Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Grand Wazoo

As I mentioned when I wrote about “Waka/Jawaka,” it was decades before I ever listened to “The Grand Wazoo,” despite the fact I saw it in stores at the time of its release. I admit my failing, that it was foolish and childish to let myself be influenced by such a banal reaction as what my friend displayed for me when I played “Waka/Jawaka” for him. In fact, I really didn’t give the recording a serious listen until about six years ago.

I know, you all want to flog me. There’s an appropriate cliché for such a situation, because my lateness to hearing this recording provided for me a breakthrough in how I viewed Zappa’s music. Ironic, isn’t it? Because I see “The Grand Wazoo” as a similar watershed moment in Zappa’s catalog, a moment when the musical instrumentation, themes and compositions he had been developing, starting perhaps with “Uncle Meat,” but definitely by the time of “Burnt Weeny Sandwich,” and which exploded like a birthing star with “Hot Rats,” began to take shape with “Waka/Jawaka,” leading to a musical template that, in my opinion, mapped out the rest of Zappa’s compositions – excluding, perhaps, his more “classical” works. It’s as if “The Grand Wazoo” is Zappa’s own “Birth of the Cool.”

Let me explain.

The general concept of “The Grand Wazoo” to me is an awakening. And I don’t mean that thematically. I’m speaking metaphorically here. In the first song, the title track, we get a clear glimpse into Zappa’s future as he lays out a sound that will largely dominate the remainder of his recordings. Right away I hear glimpses into the future, including “Over-nite Sensation,” and “One Size Fits All.” The guitar solo is searing, yet rich in texture. We even get a little hint at how he would continue to use percussion instruments like the xylophone, particularly in “Apostrophe.” The instrumentation is more “musical,” yet still retains the playfulness that Zappa always had. His music was aurally and intellectually challenging, always throwing sounds and set pieces at you in such a way your listening reverie was suddenly disrupted and you had to ask, "Wait! What was that?" Zappa demanded engagement from his listeners – sometimes literally during his concerts when he encouraged “audience participation.” But it was always there in his musical presentation.

The second track, “For Calvin,” clearly appears to be a precursor to the later “Inca Roads,” with lyrics that seem to foreshadow the story line in the later release.

Zappa’s playfulness is fully apparent with the third track “Cletus Awreetus Awrightus.” Zappa uses his voice as an instrument, which is not so outlandish to think of “voice” as just another instrument. It’s a concept that Zappa remarks on in his autobiography. And I think too he may be testing out his vocal range following the assault in London when his larynx was damaged. He mentions in his autobiography that following the incident, his voice dropped two registers.

Then look out for “Eat That Question.” This heavy song reminds me initially of Deep Purple with the key boards during the opening, but when the theme comes in, it’s much more like Ten Years After from “Cricklewood Green.” But the soaring guitar solo is nothing that Alvin Lee would have done; it’s airiness is a perfect compliment to the heavy beat established when the song begins. Yet it concludes with, what I believe, to be a slight nod to Jimi Hendrix (not the song’s end, but the guitar solo’s end) from “Electric Ladyland” and “Moon, Turn the Tides…Gently, Gently Away.”

An appropriate set up for the closure, “Blessed Relief,” which has set pieces that would repeatedly show up in variations in Zappa’s future recordings. It has a very Weather Report feel to it, though it will take me some time to nail down the recording I’m thinking of.

Be sure to read Crimhead420's post on this recording as well. I agree with his comments regarding Aynsley Dunbar's drumming on this album; Zappa comments in his autobiography on how difficult it has been to find a drummer who could keep up with his abrupt time changes, and Dunbar was among the best to play with Zappa.

It may have taken me decades to eventually listen to this recording, although I had heard bits and pieces of it in many of Zappa’s live recordings, but when I did, “The Grand Wazoo” proved for me to be the critical link between his recordings of the 1960s and those that followed.

I rate this recording five out of five stars. Add your rating below.

This entry was edited and new content added on Jan. 10, 2009.

Album release date: December, 1972 on the Bizarre/Reprise label.

Song tracks:
1. The Grand Wazoo – 13:20
2. For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers) – 6:06
3. Cletus Awreetus-Awrightus – 2:57
4. Eat That Question – 6:42
5. Blessed Relief – 8:00

Frank Zappa – guitar, percussion, vocals
Mike Altschul – woodwind
Billy Byers – trombone
Chunky (Lauren Wood)– vocals
Lee Clement – percussion
George Duke – keyboards, vocals
Earl Dumler – woodwind
Aynsley Dunbar – drums
Tony Duran – guitar, bottleneck guitar
Erroneous (Alex Dmochowski) – bass
Alan Estes – percussion
Janet Neville-Ferguson – vocals
Fred Jackson, Jr. – woodwind
Sal Marquez – bass, trumpet, vocals, brass
Joanne Caldwell McNabb – vocals, brass, woodwind
Malcolm McNabb – trombone, horn, trumpet in D
Janet Neville-Ferguson – vocals
Tony Ortega – woodwind
Joel Peskin – saxophone, woodwind
Don Preston – Mini Moog
Johnny Rotella – woodwind
Ken Shroyer – trombone, brass, contractor and spiritual guidance
Ernie Tack – brass
Ernie Watts – tenor saxophone, C Melody Saxophone (the "Mystery Horn") solo on "Cleetus Awreetus Awritus", woodwinds
Robert Zimmitti – percussion

Related links:
Blind Janitor review of “The Grand Wazoo” Web site written in Israeli
The Legend of Cleetus Awreetus-Awrightus & The Grand Wazoo, article by Frank Zappa


Anonymous said...

This is an incredible album. It is as good as any jazz-fusion I have ever heard, yet it has the extra dimension of if being also humourous as well. The lyrics in Calvin are absolute genius. What they mean does not matter to me whatsoever. It is the effect they have one the piece of music, that's what I love. I agree that is a major turning point in his career. Blessed Relief is to me utterly unique in his work, it being so pretty, airey and mellow. I just only wish he put out more mostly instumental music like this, using this band. Grand Wazoo along with Waka/Jawak and One Size Fits All are at the top of my Zappa Must Own CDs. The YCDTOSA vol. 2 Helsinki would be another, and rounded out my Roxy.

Richard Harrold said...

If you like both Grand Wazoo and Waka Jawaka, then you should check out Imaginary Diseases.