Mother of Reinvention

St. Louis native Ike Willis brings Zappa home

"Zappa told me that touring is not for everyone," he says. "It's a very special thing. 'Take advantage of it,' he said. 'Get the most out of it.' And I did."

Before Zappa died, he asked Willis to make sure that his music stayed alive. Thus began the second incarnation of Willis as a player in the Zappa community. Since Zappa's death in 1993, Willis has proved that he learned much from the master, not just in theory but in practice. Over the past ten years, he's redefined himself as a musician and refined his prominent stage presence, performing his own and Zappa's music across America and from Italy to Australia. "I consider him one of the greatest composers of the second half of the twentieth century," Willis says of his mentor. "There are things that carried over into what I do -- his high standards, the logic and the common sense, his pure integrity."

Ike Willis has no desire to be a Zappa clone, to sound like Zappa when he performs or to write music that evokes Zappa's work. The whole process of original composition is an evolutionary one, and if even one person likes it, Willis considers himself successful. Though intent on pursuing his solo interests, Willis was true to his word, and within a couple of months of Zappa's death, he had contacted various Zappa tribute bands. "There was not much time between the time that he died and my second career," says Willis, "a career bringing his music to his fans and new people."

Project/Object's latest tour reunites Ike Willis with Zappa bandmates Napoleon Murphy Brock and Don Preston.
Project/Object's latest tour reunites Ike Willis with Zappa bandmates Napoleon Murphy Brock and Don Preston.

This week Willis returns to St. Louis to play one of his old haunts, Cicero's, with the New Jersey-based Zappa tribute band Project/Object. Founder André Cholmondeley approached Willis in 1997, and for the past five years the band has been touring in various forms, bringing Zappa's music to audiences as it was meant to be heard -- live. This particular tour is unusual in that it not only features Willis but reunites him with two of his "dearest friends," vocalist Napoleon Murphy Brock and keyboard player Don Preston, both former Zappa bandmates and post-Zappa legends in their own rights.

"I always look forward to coming back and playing in St. Louis," Willis says. "One of these days what I really want to do is come back and play a show at Wash. U."

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