Another birthday, another Mothers saxophonist, and it’s none other Ian Underwood, who hits the big 8-0 today. So let’s talk about one of the Mothers’ secret weapons.
Ian Robertson Underwood (May 22, 1939 in New York City, New York) developed an interest in jazz, eventually co-forming a jazz outfit called The Jazz Mice. In 1961, Ian graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree, followed by a master in music composition from the University of California at Berkeley.
During the famed Garrick Theatre run, Ian caught two shows before approaching drummer Jimmy Carl Black about joining the Mothers. Black would introduce him to Frank, who invited Ian to audition. This would later be documented on “Ian Underwood Whips It Out” off Uncle Meat.
As the first sight reader in the band, Ian helped Zappa realize his ideas much more fully than previously possible, setting in motion the standard of musicianship that Zappa’s band would become known for. A gifted multi-instrumentalist, Ian’s role in the Mothers often switched between alto sax, winds, and keyboard instruments depending on the album and tour.
After the Mothers’ breakup, Frank invited Ian and Art Tripp to stay on board, though the latter declined in favor of performing with Captain Beefheart. By staying on, Ian would bridge the gap between The Mothers and Frank’s subsequent groups.
After taking part in the Hot Rats and Flo and Eddie bands, Ian would take a lesser role in the Wazoo band, only participating in the tour on synthesizer, as well as the very beginnings of the famed Roxy Band, playing winds on Over-Nite Sensation before ending his association with Frank in 1973.
Since then, Ian has made a name for himself as a session keyboardist and synth programmer, particularly in the world of film soundtrack. Among the films he’s worked on are Titanic, Braveheart, Avatar, and Honey I Shrunk The Kids, Aliens, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas! Along these credits are performances with the likes of Janet Jackson, Peggy Lee, Quincy Jones, The Carpenters, and Jean-Luc Ponty. He was also a member of Beefheart’s band for a very brief time on guitar, as documented by John “Drumbo” French’s memoir.
Have a good 80th, Ian! You’ve earned it.