Finally, a Zappa album that's safe for the whole family!
Frank Zappa's pair of 1972 releases, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, stand as two of the most impressive and unusual in his sprawling catalogue. Forced to abandon live performing as a result of a crazed "fan" charging the stage and heaving him into an orchestra pit, the composer-bandleader spent nearly a year recovering from injuries to his face, head, ribs, arm, and leg. A wheelchair and a leg brace couldn't stop Zappa's prodigious creativity from flowing, though. His concept of an "electric orchestra" was born - a big band that could play jazz with the power and volume of rock. The off-color musical comedy of the past few years was put on hold as he pursued a different musical avenue. With the late 2022 release of the 4-CD/1-Blu-ray box set Waka/Wazoo, the recording process of Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo has been explored in revelatory depth.
To form the "electric orchestra," Zappa called on some old cohorts (drummer Aynsley Dunbar, keyboardists George Duke and Don Preston, percussionist Alan Estes, guitarist Jeff Simmons), along with many new faces (bassist Alex "Erroneous" Dmochowski, guitarist Tony Duran, percussionist Bob Zimmitti, and horn players Sal Marquez, Malcolm McNab, Kenny Shroyer, Earle Dumler, and Tony "Bat Man" Ortega).
Recording with the group began on April 10, 1972 at Paramount Studios, engineered by Kerry McNabb; by the end of the month, the ever-prolific Zappa had enough material for both albums. Waka/Jawaka, released in July, featured smaller combinations of musicians (6-9 players) and was intended as a loose sequel to 1969's Hot Rats. Just months later, in November, The Grand Wazoo would arrive - and it didn't skimp on the "grand." Its songs would feature units of between 8 and 20 musicians. Primarily instrumental jazz-fusion, both albums boasted appearances by big band and Broadway arranger Billy Byers; in addition to lending a rumored hand with the charts, he played the trombone solo on the epic title track of Wazoo.
The first two discs of Waka/Wazoo take the listener into Paramount Studios with a selection of alternate and early versions, sequenced in chronological order of recording. Most of these have been newly mixed by Craig Parker Adams in stereo, with clear and pronounced separation of instruments - so key to any understanding of this period. The set opens with the April 10, 1972 recording of the "Your Mouth," an excursion into the blues - with vocals provided by Chris Peterson and Sal Marquez - that ended up as the most atypical track on Waka/Jawaka.
The eventual centerpiece of Waka/Jawaka, "Big Swifty," filled all of Side One of the original record. It's heard here in a slightly shorter alternate take recorded on April 10. The performance is Zappa at his most intricate and fusion-minded, with Marquez playing "many [overdubbed] trumpets" alongside FZ, Tony Duran on slide, George Duke on electric piano, Alex Dmochowski on bass, and Aynsley Dunbar on drums. The central theme is played in alternating time signatures, with breathing room for scorching solos throughout. This is adventurous, amplified, improvisational jazz, not too far-removed from the style Miles Davis was exploring at the time.
"Minimal Art," a.k.a. Version 1, Take 2 of Grand Wazoo's "Eat That Question," was cut the following day, April 13. With a muscular guitar by FZ leading the way and anchored by a driving riff, this version features key differences in arrangement and feel than the final album take. Marquez's trumpet again soars and Dunbar thrashes the drums for a true jazz-rock mélange; Duke takes the keyboard on a cosmic trip. Around six weeks later, on May 24, Zappa and co. revisited "Eat That Question" during the George Duke sessions. This focused, spirited rendition, recorded just before the master take, premieres on CD 2; by this point, Duke's introduction to the song had taken shape.
The April 11 take of "Blessed Relief" is one of this collection's most glistening highlights. The soft, languid piece in waltz time lives up to its name, showcasing some particularly lovely playing from Marquez, burbling keys from Duke, and a slow-burning groove. The song would end up as a subtle respite on The Grand Wazoo. It's contrasted here by the freer jazz of "For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers)." This April 13 version has been cobbled together from remaining outtake source material, with its different sections not yet melded into a final form.
Marquez and Janet Neville-Ferguson provide brief chorus vocals to "Think It Over," which would become known in purely instrumental form as the title track of The Grand Wazoo. With full woodwind and brass sections along with the tight rhythm section, Zappa indulged his most extravagant musical fantasies on this expansive track, parts of which (including the "Think It Over" theme) were intended for his never-staged science-fiction musical Hunchentoot. The April 13 take conjures a joyful jazz noise, and some of its theatrical roots are evident in the more melodic passages.
Another exciting alternate is the title track of "Waka/Jawaka," a themes-and-variation piece spotlighting the virtuosity of the musicians led by a relatively subdued Zappa tossing off tasty licks, and Don Preston tickling the keys with aplomb. The session material is rounded out by a tight run through Grand Wazoo's short, brassy "Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus."
