Ian Underwood – Free Lance Energizer

By Lee Underwood

DownBeat, 19 May 1977

“When I heard Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention for the first time,” said keyboardist/composer Ian Underwood, “I immediately fell in love.

“It was August of 1966. I was staying at my sister’s apartment in Manhattan. She was going to the Garrick Theater in the Village to hear them. I never listen to the radio, nor was I up on any pop or rock groups at all. I didn’t know anything about Zappa or the Mothers, who was in it, what it was, or what they did.

“The moment I heard them, however, I knew Zappa’s music was the closest thing to what really interested me then – that combination of Stravinsky, blues, Hindemith, goofy lyrics, Ornette Coleman, corny jokes and Stockhausen. That’s exactly what I liked: complex music with bizarre humor.”

Underwood (no relation to this writer) stepped backstage at the Garrick and talked with Frank and the members of the band. Two days later, he visited the uptown studio where Frank was beginning to record We’re Only In It For The Money.

“When I told Frank I wanted to play in the band, he asked me what I could do. I told him I had graduated from Yale in 1961 with a B.A. in Composition; that I had just graduated that year (1966) from the University of California, Berkeley, with a Masters in Composition; and that I played piano and organ and all of the saxophones, flute, alto flute and clarinet.

“He gave me some keyboard music and had me play it. Don Preston already played keyboards in the band, but reading was not one of his stronger points. I could read, so the first things I did were keyboards, then horns, then combinations of both. It was perfect timing for Frank and me, and a good combination. I stayed with him from 1966 to 1972, then played with him intermittently.

“That whole experience was growing up for me,” said Underwood. “The first record was We’re Only In It For The Money, then all the others, including Hot Rats, one of my favorites, which was essentially just Frank and me; I also especially liked Burnt Weenie Sandwich, Uncle Meat and 200 Motels.

“Playing with Frank was my first contact with the real world of music, outside of the schools. Musically, it was both demanding and fun. Socially, it was a new environment.”

The words “new environment” constitute something of an understatement. Zappa was the notorious and outlandish rock ’n’ roll High Priest of ’60s Grunge. By contrast, Ian Underwood was an educated, soft-spoken, Hollywood-handsome charmer, born in New York City, May 22, 1939, and raised in Rye, New York, on the poshy upper-middle-class North Shore of Long Island Sound. His father was a commuting executive for Republic Steel.

At the age of five, young Underwood toddled about in front of the speakers, intoxicated by Arthur Schnabel and Arthur Rubenstein recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. “I don’t know why,” he said, “but I loved piano music immediately. We had a piano in the house, and I started taking classical piano lessons.”

When he turned 14, he augmented his musical trick-bag by taking up clarinet, flute, and the alto and tenor saxophones. He also expanded his musical interests to include Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Horace Silver and Jackie McLean.

After high school he attended Choate Prep School in Wallingford, Connecticut. “Bassist Steve Swallow was also going to Choate,” Underwood smiled. “We’d get up at three o’clock in the morning and sneak down to the basement of the chapci. He’d play bass and I’d play alto sax until six in the morning, crawling back to bed when the sun rose.”

On a scholarship Underwood attended the Lennox School of Jazz, where he met and heard Ornette Coleman for the first time.

“Swallow and I then both went to Yale, where we’d do the same thing we did at Choate: we’d drive down to New York and listen to Ornette’s trio play in the Village until four in the morning, then drive all the way back to school with no sleep at all. I would say that for the next four years, Ornette Coleman was a major influence on my thinking, on the way I played, and on what I was interested in.”

Academically, Underwood initially attempted to follow his parents’ advice. He studied electrical engineering and mathematics, “because those were the areas my father was most interested in. But music drew me back. After I earned my Masters, I decided school was not for me any longer, nor was I going to teach. I decided to launch myself out.”

He returned to New York City, met Zappa, and began what has become a continually escalating musical career.

With Zappa, Ian was more of a performer than a composer. “At first, my full energy went into Frank’s music. Playing his music my way was a tremendous education for me. Then, gradually, my interests became separated from that. Finally, it became more important for me not to be in the band. In 1972, I went into L.A. studio work as a synthesizer player only – no horns. Everything, of course, moves in stages, and soon it will be more important for me to spend less time in the studios and more time composing and playing on my own.”

As a studio musician specializing in synthesizers, 38-year-old Underwood has recorded with Alphonso Johnson, Norman Connors, Lee Ritenour, Alphonse Mouzon, the Brothers Johnson, John Lee and Gerry Brown, Ambrosia, Willie Tee and numerous others.

He has played on soundtracks for such films as Rocky, Marathon Man, Three Days Of The Condor, Outlaw Josie Wales and The Enforcer. “Movies are my favorite projects,” he said, “because I get to play more. And I often do some writing. My best and most personal writing so far, however, has perhaps been in a couple of comparatively small films. Off The Edge, a documentary on skiing and hang-gliding in New Zealand, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1977. I also did some writing on a short five-minute unreleased film called Owen, starring Karen Black.”

