Frank Zappa

(Zappa Records)

I'm really happy I can say that the first two titles of the second batch of the new, improved, remastered-from-the-original-analog-master-tapes editions of the Zappa catalog, are really a triumph, the new remastering here working in the service of the music, with no unpleasant side-effects to speak of. Listeners will so be able to enjoy two albums that for once really deserve the word "masterpiece".

In a way, these albums could be considered as "twins", though they do not really resemble each other a whole lot, more for circumstances pertaining to their birth. These two albums are part of any "Best Rock Albums" list, by the way - even if one could speculate that younger listeners nowadays could have some trouble filing some of the music featured on Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo under "rock", this will be just one surprising factor for them, of many.

And we could also argue that had the dramatic events of an extra musical nature that hit Zappa not happened, maybe said albums would never been born - and what a great loss that would be! A quick summary follows.

Even if it preceded them when it comes to their release dates, Hot Rats (1969) told us more about Zappa's future than Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh. The new "rock" chapter was confirmed by Chunga's Revenge and by a long string of live concerts, with excerpts being released on albums such as Fillmore East - June 1971 and Just Another Band From L.A., with the movie, and the movie soundtrack, called 200 Motels, for orchestra, choir, and rock group, sitting in the middle.

But things don't always go as planned. On December 4th, 1971, a fire at the Casino de Montreux, Switzerland, destroyed the group's instrumentation, Don Preston's Mini-Moog included (having been modified, the instrument was one-of-a-kind). (Deep Purple sang about it on Smoke On The Water, whose riff everybody have listened to at least once, with many attempting to play it right.) One week after those events, while the group was performing at the famed Rainbow Theatre, in London, using rented instruments, somebody jumped onstage and pushed Zappa into the orchestra pit, Zappa suffering injuries such as an head concussion, various fractures on his back and legs, and a crushed larynx

Waka/Jawaka (an onomatopoeic title if there ever was one) was the first of the two albums that Frank Zappa recorded at Paramount Studios, in Los Angeles, the skilled Kerry McNabb acting as the engineer. For the most part, the musicians featured in the most recent line-up of The Mothers had parted their ways, so - making good use of said circumstances - Zappa was free to conceive a studio album featuring a variable line-up. A fact which could explain - but maybe it was also Zappa's intention to make the album appear as being different from his most recent albums from that era? - the circumstance of the new work being linked to Hot Rats, an album that both critics and the general audience had appeared to like a lot more than it was customary for those works released under the old Mothers Of Invention moniker. Hence, an album cover that explicitly mentions "Rats" - just check the sink -, and the album being released under Zappa's name - no Mothers. It has also to be noticed that in the original edition on vinyl the full title that appeared on the album side and on the label was Waka/Jawaka - Hot Rats.

In truth, a few familiar faces appear. From the penultimate edition of the Mothers, Zappa called keyboard player George Duke, and Don Preston is featured on his brand-new Mini-Moog, with brilliant results. There's a new name appearing on slide guitar, Tony Duran. There's a young, quite gifted trumpet player, Sal Marquez, who'll also play on The Grand Wazoo album and who'll be part, the following year, of the great line-up that went on tour, having recorded the fine, communicative, album titled Over-Nite Sensation. And what about the rhythm section? Zappa decided to keep extraordinary drummer Aynsley Dunbar, who had first appeared on a Zappa album on Chunga's Revenge. On bass? Well..., Erroneous, a musician that today is said to be identified as Alex Dmochowsky, a Dunbar regular collaborator (just check the album by The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation titled To Mum, From Aynsley And The Boys, from 1969), here going under this strange moniker for lack - it's just speculation on my part - of work permits. (I'm sure somebody out there is quite familiar with the solid, inventive, performance given by Dmochowsky on Peter Green's once highly-celebrated first solo album titled The End Of The Game.)

