The Grand Wazoo
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.
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.
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.
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").
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
(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 2012
CloudsandClocks.net | Oct. 8, 2012