Frank Zappa
Imaginary Diseases

(Zappa Records)

"Right from the early days of The Mothers (roughly from 1964), I was interested in forming a sort of electric orchestra - an orchestra capable of performing difficult compositions with an intensity of sound normally associated with pop music."

At the moment when this statement by Frank Zappa appeared in print (in the pages of Reprise Circular, Volume 4, Number 40, October 9, 1972), his dream had already become a wonderful reality called Grand Wazoo: a large line-up (twenty players!) that added a multitude of wind and brass instruments to the usual rock arsenal. During the month of September, The Grand Wazoo played more than half a dozen dates, both in Europe and in the United States, all very well received by both audience and critics, playing a program consisting of both unreleased compositions as well as some known numbers - with new arrangements, of course. The only new composition in some way resembling the new Grand Wazoo that the audience could in any way be familiar with was Big Swifty, a number which had appeared on the (at the time) recently released (and really excellent) LP called Waka/Jawaka; while the album that was to be named after this giant line-up was still to be released, with other new material that had been performed during that tour destined to remain unreleased for some time.

To put it in a nutshell, the material which appeared on vinyl in 1972 combined in an elegant and mature way (and since it's Zappa we're talking about, it goes without saying there's nothing "tentative" here) some sounds and strategies that can only be filed under "jazz", and melodic and rhythmic idiosyncrasies that are peculiar to Zappa's highly individual style. Sure, there had been some precedents in the Zappa canon - for instance, King Kong, the wide post-Coltrane canvas which had filled the whole Side Four of Uncle Meat, or the much-acclaimed album Hot Rats; but the number of players featured here made for a totally different outcome. It was impossible not to notice the effortless combination of Big Band traits and post-free freedom of expression (and listen to the way a "classic-sounding" trombone solo is placed on top of the quicksand of Aynsley Dunbar's drum backing...).

We have to recall that this amazing chapter in the Zappa story stems al least in part from quite sad circumstances: the injuries sustained by Zappa after his falling from the stage of the Rainbow Theatre in London (he was pushed) on December, 10, 1971. Hence, hospitalization, wheelchair, cast, and the split of the (so-called) "vaudeville band", starring Flo & Eddie.

Those were obviously different times: while searching for reviews and the like, I found about thirty pages of concert reviews that had appeared at the time, of both The Grand Wazoo and The Petit Wazoo (what's a Petit Wazoo, you say? Just wait a minute, please). But let's not look at life with pink-coloured glasses, OK? Let's read what Walter Becker had to say during a Steely Dan interview by David Breskin which appeared in Musician magazine, # 31 - March 1981 (Gaucho having just been released): "The concerts are for the kids. The concert is where the party is. There's where the kids go, whoever may be playing. For instance, at one point we were opening for Frank Zappa, and he had a band with like nine brass instruments that no one knew the names of, a sarouzaphone soloist, a drummer reading the charts -  a very arcane thing - and it wasn't worth it, but the point was: everyone was there and the hall was filled because that's where the party was, and that's where everybody went to do drugs." (Robert Fripp expressed similar thoughts about the US concerts played by King Crimson in '74.)

After the end of the Grand Wazoo tour in September '72, Zappa proceeded to halve the line-up for another tour in the months of October, November and December of the same year; the new tentet performed a quite varied repertory, with some sung numbers, a very precise ensemble work, and many solos by all performers. It appears that this "reduced" line-up performed under various names, but never used the "Petit Wazoo" tag; but it's exactly this name that has become the one regularly used by all Zappa fans.

The only negative part of this glorious period is the fact that absolutely no official documentation exists of those live dates. And even talking about bootlegs, the only one I've heard about was said to feature part of the first concert of the Grand Wazoo tour, September, 10, '72, at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. In the course of an interview that took place many years later, Zappa said that all Grand Wazoo concerts had been recorded in a professional, but not quite hi-fi, way, so it was obvious that when it came to deciding what material to release, it was definitely other stuff which came first.

Readers can imagine my surprise when - about a couple of months ago, while doing a search (in vain) about possible reviews of the just-released CD of guitar solos called Trance-Fusion - I casually got to know about the existence of an officially released CD featuring Petit Wazoo material called Imaginary Diseases, which had already been out... for a year! Sure, there are many issues one could refer to here, the most significant being that, while the first albums which had appeared after Zappa's death (Civilization Phaze III, The Lost Episodes, Everything Is Healing Nicely) had been of a very high quality, and of potential interest to many, the same cannot really be said of those albums that came later (FZ:OZ, Halloween, Joe's Corsage, QuAUDIOPHILIAc, Joe's Domage, Joe's XMASage); here one can draw his/her own conclusions. Having a strong anti-ulcer product at hand, one could formulate an auxiliary hypothesis: that this is nothing but a consequence of the vastness of the Web, where all that can be considered to fall in the "niche" dept. becomes totally invisible due to the immense amount of information that's available.

