The Mothers
The Grand Wazoo

(Zappa Records)

As it's widely known, Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo, two of the most beautiful albums in the Zappa canon - "twin albums", so to speak, though they're quite different when it comes to the actual music they feature - can be said to have their starting point in a dramatic event: On December 10th, 1971, Frank Zappa was pushed offstage while performing at The Rainbow Theatre, in London. He fell into the orchestra pit - and, at first, he was believed to be dead. He suffered multiple fractures, head injuries, and a crashed larynx.

Let's have a look at Zappa's recorded output in 1972. In March, Just Another Band From L.A., a live album recorded the previous year, was released. In July, Waka/Jawaka - a great, almost totally instrumental, jazz-related studio album that in some ways could be placed side-by-side with the highly celebrated Hot Rats - was released. When, in November, The Grand Wazoo was released, things were already "back to normal", concerts losing money included. Zappa had assembled a giant line-up, which toured in September, then it was a ten-piece that gigged, still losing money. Those lucky enough to attend those concerts got to hear many unreleased pieces, most of them staying unreleased for a long time - not on bootleg, obviously - until the excellent CDs titled Imaginary Diseases and Wazoo were released, a few years back.

The first side of The Grand Wazoo is the most complex of the two. Here Zappa's compositional language reaches new peaks, well served by a clear recorded sound - it's Paramount Studios, Los Angeles, again, still with the skillful technical assistance of engineer Kerry McNabb - which puts the arrangements and the vivacious, polychromatic instrumental palette, featuring winds and percussion galore, under the best light. As it's only logical, the rhythm section - Aynsley Dunbar on drums and... Erroneous (real name: Alex Dmochowsky) on bass - is the same that was featured on Waka/Jawaka, which makes it possible for the material that appears on the new album to sound "jazzy... but not quite". We can also hear other familiar sounds: George Duke's electric piano, Don Preston's Mini-Moog, Tony Duran's slide guitar, Sal Marquez's trumpet. As it's to be expected, Zappa is on guitar, and here readers are advised to pay a little more attention to the role played by the guitars (a lot of them, semi-acoustics, by the way) on this album, with backgrounds and instrumental colours that, while quite original at the time, are even more valuable nowadays, now that the era of the plug-in has made us all become used to timbral solutions that are quite often shoddy and definitely not very creative.

The original album starts with a medium-length track titled For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers). It has a clear intro, guitars arpeggiating in the foreground, then a delicate vocal melody appears - but let's pay attention to those "odd-sounding" instrumental colours acting as counterpoint - then it's time for a long orchestral development. For this writer, this piece is one of the highest points ever reached by Frank Zappa, composer-arranger, with percussion, trombone, Mini-Moog, the wind section, and Dunbar's snare drum all combining to form a picture of great appeal (at times, one even has the impression to see the piece "float", such being Zappa's mastery when balancing the instrumental "weights").

The long The Grand Wazoo follows. It opens with a fine solo by Zappa on semi-acoustic guitar through a wha-wha pedal. Massive winds, a theme that stays in one's mind long after the record is over, some rock-blues, and an appropriately nasal slide guitar solo by Tony Duran. A written part that ends abruptly gives way to two fine solos: by Bill Byers on trombone, and by Sal Marquez on muted trumpet. Listen to those different languages - more "traditional", and Be-Bop, the one spoken by Byers; more "modern", and acerbic, the one spoken by Marquez - and listen to the way Zappa the arranger creates the most appropriate framework to better highlight each one, coupling a more measured performance by Dunbar with Byers solo, and a more "modern", agile, "dry" performance with Marquez's solo. Back to the theme, then it's time for a brief Mini-Moog solo - here Don Preston seems to channel Jimmy Smith's Hammond, but with... tuning problems - a final push by trombones, close.

Side Two is the more "rock"-sounding, opening with the brief, light, humorous, vocal (Zappa here making a brief apparition) track called Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus, which features a brief piano solo by George Duke and a bubbly solo by Ernie Watts on tenor, with a vivacious counterpoint by the wind section.

Things get a bit calmer with George Duke's Fender Rhodes intro to Eat That Question, with a fine thematic exploration which makes great use of "rubato". There's an explosive entrance by the rhythm section, then a Rhodes solo to remind us of the fact that George Duke was a fabulous keyboard player. An impressive push by Dunbar and... Erroneous takes the listener to Zappa's guitar solo, with a very musical use of echo - and how masterful that guitar/bass-drums counterpoint sounds! The track then sounds as it's "losing altitude", then Zappa restates the theme, which - surprise, surprise - is then restated by some kind of a marching band, with a martial air complete with snare.

A very appropriate conclusion, Blessed Relief starts with a lazy intro, then a theme appears, whose clear melody is skillfully orchestrated. A cornet solo by Sal Marquez - just listen to the delicate way Dunbar makes his cymbal fade in at the start of the solo - then it's time for a Duke solo on electric piano, his attentive performance acting as a bridge to Zappa's solo, again on semi-acoustic: but while his intro to The Grand Wazoo was lively and light, here the strings - and the wha-wha - appear to be full of melancholic ruminations, with some added passages of "slow tarantella" so dear to Zappa. Theme, and an instrumental coda with winds where the melody almost appears to dissolve in the air.

About the CD. In so differently from the original version on vinyl and the first CD release, but just like the second CD edition (yep, it's difficult these days), the current edition has the first and the second track switching place.

In so differently from all previous CD editions I've listened to, the sound of this CD is really fantastic - my warmest compliments going to Doug Sax and associates, who remastered the album from the original analog tapes. Here I have to add that of all the CDs I've listened to from the first and second batch this is the only one that sounds "just like the LP", with only a pinch of extra bass added. So I got a reason to listen again to my vinyl copy of the album, which I had not listened to in about twenty-five years - it's an Italian copy on Discreet pressed by WEA which on the deadwax reads: 15/9/75.

(In closing, a small anecdote of absolutely no importance. Having bought The Grand Wazoo fresh off the presses in 1973 - an Italian copy, pressed, if my memory serves, by Ricordi - I was greatly impressed by the very "avant-garde" way track one started, with vocals starting mid-sentence "... Did they go?", the guitar going "wha-wha-wha-wha". It was only a few years later that a friend of mine who had bought a later pressing of said album revealed to me that about one minute of music had gone missing at the start of my record!)

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2012 | Oct. 8, 2012