The album's sides are quite dissimilar, with a long instrumental piece filling Side One and three shorter pieces - two songs, one instrumental - appearing on Side Two. Zappa is not featured on vocals, this being probably due to his larynx damages after the fall, but all vocals sound quite "familiar" in style and interpretation, which tells of a precise, close-up direction.

At more than seventeen minutes, the dark and somewhat sinister sonic painting titled Big Swifty is a "one-of-a-kind" moment in the Zappa catalogue, and one of the most beautiful pages in Rock Music. It opens with a fast-paced, difficult-to-perform theme, featuring the fanfare of Sal Marquez's multiple layered trumpets. Tempo gets slower, and it's time for George Duke to play a solo on the electric piano - a Fender Rhodes, of course, whose sound is made even more interesting and original by the use of an echoplex and a ring modulator. Here the musical language is "jazz", but in my opinion Zappa's background in "rock/contemporary" makes the whole a lot more interesting than comparable works of the same period that looked at "rock" from "jazz".

A beautiful trumpet solo follows, then Sal Marquez is joined by Zappa's guitar, appearing in the opposite channel, the guitar having a dark, throaty timbre (just my guess: the neck pick-up of a Gibson SG through a wha-wha pedal) - a fact which makes paying attention to what's played even more interesting for the listener. Zappa's intelligent arrangement couples his "dark"-sounding guitar with the "clear" timbre of Tony Duran's Bluesy slide, the group joining the action. Dunbar's drums give fine backing and an assertive push, with great use of cymbals (Dunbar's swing is propulsive but "hard"-sounding, a very successful translation of a jazz move into the rock idiom), with a very fine performance by... Erroneous.

A dry snare shot signals the transition to the theme reprise, with many "relaxed contraptions" (a nice oxymoron!), then it's solo trumpet again, then it's time for Zappa's percussion and Duke's piano to take us to the guitar strums that end the piece.

Intro by the rhythm section, with vocals and guitar backed by winds, the ironic Your Mouth is a light Blues that works as a fine opener for the album's second side.

Things get quite a bit more complex with It Just Might Be A One-Shot Deal, which features fine multi-timbral, layered, vocal parts; an intelligent division of labour for four guitars; and a great, intelligent moment after a pedal steel solo by "Sneaky Pete" Kleinow, who at the time was a first-call session man when it came to "country-tinged" steel guitar.

Waka/Jawaka says a lot in just eleven minutes. A fantastic wind section opens the piece, sounding very much like a Big Band, though the theme sounds like pure Zappa. There's a fine solo by Sal Marquez, Zappa's guitar tracing the chord progression - a role it plays elsewhere on the album - with a fine contribution by Dunbar on snare and hi-hat. Don Preston's Mini-Moog solo opens quite dramatically, it then makes intelligent use of different filter settings, all sounding quite tense and "dark" (and listen to that "Tarantella"-like passage, a rhythmic figure that Zappa greatly favoured at the time). After the long, "held" note, with filter modulation that closes Preston's solo, Zappa's entrance on guitar sounds just like sunlight, the whole solo showing a complex, clear development that still sounds amazing today. (It's a quite dense solo, compositionally.) A "Big Band" explosion follows, then it's time for an original drum solo by Dunbar, which gets progressively faster, and then lands on a slower wind section. It's a highly intelligent solution, which gives the winds and the rhythm section a base from which to accelerate, those hits on the bass drum, and the electric bass, bringing the theme to a mood that quite resembles a Western soundtrack, those bells taking us to the fade-out, which brings the track, and the album, to its close.

How does it sound, you ask? Incredibly good. A thousand times better than the Rykodisc edition. The new mastering, by Doug Sax and associates, brought me back to my vinyl - the most recent copy in my possession being an original LP on Bizarre/Reprise pressed forty years ago. They sound really similar, but of course the new remaster is quite more clear-sounding when it comes to the wind section, especially in the last track. Lotsa level, and - as it's to be expected nowadays - a bit too much bass for my taste, just a minor complaint on my part.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2012 | Oct. 8, 2012