved to the piano and played that for the last tune. I think that the borrowed amp was actually Johnny Nicol's small Roland 60 watt....fortunately the venue's manager made good the loss and paid for the repairs later.
Jan.s: So no Frank turning up late late late?
Peter: Not that night, but on the very next night the guys turned up again, and this time Frank was with them. I got to have a good chat with Frank, mostly about his current tour and the music scene in general.
Jan.s: Was he only playing Sydney do you recall...I know it's a long time back but any recollections of what he was thinking back then on the scene
Peter: It was a world tour. Frank Zappa was very big by then, I went to the concert that week at the Hordern Pavilion and it was totally packed.. I remember they did a lot of tunes from his then recent album "Apostrophe".Yes Jan, I'd say that I know what Frank was thinking about back then. Music and girls. In that order.
Actually I regret now that I did not take the chance to talk to him in more depth about his composing. He had an incredible output over the years, and as with any prolific artist some of it was a little rough around the edges, but there are loads of wonderful pieces in there and I would say that his work as a composer and as a satirist were his major artistic contributions.
Jan.s: Were you familiar with his foray into other areas at this time? Were you also composing?
Peter: I had a few Zappa albums at that time. "Uncle Meat" was and still is, one of my favourites. I mean....there you go....who else would release an album called "Uncle Meat"...or "Weasels Ripped My Flesh" if it comes to that...
Haha that guy still makes me laugh, he had a great sense of humour, often dark and cynical. But in person I found him to be a straight ahead no-nonsense sort of guy. Articulate and intelligent. He was one of those rare ultra-charismatic people who exuded great presence and confidence.
As far as my own composing goes yes I was writing a few tunes then. I've written more and better pieces since....I'm mostly into writing tunes with (hopefully) an interesting melody line and harmonic structure and pieces that are interesting to improvise on. Frank Zappa is different, he is more of an orchestral composer. In fact there are two albums that he wrote for (and had played by) The London Symphony Orchestra. Also some albums that he did purely solo on a Synclavier.
So as I mentioned previously, I regret now that I did not have more time to talk with him at length about that aspect of his art. Anyway our chat was eventually over when he spotted an attractive waitress who was working at the club. He started talking to her and ten minutes later Frank and the waitress were out of there, not to be seen again for the rest of the evening.
Jan.s: So that was it...Frank gets the girl...
Peter: Yes well someone usually gets the girl in both fact and fiction...and in this particular case it was Frank. However before he left that night he came over and invited me to check out his band rehearsal at the Hordern Pavilion the next day....that was a real eye opener.
Jan.s: What an honour.
Peter: I know for sure that he generally wrote down his music parts, I've seen some of his written manuscripts...but at that rehearsal there was no printed music in sight....he sang the parts to the guys and they learnt them that way.
Jan.s: So this was new material do you think?
Peter: Probably, he was always rehearsing new material, or revamping old pieces. One of his band members told me that there were no drugs or alcohol at all if you worked with Frank, basically you rehearsed 6-8 hours most days. Obviously he paid good money and music was the name of the game if you were in Frank Zappa's band.
Anyway Frank's writing is usually very complex and multi-layered so it was interesting to see the piece take shape with Frank just teaching the guys their parts one at a time by playing it for them on guitar or by singing it.
Jan.s: Can you remember any one of the compositions in particular?
Peter: No, not really, but it was fairly complex material. I remember the trumpet player Sal Marquez having difficulty with some of his parts...not that he wasn't an excellent player, it's just that a lot of that stuff can be very difficult to play.
I guess a lot of listeners to Frank Zappa's music only really hear the novelty lyrics and the rock and funk riffs, but he really was a heavy dude when it came to composition and most of his pieces contain some very interesting and unique musical ideas.
Jan.s: Do you want to share with us some of what you heard him exploring?
Peter: It was typical Frank Zappa...rock and roll, country, funk, blues, jazz, satire, contemporary compositional concepts....all rolled into one. I was a fan then and I'm still a fan.
Like many jazz musicians, I mostly listen to and am influenced by jazz music....Miles, Dizzy, Bill Evans, Joe Pass etc etc. But also like most jazz players I have many favourites that lie outside the genre of jazz and the music of Frank Zappa is one of them.
Anyway I was in the right place at the right time that weekend and the whole event was a most memorable experience for me.
Jan.s: Maybe. I've often felt like that and taken many musical/theatre connections as good fortune and undeservedly so. Now I reflect that maybe there was a connection and perhaps a meaning that only slowly (in my case) continues to reveal itself ...for instance, the delight I felt in hearing about your Frank story was because I'd found myself giving a character in my script just a little bit of Frank's irreverence when it came to keeping it 'normal'....
Peter : Sure, I'm certain there is some deeper meaning behind all of the events in our life, of course you can go nuts trying to fathom just what that deeper meaning is, hence came about the expression "go with the flow".