Saturday, August 23, 2008

Waka/Jawaka

While my first experiences with Zappa’s music generally involved his more “humorous” compositions, “Waka/Jawaka” was the first album of his I listened to that really opened my ears to what an extraordinary composer and musician he was.

I was just 10 years old when I first listened to “Absolutely Free,” my first experience with Zappa and the Mothers. Later, while in junior high, the Flo and Eddie recordings that included “Fillmore East: June 1971 (Live)” and “Just Another Band From L.A.,” caught my prurient juvenile mind. (And oh yes, don’t forget “200 Motels.”) The stuff was hilarious, and the songs were very interesting as well.

And so recalling my positive memory of “Absolutely Free,” combined with my interest rekindled with the Flo and Eddie concert albums, I sought out new Zappa. And low and behold I found a new release: “Waka/Jawaka.”

Within Zappa’s catalog, this recording doesn’t seem to get the respect it should. Often overshadowed by “The Grand Wazoo,” the earlier “Waka/Jawaka” is relegated to a sort of second place within Zappa’s fusion jazz experiments.

I remain dubious. Because I really believe the album both in its composition and presentation (not to mention its technical recording) is on par with “The Grand Wazoo,” as amazing as that recording is. And I wonder if the dismissive attitude of some toward this album might have something to do with the two “bridge’ numbers that separate “Big Swifty” from the title track.


On its first play on the old, Magnavox console stereo up in my room, which I had rigged to accommodate headphones, I was blown away. I was in the junior high band at the time playing saxophone, and maybe that, combined with my early exposure to classical music (as a very young boy, I used to spend hours listening to the LPs in the “Golden Treasury of Classical Music”) and the jazzy pop sounds of 1960s-era artists like Herb Alpert and Xavier Cougat, played a role in me having the proper mind set to accept these fantastic sounds I was hearing.

I wanted to share this experience with a friend of mine at the time who I knew liked Zappa and the Mothers. But when I played “Waka/Jawaka” for him, I could tell right away he didn’t get it. He didn’t want to hear instrumental songs. He wanted “Billy the Mountain.” His distaste for the recording unfortunately had a significant impact on me. While I secretly enjoyed the heck out of the album, when “The Grand Wazoo” appeared later in record stores, I resisted my temptation to purchase it. As a result, it was decades before I ever listened to that recording.

You have the theme introduced quickly with “Big Swifty,” and then the composition proceeds with the many variations on that theme, including the usual instrument solos common with jazz performances. The song bursts upon your ears and swiftly glides from one syncopated rhythm to another, returning an almost cosmic jazz sound with George Duke’s first solo on the electric piano. Soon enters Sal Marquez on muted trumpet and the sound is complete, very reminiscent of Miles Davis in “Bitches Brew.”

It’s like Sal Marquez playing Miles Davis, but Marquez is doing more than recalling Davis’ style. Rather, it sounds more like Sal Marquez playing Miles Davis who is playing Sal Marquez playing Zappa’s “Big Swifty.” And that is neat.

Zappa’s guitar, which up till the end of Marquez’s solo acted as a punctuation to the music, comes forward in quintessential Zappa style. It carries a bit of a Spanish flair to it as well that blends well with the overall feel of the piece.

And then the piece repeats the theme, which usually occurs at the end of compositions like this. But Zappa doesn’t “end” the piece as neatly as that. In fact, the “end” of “Big Swifty” really drags on and on well past what the ear was initially thinking was the end (almost another eight minutes); hence the brain becomes engaged and begins to ask, “What is all this?” And what it is is Tony Duran’s slide guitar solo. It is brilliant, because just as the listener’s ear, conditioned by years and years of jazz compositions, and even classical compositions, is about to say “ahh, that was nice,” the piece picks up and drolls on to a conclusion that is not only interesting, but suitable as well.

When the theme is reintroduced just after the 13-minute mark of this 17:22 song, there is a real sense of return and set up for the finale.

