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Frank Zappa – Waka/Wazoo Deluxe Box (UMe/Zappa Records)

21 February 2023

The hallmarks of Frank Zappa’s career were change, progression and experimentation. One of his boldest and most satisfying excursions was marked by the “electric orchestra” period commemorated by the 50th anniversary reissues of 1972 albums Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. A pair of individual gatefold releases on audiophile-grade vinyl represent the albums’ first LP pressings since the ‘70s. Also available is a five-disc box set offering immersion into Zappa’s fascination with the fusion of jazz, rock, and R&B. In addition to a tour-concluding December 1972 concert recorded at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom by the 10-piece “Petit Wazoo” ensemble, the box includes a set of previously unreleased Zappa-produced (and performed) solo material demos for Mothers of Invention keyboardist George Duke. Maximum intrigue is provided by alternate performances and mixes of each of the nine mostly instrumental tracks split between Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo. The box is crowned by a Blu-ray disc with Dolby Atmos, surround, and high-definition audio mixes of the main albums.

The albums were produced as the restless Zappa recuperated in Los Angeles in a wheelchair after being infamously assaulted and pushed from the stage at the Rainbow Theatre in London on December 10, 1971. A 20-piece group was assembled to capture Zappa’s intricate material at Hollywood’s Paramount Studios. The jazz-influenced Waka/Jawaka was envisioned as a sequel to Hot Rats, recorded with six to nine players. The ambitious jazz-fusion and R&B of The Grand Wazoo required a group ranging from eight musicians to the full 20. Tracking for both albums occurred within a single week. Sparkling brass, big band influences and jazz improvisations combine with the already broad Mothers of Invention palette to set these albums apart in the voluminous Zappa catalog. The jumbo-sized group performed eight dates in 1972 before Zappa retooled to feature the scaled-down “Petit Wazoo” on the road for nearly two months in the fall.

“You should be digging it while it’s happening,” sings Sal Marquez during Waka/Jawaka track “It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal.” Marquez also trades Miles Davis-inspired trumpet leads with Sneaky Pete Kleinow’s weeping pedal steel guitar. The comical angles are amplified during the alternate Waka/Wazoo version. The Grand Wazoo’s “Eat That Question” leads with nimble R&B figures shared between keyboardists George Duke and Don Preston on electric pianos before drummer Aynsley Dunbar comes crashing in alongside Zappa’s catchy guitar riff, ultimately closing with brass fanfare. The song is further explored through two longer versions and one more compact performance. The Grand Wazoo’s swinging instrumental title track is heard in an alternate iteration with lyrics and different arrangement as “Think It Over.” An alternate version of title track “Waka/Jawaka” features an earlier arrangement including a Moog drum solo omitted from the album version. The alternate version also showcases newcomer and short-timer Alex “Erroneous” Dmochowski’s nimble and intuitive bass playing alongside Dunbar’s free-spirited percussion.

Duke’s demos include psychedelic treatment on material like “Psychosomatic Dung,” which was later re-recorded for 1974 album Faces in Reflection. “For Love (I Come Your Friend)” leads with anthemic trumpets and Zappa’s searing psych-blues guitar before settling into a smooth R&B groove and vocalist Lauren “Chunky” Wood’s soothing delivery. The song would later join “Uncle Remus” on 1975’s The Aura Will Prevail. “Uncle Remus” also appeared on Zappa’s 1974 album Apostrophe (‘). Although the later album versions both included Zappa’s lyrical criticisms of class and race, the demo included here is a stirring and Gospel-inflected instrumental feature for Duke’s piano and synthesizer wizardry.

The concert recording by the Petit Wazoo ensemble opens with “Little Dots,” topping 18 minutes with skittering drums, improvisational bass, stinging guitar, and acid-jazz brass. The show features a spirited performance of Over-Nite Sensation track “Montana,” describing Zappa’s loopy plan to get rich farming dental floss. Zappa cuts loose on guitar during the loping blues “Cosmik Debris” while telling the tale of turning the tables on a religious huckster. The show concludes as Dunbar drives a series of freaked-out jazz-soul solos during the 18-minute expansion of “Chunga’s Revenge.” The 20-piece Grand Wazoo ensemble is represented by a newly released Zappa treatment of “Approximate” from the Boston Music Hall.

The box also features a 44-page booklet with illuminating liner notes by Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers and biographer/ZappaCast host Scott Parker, as well as photos from the recording sessions, rehearsals, and tour. The box set is a treasure for Zappaphiles, and the LPs are recommended for newer disciples who want to bridge the gap between the well-known Hot Rats and Apostrophe (‘) albums.