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Frank Zappa - The Grand Wazoo CD (album) cover


Frank Zappa



4.32 | 1055 ratings

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5 stars Dr Heckle Throws Mr Jive Into A (Deserted) Mosh Pit

I've had to scoff some serious amounts of humble pie lately with regards to Zappa. For years I had considered Hot Rats as about as good as he was likely to get in my estimation until I heard One Size Fits All which supplanted the former on the winner's podium in the Lemming household. Well dip me in brie and call me a high cholesterol niche snack if you like, but the moustachioed one has gone and upset my fragile apple-cart once more. This is as sincere an artistic statement as Frank ever issued in his long and prolific career. There is none of the puerile scatology, bitter caustic or smug parody that littered his early work with the Mothers or his increasingly spiteful solo material intended for the rock demographic (see Joe's Garage) Something of an 'Oops Inside Your Head' malaise appears to have afflicted Zappa in the interim and we can only guess as to the underlying causes. His assault at a London concert, where a hirsute 'Rainbow warrior' shoved Frank into the empty orchestra pit, confined him to a wheelchair at around this time and such a traumatic episode would have had a salutary impact on anyone. Whether The Grand Wazoo sold like mittens in a horror costumiers I'm not sure, but having your one heartfelt offering to the masses attract tepid indifference would hit any self respecting artist pretty hard. Perhaps Frank decided from that point on Screw 'Em...the real Frank Zappa is pearls before swine. Instead of shrill recriminations let's just enjoy and celebrate an album that exemplifies what Jazz-rock could and should have been in stark contrast to that sterile, appeasing and hollow victory for accuracy that the genre degenerated into.

The Grand Wazoo - This may have been an instrumental version of a song called Think It Over salvaged from part of Frank's aborted musical Hunchentoot. It's testimony to Zappa's brilliance as a composer and arranger that he understood intuitively that a list of ingredients does not represent taste. For me to describe what this piece sounds like I'm gonna have to separate the constituent parts which completely misses the point of successful synergy i.e. the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Anyways, the predominant groove is redolent of a very sophisticated Chicago blues shuffle, over which Zappa has scored an ingenious big band style chart that Stan Kenton would rob the aged and infirm for featuring a 12 piece horn section, the uncanny drumming of Aynsley Dunbar and the languid but anchoring bass of the cryptically named Erroneous. (nee Alex Dmochowski, who may have cloaked his identity on account of not having a valid green card for the USA) The guitar sounds exploited by Zappa here and elsewhere on the album are worth mentioning as they sound as though the shimmering chorale effect they imitate may have been sourced from a wah wah pedal and a rotating Leslie speaker? As impressive as such heavy artillery might appear on the printed page, what use is state of the art weaponry if you're only firing soda at the infidel? Rest easy padre, as Zappa is packing some serious heat hereabouts in the shape of a stellar main theme, a beautiful developmental section and a finale resolution that is tantamount to a stealth bombing raid on the senses. Mercifully, the improvised orgies that soil so much of jazz-rock's pristine linen are avoided here by sweeping up those 'Miles' of noodles that would otherwise just litter the ticker tape parade. Witness the thrilling (but cruelly brief) slide guitar excursion by Toni Duran, a trombone solo from Bill Byers that slips, slithers and glides in admirable fashion before handing the baton to Sal Marquez's eloquent but still muted trumpet. Throw in Don Preston's Minimoog oscillator death throes and have the horns quote from Sol Bloom's Little Egypt and you have in yer mittens one of the most enduring and eclectic masterpieces of music irrespective of category or style. If someone says they still loathe all Zappa's music after hearing this, they're either lying, deaf or the type of person who would buy a concert ticket solely for the purposes of throwing the main attraction into the orchestra pit.

For Calvin (And His Next Two Hitch-Hikers) - Opens with some swirling guitar picking that resembles those ambiguous and haunting chord 'clouds' created by McLaughlin's Mahavishnu. The only conventional vocals on the entire record are sung alternately by Janet Ferguson and Sal Marquez. This is borderline avant but despite my habitual resistance to the latter somehow manages to work in the most delightful way and is stubbornly resistant to any sort of causal analysis. A beautiful opening melody is interrupted by the mock operatic bravura of Marquez before the track slowly dissolves into a dissipating and stark ambience where (gulp) the dreaded chromatic percussion monster stirs from his lair but the resulting skeletal chiming is miraculously apt. Preston's Minimoog is subject to another full cavity body search and squeals and shrieks with a ferocity that belies its size before the whole bizarre undertaking just suddenly breathes its last. Odd, but in a good Mort Garson, Dick Hyman sorta way. Trivia fans are advised that the horns quote (I think) the New Brown Clouds section of The Adventures of Greggery Peccary halfway through the track.

Cletus Awreetus Awrightus - The wordless vocals are by the mysterious and best unexplained 'Chunky', George Duke (la la la's) and Frank Zappa (rum pum pum's) erm..respectively. This tune radiates playful fun in shed-loads and shorn of his routine mordant spleen, just proves that at the dark heart of the Zappa critter there once resided a kernel of innocent joy. The 'Tack' piano solo is by George Duke and the jesting tongue in cheek saxophone solo is delivered by the inspired and unerring Ernie Watts. Cartoon music for grown-ups.

Eat That Question - An unaccompanied glissando electric piano introduction by Duke, and never has Fender's flagship keyboard product been exploited to better effect. Listen carefully to how Dunbar mirrors with astonishing sensitivity the phrasing and articulation of Duke's magnificent solo without letting the propulsive groove drop for a second. You are in the presence of true greatness dear readers. Rhodes junkies everywhere will either be hyper ventilating or breaking out in hives before this number's conclusion. Although at surface level this entire composition is fuelled by a simple four bar phrase it's such a malleable and catchy theme that it begs to be explored further and Frank's wah wah drenched solo certainly confirms he knew he had a certifiable belter under his fingers and always invokes the spirit of Hendrix to my mind.

Blessed Relief - The most conventionally pretty music ever to have escaped Zappa's poison pen but it is neither sentimental, bland or ingratiating in the slightest. A delicious harmonic progression provides a worthy vehicle for Sal Marquez's trumpet which in places approaches burnished molten tears (sniffle) The textures, melodies and harmonies inhabit a creation so achingly beautiful that this is, without fear of contradiction, the only Zappa number that has ever made your feisty reviewer weep real salty rodent tear-drops. Once again, electric piano victims are advised to have a medic and overnight bag at the ready lest Duke's ethereal and spine tingling solo initiate a relapse into Rhodes dementia.

The Grand Wazoo is a true masterpiece and one that with telling irony was achieved during one of those few instances when Frank Zappa allowed his guard to drop momentarily to reveal a creature capable of music so accomplished and fuelled by genuine love of his art that the commensurate vulnerability he so abhorred and feared would have been cherished not scorned.

ExittheLemming | 5/5 |


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