Before playing with Zappa, Ian Underwood knew nothing about synthesizers. Today, he owns a four-voice (soon to be six-voice) Oberheim Polyphonic with a programmer, an ARP 2600, a Minimoog, and an ARP String Ensemble. With these keyboards he uses an Echoplex, a Roland Space Echo, two Marshall Time Modulators and a Mu-Tron BiPhase as effects.

His modified Rhodes 88 Stage Model electric piano divides the keyboard’s output into low, middle and high, with a switch that enables him to play with the normal stereo as well.

When he was performing live, he used a Marshall Bass Amp. In the studios, however, he used “just an old Benson tube amp with one large 15-inch speaker in it for monitoring. That old Benson serves everything, because I’m not doing any onstage performing now.”

What does a dedicated, educated lover and performer of classical music and acoustic jazz feel about contemporary electronics in music?

“The instrument is just the instrument, that’s all,” said Underwood. “It’s what you do with it that counts. Synthesizers vastly expand the ranges of available sounds. Sitting in front of a machine that works right is like sitting in front of an orchestra.

“For me, the quality of the sound is not an end in itself. It’s just a means to an end. In fact, I’m not at all preoccupied with any of the synthesizers that I have, or with any of the sounds that they can make. The synthesizer is just another thing to me to say what I want to say, to make the music that’s inside my head.

“I don’t agree with those who assert that synthesizer players lose their individuality, become anonymous or play mechanical-sounding music.

“The synthesizer is not ‘impersonal,’ not by any means. In any field, not just music, you can create a tool, an impersonal thing, an object. If it doesn’t have a ‘personality’ to begin with that is only because someone hasn’t come along to give it one. Nothing ‘means’ anything until we make it mean something.

“When you start comparing instruments, they are all limited one way or another. It is not fair to say, ‘Synthesizers have limitations.’ Sure, they do. But so does anything else. It is very difficult on synthesizers, for example, to approach that certain quality of sound that an acoustic instrument has. Therefore, instead of criticizing the synthesizers for not sounding like an acoustic instrument, you compare among acoustic instruments, searching for the ones you have the most control over.

“Maybe you think it’s the violin. With the violin you have the vibrato, every area of pitch, the bow, etc. You could say, ‘Why doesn’t everybody play the violin? Who would ever want to play a piano, where all you can do is hit a note? You can’t even do a glissando on a piano. What kind of instrument is that?’

“Just as there are qualitative differences between acoustic instruments, so there are qualitative differences between synthesizers. So it’s a circuit, so it’s a string, what’s the difference? In the end, it’s the sound that counts and what you do with it.

“In a way, involvement in music means checking out the different sounds that are available; whatever that sound is, use it. The synthesizer happens to be a certain kind of collection of sounds. It’s not qualitatively that much different from hitting automobile brake drums or dropping a bunch of rubbish on the floor or stumbling through bamboo curtains. It’s what you do with the sound that turns it into music.

“At the moment, my new favorite is the Oberheim Polyphonic synthesizer. Its range of possibilities and the ways of getting at them are enormous, and it’s an easy machine to work with.

“Sometimes I don’t get to a switch or a button on time, but I never feel lost. As far as I’m concerned, you do the mechanics often enough so that you just don’t think about them. The mechanics are just part of what you have to do in order to get what you want to get. You just do it. and that’s the end of it.

“The easier it is, the better it is. Therefore, I add pedals and switches so that I can get what I want instantly. I modify the machine in terms of live performance. I don’t want to sit in the recording studio and say, ‘I know how to get that sound. It will take me only three minutes.’ I want to get it in half a second by pushing a button or a pedal. That’s it: there’s the sound.

“There is no conilict for me between electric and acoustic instruments. I love both the acoustic and the electric pianos. When I practice, it’s almost always on the acoustic piano. I keep my touch on acoustic piano by making a personal decision as to how much time I’m going to spend on what.

“Sure, people specialize, some by becoming more and more refined on one instrument or in one area of music.

“The other way is to specialize in a sort of thought process. The thought process then realizes itself in different areas. In other words, you’re not spreading yourself too thin. You’re specializing somewhere; it just comes out in a different way. If you’re a composer, you don’t always have to write for an acoustic piano. You can write for other things as well.

“At this time, electronic music is new. In the future, however. I think it’s going to become more accessible to everybody, and I think it’s going to be much more flexible.

“Because of technology, anybody at all who wants an electronic musical instrument will have access to one. The instruments will be very, very sophisticated, and they will also be inexpensive. Technology already advances so fast that a new product is obsolete by the time it appears on the market.”

