Ed Mann discusses his first assignment for the meticulous master, Frank Zappa

‘There is only one way to stay prepared to play Frank’s music: practice the parts’. Those the wise words of Ed Mann – percussionist and keyboard player who, since first working with Frank Zappa forty years ago this month – has been devoted to his music and conveying its brilliance.

He appears alongside sixties-era Mothers saxophonist Bunk Gardner and keyboard magician Don Preston at Band on the Wall on 24th April, completing a band that with drummer Chris Garcia, promises to present Zappa’s music in all of its grandeur.

‘The original Mothers of Invention was (in part) an experimental music ensemble’ Mann tells us as we begin discussing the musical legacy of his senior bandmates. ‘For me it [their story] is all said in the way they create music’. It can’t have been an easy world to the young percussionist to have stepped into, when in 1977, Frank Zappa needed overdubs to be made on his Zappa in New York live record. ‘It was March’ Mann tells us ‘and Frank wanted to do percussion overdubs on Terry Bozzio’s solo version of the Black Page. He had Ruth [Underwood] and he wanted a few more percussionists so he called John Bergamo (who was my teacher when I attended CalArts) and asked him to bring someone else along too so I was fortunate enough to be the one John asked.’

That was Mann’s in and he was elated! Discussing what was necessary on the session, he explained ‘We brought all kinds of “found Objects” percussion: pieces of sheet metal, wood, pipes and car brake drums. We layed all the stuff out so Frank could hear it. He gave a little bit of direction, we recorded a few passes, made a few changes and that was it. Frank was happy.’

The session was adjourned with the parts were in the bag and the crew went to dinner, but could Mann be certain of his long term future with the group? ‘Three months later Frank was putting a new band together and couldn’t find a keyboard player he was happy with, so he put out feelers through Ruth [Underwood, Zappa percussionist 1967-77], who called me to see if I knew anyone.  I did of course, Tommy Mars. So I called Ruth to give her Tommy’s number and she told me to call Frank directly, so I did, and he invited my up to his house immediately for a “jam session”. It was 1 am, the marimba was set up in the middle of the big room. Peter Wolf and Adrian Belew were there. Frank ran me thru a few things, asked me to read the marimba part to Montana. and then said “great! you want to be in the band?” A week later he hired Tommy too.’

So began a fifteen-year working relationship between Mann and Zappa, that saw Ed appear on over twenty albums before Frank’s untimely passing in 1993. He couldn’t select just the one piece that encapsulates the excellence of Zappa’s writing, but said ‘Really any of the extended instrumental passages. Alien Orifice, Sinister Footwear…in a different stylistic vein…Strictly Genteel. In yet another, The Grand Wazoo’. When you know the music so well, have journeyed so far with it and still play it today, it’s understably an impossible task!

The Grandmothers of Invention will perform live at Band on the Wall on 24th April.