And then comes “Your Mouth.” What is this? Not only is this tonally very different from the expansive “Big Swifty,” it has lyrics! Someone is singing! From fusion, Zappa easily slips into a 12-bar blues piece that has just a hint of New Orleans gospel to my ear. We go Western with “It Just Might Be a One Shot Deal,” complete with slide guitar and a short burst of music that recalls the themes from many a 1950’s cowboy television show. And all the while the slide guitar is dreamily carrying on the tune toward the end, I can see graceful couples dancing to country swing.

The title track launches into an expansive intro with the theme laid out and reminiscent of, perhaps, a 1950s era Western movie, or maybe even a detective show from television, like “Hawaii Five-O.” It just has this kitschy feel to it. Preston on the Mini-Moog seems to be dropping hints that are more strongly revealed in “The Grand Wazoo.” Namely, hints at the future direction of Zappa’s music. It’s almost a prototype of “One Size Fits All.”

Zappa’s guitar solo at the end goes through some outrageous rhythm changes, but Ansley Dunbar’s drumming effectively keeps pace, adjusting as needed, and when the horn section blasts in, Dunbar keeps the rhythm on track, then finishes with a respectful solo of his own. The theme returns with a thunderous “da-toom, da-toom, da-do-do-do-do-toom.” The addition of flute at this point really a nice point, as well as the staccato piccolo by Mike Atschul accompanying the same staccato from the horns. The song fades to completion, recalling an image of a cowboy, perhaps, riding off into the desert, or if we go with the detective show theme, a helicopter shot looking down but fading back from the busy streets of L.A. I like the cowboy movie theme better myself.

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


Album release date: July 5, 1972 on the Bizarre/Reprise label.

Song tracks:
1. Big Swifty (17:22)
2. Your Mouth (3:12)
3. It Just Might Be A One-Shot Deal (4:16)
4. Waka/Jawaka (11:18)

Personnel:
Frank Zappa – guitar, percussion, electric bed springs
Tony Duran – slide guitar, vocals
George Duke – ring-modulated & echoplexed electric piano, tack piano
Sal Marquez – trumpet, vocals, flugelhorn, chimes
Erroneous (Alex Dmochowski) – electric bass, vocals, fuzz bass
Aynsley Dunbar – drums, washboard, tambourine
Chris Peterson – vocals
Joel Peskin – tenor sax
Mike Atschul – baritone saxophone, piccolo, bass flute, bass clarinet, tenor sax
Jeff Simmons – Hawaiian guitar, vocals
Sneaky Pete Kleinow – pedal steel
Janet Ferguson – vocals
Don Preston – guitar Minimoog
Bill Byers – trombone, baritone horn
Ken Shroyer – trombone, baritone horn






Related links:
YouTube “Waka/Jawaka
All Music Guide “Waka/Jawaka
Wikipedia “Waka/Jawaka
Ground and Sky review of “Waka/Jawaka
RolingStone review of “Waka/Jawaka” 10/12/1972

4 comments:

stuarth said...

Thanks for the review Richard, will seek this one out for a listen. I've always been more of a Beefheart fan than a Zappa-file but enjoy the albums I have already (Uncle Meat, Hot Rats, Weasels etc).

Richard Harrold said...

Thanks for stopping by Stuarth!

Laura said...

Just discovered this blog. Glad to see a lengthy post about what I consider to be one of Zappa's very best, yet most underappreciated, albums. I'm not sure whether I'd rank this above "The Grand Wazoo," which I suppose feels more like a "major work," but I actually really like the weird short songs ("Your Mouth"/"It Just Might Be a One-Shot Deal") because they sound unlike anything else that Zappa did during his career. Anyway, good post.

Richard Harrold said...

Hi Laura, thanks for stopping by! I agree that the songs you mention are unique. I've always like this recording, but I have to say I like The Grand Wazoo better.