The box then peeks behind the curtain of the mixing stage with six alternate mixes from both LPs as preserved by Zappa on tapes including ones entitled Hot Rats - Reels I and II. Waka/Jawaka's "It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal," a relatively short vocal composition, skips merrily from genre to genre, boasting pedal steel from The Flying Burrito Brothers' "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow and Hawaiian guitar from Jeff Simmons. The alternate mix of "Waka/Jawaka" presents the song largely as originally recorded, with Don Preston's full keyboard solo and sans the overdubs added by Zappa to the final version, but does edit his guitar solo - it seems the band lost him - and inserts a dropped Moog drum solo. The mix of "Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus" is considerably fuller than the basic track, adding a freewheeling sense of fun and whimsy to the composition. (Legendary sax man Ernie Watts handles the happily honking solo.)
On May 23 and 24, 1972, Zappa produced a session for George Duke at Paramount, engineered by Kerry McNabb. The keyboardist was accompanied by FZ on guitar, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, Erroneous on bass, Sal Marquez on trumpet, Emil Richards or Bob Zimmitti on percussion, and a woodwind section as well as vocalist Chunky, a.k.a. Lauren Wood. They completed four tracks, all of which premiere here on CD 3 as sourced from the original quarter-inch stereo tape. "For Love (I Come Your Friend)" and the Duke/Zappa co-write "Uncle Remus" would both end up, in re-recorded form, on Duke's 1975 MPS album The Aura Will Prevail. (It was also recorded at Paramount with McNabb at the board.)
"For Love" had the most obvious commercial potential, with a breezy, Brazilian-infused air and vocals from Chunky in the silky Brasil '66 vein. "Psychosomatic Dung" is spikier, with some of Duke's fleetest work at the keys. The acoustic piano that opens "Uncle Remus," placing it in a gospel setting, immediately sets the track apart from the other tunes at the session. The song first appeared on Zappa's 1974 album Apostrophe, with biting lyrics touching on racial tensions and the hypocrisy of the rich for whom protest became fashionable rather than sincere. In instrumental form here, it's melodic and rollicking. Duke and Chunky both sing on the funky "Love," featuring some of FZ's most impressive guitar of the session. Early takes of the basic tracks for all three songs save "Uncle Remus" are included, as freshly mixed by Craig Parker Adams for additional crispness; the edgy guitar on "For Love" is one of the elements brought into clearer focus.
Following the Duke sessions, the third disc continues with the sprawling "Approximate" from the only 20-piece Grand Wazoo concert yet found in the vault. This Boston date on September 24, 1972 (featuring some of the studio players plus new recruits such as veteran studio drummer Jim Gordon) was released in full in 2007 as Wazoo, but this version is Zappa's own Record Plant Mix made in Los Angeles of the big-band performance.
The 10-piece Petite Wazoo tour gets a longer airing via the December 15 show at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom, newly mixed and mastered by John Polito. The roughly 80-minute concert is spread across the third and fourth discs. It's clear that the Petite Wazoo still packed a Grand punch due to the five-strong brass section (plus one woodwind player), Gordon's aggressive drumming, and Zappa's forceful vision, precisely executed, of a musically complex group rooted equally in jazz and rock. (The Petite Wazoo lineup has been documented on past releases including Imaginary Diseases and Little Dots.) The varied setlist reached back to 1967's Absolutely Free for "America Drinks," a satire of lounge jazz played with unexpected twists and intentionally woozy musicianship (though it still swings!) and to proven crowd-pleasers in newly arranged versions, among them "Montana" off Over-Nite Sensation (1973); "Cosmik Debris" and Farther O'Blivion" off Apostrophe (1974); and "Chunga's Revenge" from the 1970 album of the same name. The Winterland show was the final one for this iteration of the band, and ended the "Wazoo" era on a high note.
The final component of the box, a Blu-ray Audio disc, presents both the original Waka/Jawaka and Grand Wazoo in various mixes: 48/24 Dolby Atmos, 48/24 Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround, and 96/24 PCM Stereo. This disc has been produced by Joe Travers and Jeff Fura, with the surround mixes by Erich Gobel and Karma Auger at Studio1LA utilizing the original 16-track multitrack masters. The high-res stereo mixes are Doug Sax's 2012 masters from the original 2-track stereo tapes.
The TrueHD 5.1 surround mix is impressive, with good use of the rear channels and discrete placement of instruments taking full advantage of the enhanced soundscape. The mix places the listener in the center of the band for an up-close, intimate experience. With expansive orchestration, these albums are most uniquely suited within the Zappa discography for the surround sound treatment, and those who prefer surround on the more aggressive end of the spectrum should be more than satisfied with the immersive audio here. Note, however, that The Grand Wazoo is at a much lower volume than Waka/Jawaka for reasons unknown. (TSD isn't currently equipped to play the Atmos mix.)
Waka/Wazoo is housed in a small clamshell case with a lift-up lid. A 44-page booklet offers essays by "Vaultmeister" Joe Travers and Scott Parker as well as photos and memorabilia such as Zappa's hand-drawn diagram of where the musicians should be placed onstage. Each disc is housed in its own sleeve adorned with a unique photo of the artist. (In a nice touch, the Blu-ray sleeve is the only one in color, as if alluding to the added dimension of surround sound.)
The Wazoo bands would be far from the last musical experiment from Zappa in the realms of rock and jazz, but they remain among the most rightfully celebrated. Any fan of the bandleader-composer-guitarist at his most musically sophisticated would do well to check it out.