Ian Underwood’s evolution has thus far been clear: he began as a classicist, expanded to avant garde jazz, gained invaluable performing and recording experience with Frank Zappa and now finds himself in the inner circle of the Hollywood/New York recording plants. Was it difficult for him to crack through?

“Well,” said Ian, “there is always a first job. Mine was with Earl Hagen on Mod Squad. After that, I did Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. From then on. it was just a matter of answering the telephone. I made no point at all in hustling studio work.

“Working in the studios also has its cycles. At first, you are just a recommended name at the bottom of the list. They go through everybody else first; then, if they are not available, they might try you. ‘Let’s try Ian Underwood,’ they say. You go in and do the job. The next time they say, ‘Who was that guy we had last time? Ian Underwood? Call him.’ Pretty soon, they say, ‘We need Ian Underwood for this part. Call him. What? He’s already booked and we have to change the session schedule? Change it.’ Time goes by and you work a lot. Then they start saying, ‘Get me somebody who plays like Ian Underwood but is young.’ Then they say, ‘Whatever happened to Ian Underwood?’

“If a young musician comes from Tulsa to L.A. and he wants to get into studio work, he should first have his technique together. He might then get in touch with other professional musicians who play the same instrument. Then he should take any job he can get in the studios. Because recommendations are essential, he should play every place he can – clubs, union rehearsal bands, jam sessions, etc. And when he does get his first few studio sessions, he should be very professional: he’s got to be on immediately.”

Any forest has its demons. Perhaps the most beguiling and seductive demon of the studio forest is money. Have Ian’s present lucrative activities in the studios tended to detract from his dreams of becoming a successful composer?

“Yes,” said Ian, “but I must immediately qualify that. I have not felt ready yet to orient my time toward what I want to do for myself. What I am doing now is by choice. It is not a matter of having become locked into this situation. Working in the studios is my second professional learning experience, the first being with Zappa and the Mothers.

“Playing such a wide variety of musics, most of which I am not truly interested in, would become highly annoying to me if I were oriented toward spending more and more of my time doing what I personally wanted to do. However, studio work is good for me at this time and therefore it is not annoying to me.

“It keeps me in town. I don’t have to go on the road. I can be home with my wife Ruth, who is also a musician, a percussionist, and a graduate of Julliard. It enables me to see my 10-year-old daughter, Nora, who lives with my former wife, Phyllis.

“From the money I’ve earned, I’ve bought a place that has a separate studio. It has all of my musical equipment in it, and if I have three hours, five hours, all day, the rest of the house can be empty or have 10,000 people in it. That doesn’t mean anything, because I can work in my studio. That is the logic of studio work.

“True, many of the studio musicians I work with spend their union breaks discussing swimming pools instead of music. That is fine for them, but not for me. From my perspective, the main thing that interests me is the music in my own head and my own reaction to other music that I hear.

“I’m not emotionally interested in swimming pools. I’m not emotionally interested in vacations here or there. I’m not emotionally interested in any extensions of those things at all. Nor am I making any value judgments on anyone else’s relationship to those things. It just seems to me that you have to decide how and where to spend your time.

“Every day you have to say, ‘Okay, what’s going on in my head and my feelings? What am I going to do with the time that I have? What am I going to do about that music that is in there?’

“If I feel that I am doing something about that, even though I may go and play some music that to me is not a personal emotional experience, I can still sit there and think about what I want to do. Charles Ives was an insurance salesman who went home and wrote music for two bands at once, or whatever else he wanted. And he wrote great music.

“In other words, it is not necessarily the externals of the situation that dictate what you are going to do. If a person feels he is getting locked into it, then he shouldn’t do it. When I feel the pressure in me to make the switch, when it is more important for me to spend less time in the studio and more time on my own, then I’ll just do it.

“For some people, Zappa for example, the motivation to compose and record is right out front and close to the surface. However, that area is a little difficult for me to get at. It takes time. I don’t want to go in and do an album just to do it. I know what my own pace is, and, when I’m ready, I’ll do it.

“Meanwhile, with my mind oriented toward that one goal, I play music – all of which is by no means worthless or a waste of time. I make a good living. And I have good experiences with a wide variety of excellent musicians.”



with Frank Zappa
HOT RATS – Bizarre RS 6356
CHUNGA’S REVENGE – Bizarre MS 2030
UNCLE MEAT – Bizarre 2MS 2024
FILLMORE EAST – Warners MS 2042
200 MOTELS – United Artists UAS 9956
APOSTROPHE – Disc Reet – OS 2175

with Norman Connors

with Alphonso Johnson
MOONSHADOWS – Epic PE 3411 8

with John Lee & Gerry Brown

with the Brothers Johnson

with Alphonse Mouzon

with Willie Tee

with Jean-Luc Ponty
KING KONG – World Pacific ST 20172

with Ambrosia

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net