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

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Burnt Weeny Sandwich

I have my brother John to thank for much of my early exposure to Frank Zappa. It was his copy of “Absolutely Free” that I listened to back in 1968 when I was 10 years old that first opened my ears to Zappa’s music (That album was released in 1967, so I might have been 9, but my “memory” suggests I was 10 at the time). Another album among the earlier ones I was exposed to was “Burnt Weeny Sandwich,” which was released in 1970, but which I probably hadn’t listened to for the first time until about 1972.

There is always a story behind a name, whether it’s the name of a band or a song or an album. The story regarding “Burnt Weeny Sandwich” isn’t a story per se, but more of a deduction, and the best explanation I’ve found is in the Wikipedia entry for this album.

The two songs providing the “bread” in this tasty treat are the doo-wop singles “WPLJ” and “Valarie.” Zappa was significantly influenced by the doo-wop sound he grew up with in the 1950s, but not in a manner many might think. Others who may be influenced by a particular genre or sound will strive to emulate that “sound,” and the style as well, with an homage to it, a respectful homage. Zappa’s frequent inclusion of doo-wop songs in his catalog is such an homage, but one that is not entirely respectful. It’s more like how Mozart would expertly be able to play the music of his contemporaries, but because he recognized his own compositions to be superior, he would add a bit of his own personality to these pieces (yes, it is a bit self-absorbed). These additions did two things: made the original composition more interesting and made fun of it at the same time. The only way you can really do this successfully is to clearly know the genre you are about to satirize. Zappa clearly knew and understood doo-wop, so he was able to expertly eviscerate it musically in a very successful and entertaining manner.

That’s why, to me, the inclusion of the two doo-wop songs on this album are necessary; they provide the context for the more involved and complex pieces in between. It’s like he’s saying, “This is where music has been going, and this is where it can go.”

As to the rest of the album, I think the review on written by John Stodder covers the album pretty well, if you get past the first two paragraphs. But be sure to take a look at this post by Crimhead420 as well. All that’s left, then, are my own memories of this album. And these memories are profound.

There were many times when I was in my early teens I would don the headphones and listen to this album, mesmerized by Ian Underwood’s brilliant piano playing. I was particularly enthralled by his closing of “Aybe Sea.” It was so haunting, it pulled at me as the piano faded into the background, as though I was departing, leaving the notes of the music behind me as a rocket would leave the Earth. I know, it sounds pretty odd, but as a young teen, this music really did provide an intellectual escape that I couldn’t get enough of. And every time I listened to “Holiday In Berlin,” both the overture and “Full-Blown,” the music inspired my imagination to dream of things like a holiday in Berlin, or anywhere. I can’t forget, of course, when Sugarcane Harris enters on “Little House I Used to Live In.” To fail to mention that would be inexcusable.

This album may be like the Hebrew sausage that comprised the “burnt weeny sandwich” that Zappa used to eat in that it includes a conglomeration of melodies, set pieces and other musical intrigues that may have been “left over,” but his tying them all together into the dramatic progression of tunes that he did remains one of my favorites of the Zappa catalogue. It is a tasty sucker.

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

New content was added to this post on Jan. 10, 2009.

Album release date: Feb. 9, 1970, on the Bizarre/Reprise label.

Track listings:

1. WPLJ (2:52)
2. Igor’s Boogie, Phase One (0:36)
3. Overture To A Holiday In Berlin (1:27)
4. Theme from Burnt Weeny Sandwich (4:32)
5. Igor’s Boogie, Phase Two (0:36)
6. Holiday In Berlin, Full-Blown (6:24)
7. Aybe Sea (2:46)
8. The Little House I Used to Live In (18:41)
9. Valarie (3:15)

Frank Zappa – organ, guitar, vocals
Jimmy Carl Black – percussion, drums
Roy Estrada – bass, vocals
Gabby Furggy – vocals
Bunk Gardner – horn, wind
Lowell George – guitar
Don “Sugarcane” Harris – violin, vocals
Don Preston – bass, piano, keyboards
Jim Sherwood – guitar, vocals, wind
Art Tripp – drums
Ian Underwood – guitar, piano, keyboards, wind

Related links:
An interesting, but not quite complete, site regarding Don “Sugarcane” Harris
Lyrics to WPLJ
A Frank Zappa cover band that goes by the album’s name

Saturday, August 23, 2008


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)

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