Frankly speaking

It’s one thing to imitate the Beatles or Elvis or Van Halen, or to rake in the big dough with a Rod Stewart or Neil Diamond or Grateful Dead cover band. But Project/Object is a Frank Zappa tribute act, and that’s a different animal altogether. This is about as chops-busting a musical endeavor as you’ll find anywhere short of the circus pit: Do not try this at home. Really.

“It’s demanding, and it does keep us up late at night learning all the little tricks and stuff,” allows Project/Object guitarist Andre Cholmondeley.

When Zappa lost his battle with colon cancer on Dec. 4, 1993, Project/Object had already been celebrating his music for four years. “We used to play an annual Frank Zappa party at my house,” Cholmondeley recalls. “We would just get together, listen to Zappa music, party up a bit, and play whatever Zappa records we had. Then we started playing a few songs. We’d do that every year at my house, and it got to where 200 people would show up for this thing. Then we moved it to a club, and once a year we would play to celebrate his birthday. We did two of them before he died. Then it took on a whole different urgency. All of a sudden we were memorializing, rather than celebrating.”

Project/Object features Robert “Seahag” Mangano and Andre Cholmondeley on guitars, Wes Paich and Mumbo on drums and keyboards, Rick Bartow on bass, and Jordan Shapiro on keyboards. Everyone sings — and for the fourth year, former Zappa guitarist/vocalist Ike Willis will be touring with the band.

“They’re fantastic,” says Willis, who was Zappa’s voice (beginning with 1979’s classic Joe’s Garage) until 1993. More specifically, the singer appreciates the thoroughness of the Jersey-based group:

“These guys do a great job, and they cover every era. My favorite era used to be the Roxy Band, with the Fowler Brothers, but it varies. … Crowds are very, very responsive, and we’ve got each generation. People are bringing their kids and grandkids. It’s still happening!”

In the world of rock ‘n’ roll, Zappa stood out as an accomplished composer, prolific producer, wicked satirist and serious guitarslinger. In fact, Zappa is one of only two artists (Jimi Hendrix being the other) to have been inducted into both the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame.

Cholmondeley’s introduction to Zappa was hearing the signature “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow” on the radio, but it wasn’t until the guitarist got to college and someone played him the Zoot Allures album that he was officially hooked.

“That was a record [Zappa] did pretty much in his basement. A lot of it is him fooling around with home instruments. It’s a weird record, a short record, and when I heard that my whole world exploded. It was just, ‘This is the guy.'” Cholmondeley immediately began taping every Zappa album he could get his hands on.

“Every area of music that I love, the guy is right there,” the guitarist enthuses. “I love 20th-century music — Varese, Stockhausen, Copland — and bang, Zappa possesses that too, and intelligently, not just in a touristy way. He knows what he’s talking about with 12-tone music. I like electronic music — Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk and Phillip Glass — and bingo, Frank gets out there and does this album which really stands up to scrutiny years later [Jazz From Hell, 1986]. So really everything that I liked about different forms of music, I was getting from this guy.”

Project/Object tries to cover as much of Zappa’s musical terrain as possible, including bits from his first record, Freak Out [Verve, 1966], songs from his final world tour of 1988, songs from Yellow Shark [Barking Pumpkin, 1993], released one month before his death — and everything in between.

Sometimes, the band performs a Zappa album in its entirety. John Swenson of UPI remembers their full-length performance of Joe’s Garage at the Lion’s Den in Greenwich Village: “A handful of Zappa tribute bands perpetuate his music, but the group that comes closest to capturing the spirit of his live performances is Project/Object.”

Zappa’s band always seemed to include a guy he would label “impossible guitarist” — a Steve Vai or Mike Kinnealy or Warren Cucurrulo that could realize his ridiculously difficult guitar parts at will. “In our band, we call Robert Mangano our ‘impossible guitarist,'” says Cholmondeley. “He’s got a great ear and a great musical mind.”

With crowds continuing to grow and the musical support of former Zappa band members like Willis, Kinnealy, Cucurrulo and Denny Walling, it’s likely this Project will continue:

“It’s funny, because a couple of us are right on the brink of breaking into professional music,” claims Cholmondeley. “For some of us it’s a hobby, and some of us are actually looking to expand. We all do other music and play with other bands, and we write original music and perform it, and some of us are even in bands together on the side. [But] covers are never going to go away. People have a fascination, myself included, with going out and seeing cover bands. The music is what you want to hear. It’s great to see the original guys do it, but if they’re not around, or they don’t tour, I think it’s great. I go see cover bands all the time — both on a professional level, to take notes, see what works and doesn’t work, but also just to enjoy it.”

Confiding that even Zappa himself lost a lot of money taking bands out on the road, Cholmondeley calls Project/Object “a labor of love.” Clearly smitten by the sheer diversity of Zappa’s own projects, Cholmondeley also reveres the message behind the music: “He wasn’t afraid to say some pretty pointed stuff politically and socially, and that attracted me, too.”

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