This was the Petit Wazoo line-up (which is obviously the same line-up featured on Imaginary Diseases): Frank Zappa, conductor, guitar; Tony Duran, slide guitar; Malcolm McNabb, trumpet; Gary Barone, trumpet, flügelhorn; Tom Malone, trumpet, tuba, saxophone; Bruce Fowler, trombone; Glenn Ferris, trombone; Earle Dumler, oboe, saxophones, contrabass sarrusophone; Dave Parlato, bass; Jim Gordon, drums. At the time when The Grand Wazoo was active, it was Jim Gordon's presence that I found puzzling: being used at listening to Aynsley Dunbar's polyrhythmic approach, the more linear - though obviously quite skilled - approach chosen by Gordon on albums by groups such as Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs And Englishmen, Eric Clapton's Derek And The Dominoes and Traffic appeared to me as painfully inadequate to the vastness of the work that had to be done - even if the gigantic gap between Gordon's and Jim Keltner's performances on the Jack Bruce album Out Of The Storm should have told me something. I'll only say that Gordon's work on Imaginary Diseases is a joy.

So, where does all this material come from? The CD liner notes are very clear: all tracks recorded live, no overdubs, all mixed and edited by Zappa. Joe Travers has chosen and sequenced what we hear. There's something here that to me sounds as a bit too simple, but this is a line of reasoning I'll (maybe) pursue at another time. I'll immediately say that the visual part is a bit too much on the Spartan side: no group pictures or else, with a punishing look, totally uninviting. Kudos for the intelligent choice of the material: here we don't have the umpteenth version (even if with horns) of the same old stuff, Travers gives us for the most part unreleased material, all first class. The sound quality is definitely on the acceptable side.

The album starts with sounds fading in: voices, trumpets with mutes, trombones with plungers, drums playing time, hands clapping, voices in the audience going AAAAAHH alongside a trombone solo; the liner notes say Oddients, but to me this tiny piece (just 1'13") sounds like an excerpt from the quite longer Little Dots, here given a new title, in a moment of "audience participation time".

Abrupt transition, and we go to Rollo (3'21"). To me, it sounds like an excerpt from a longer piece: in fact, the track is quite short, and without any vocals - quite the opposite of what was typical during that tour. It starts with a lyrical melody played (I think!) by Earl Dumler on sarrusophone, with a Zappa-flavoured counterpoint from the other wind instruments, the result being quite similar to some parts of 200 Motels. Beautiful orchestration, and nice wind arpeggios backed by bass and drums.

Less ambitious, but no less beautiful for it, Been To Kansas City In A Minor (10'15") is a slow blues: nice trumpet solo (Gary Barone?), with the rhythm guitar plying a strong backing; nice guitar solo by Tony Duran, playing more regular subdivisions than Zappa's; a very good trombone solo (by Glenn Ferris, I think), at first calm, then progressively more agitated, with the other wind instruments doing a nice backing job; then a solo by Zappa, with nice blues "bending" on the verge of feedback and a masterful use of the wha-wha pedal.

When it comes to composing ambitions, variety, balancing of the elements, and instrumental contributions from all those involved, the long Farther O'Blivion (16'02") is without a doubt the high point of the album. A complex theme played by the group, melodic phrases by Zappa, a theme for winds, then a nice tuba solo by Tom Malone, who explores the outer ranges of the instrument. Then we have the Be-Bop Tango theme, with a dense orchestration and a nice trumpet performance by Michael McNabb, also a very personal trombone solo by Bruce Fowler, backed by a "swing" rhythm section and by winds which go up in intensity, in the end enveloping the trombone. Very good drum solo by Gordon (maybe with a little help from Zappa in the compositional dept.?), with a clear and dry drum timbre and resonating cymbals. The theme from Cucamonga ends the piece.

D.C. Boogie (13'27") starts with a guitar arpeggio and a regular backing, and then progressively becomes something in the vein of "raga rock", with the notes played Zappa being legato via feedback. It's a concentrated guitar solo, with the whole which slowly becomes similar to the Apostrophe' jam, of which in some ways it can be said to be a precursor. We have a typical audience "referendum" in order to choose the way the piece will end: and the winner is... Boogie! A slide solo by Duran, quite similar to the one he plays on The Grand Wazoo (the track), and a guitar solo by Zappa.

Imaginary Diseases (9'45") has a wonderful and spicy funky start, which is followed by a theme sounding halfway between the soundtrack of a western movie and that of a police movie. Then we have a guitar solo by Zappa, lively drums, counterpoint by the winds. The central part reminded me a lot of Hot Rats, particularly of The Gumbo Variations: just listen to the chord played by Duran on rhythm guitar, the solo by Zappa, the bass lick by Parlato. Incandescent finale, theme, and out.

Montreal (9'11") is a superb guitar solo in medium-slow time (that to me sounded quite a bit like a slower version of the guitar solo on The Orange County Lumber Truck), with some bluesy licks and variable-intensity picking overloading the tubes. In a way relaxed, with a hypnotic ride cymbal by Gordon. Entrance by Duran, not sounding banal, then a counterpoint by the winds, with trumpets playing staccato. The track closes with a joyous fanfare in double time.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2007 | Feb. 22, 2007