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Frank Zappa - Waka / Jawaka CD (album) cover


Frank Zappa



3.93 | 495 ratings

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3 stars REVIEW #13 - "Waka/Jawaka" by Frank Zappa (1972). 08/03/2018

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the next random album I would be reviewing would be a Zappa album. As of writing, I have already reviewed two of his albums, "Roxy and Elsewhere" and "Apostrophe", both of which were released in the year 1974. Today I will review an earlier album of his, 1972's "Waka/Jawaka", which is considered to be the natural successor to Zappa's 1969 jazz fusion masterpiece "Hot Rats".

On December 10, 1971 at London's Rainbow Theatre, Zappa was attacked by a crazed fan. The venue, which featured an orchestra pit, was left uncovered for the concert, and during an encore cover of the Beatles' "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", a man named Trevor Charles Howell jumped on stage and pushed Zappa into the pit. This came shortly after the band's concert in Montreux was cut short when another fan set the venue on fire with a flare gun, which inspired the Deep Purple hit "Smoke on the Water." Zappa was seriously injured, as his fall into the pit crushed his larynx and resulted in his head being lodged behind his shoulders. The band thought Zappa had died, and while he survived, he had not only fractured his leg, he also broke a rib and had a puncture in the back of his head. For the next year, he was relegated to a wheelchair, unable to tour. 1972's "Waka/Jawaka" marks the first studio album Zappa would release following this hiatus, and it seems that in the meantime that he wanted to move away from his trademark avant-prog style in favor of jazz fusion. The sound of this album is very similar to that of jazz fusion staples like the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Bitches Brew, with a healthy dose of improvisational jazz.

The album starts off with arguably the jazziest tune on the album, that being the seventeen-minute sidelong epic "Big Swifty". This is a really abstract piece of music, rife with improvisation which allows for the members of Zappa's bands to show off their musical talents. Opening up fast, we hear blaring horns playing in a very irregular and rapidly changing cacophony of noise that varies in terms of outright power and depth. This immediately strikes me as some sort of abstract cool house jazz, as if Zappa was channeling the works of Miles Davis while keeping the structure strictly progressive and avant-garde. Sal Marquez plays the trumpet on this album, and he is given the ability to go wild at the forefront of the band, keeping us on edge with a brassy sound that is strictly jazz. Zappa is credited with percussion on this piece, and his guitar work is not immediately evident like we're usually accustomed to. On "Hot Rats", Zappa's presence was strongly felt, especially on the seminal "Willie the Pimp" where he provided one of the greatest guitar solos to ever grace the genre. However, he takes more of a director's role on this album; on "Swifty" we hear some intermittent guitars but the soundscape is largely dominated by Marquez's brass. The first thirteen minutes of this leviathan is this brand of improvisational jazz, and it isn't very accessible. It took me a few listens to actually be able to focus on what is really going on; the great thing about "Hot Rats" or this album's successor "the Grand Wazoo" is that the music is so accessible that you can immediately hook onto it; "Waka/Jawaka" rather immediately presents itself as a tough code to crack, where the band decides to take on virtuosity rather than accessibility. The end result is a piece which only the most ardent of Zappa fans and jazz fusion addicts will appreciate; I have seen numerous reviews painting this tune as the best the album has to offer - I respectfully disagree, for while it may show off impeccable musical talent, we already KNOW that Zappa & Co. is a talented band. What I am looking for at this point is a piece of music which resonates, and frankly "Swifty" fails to deliver in that regard. There is a general lack of structure and direction that comes with improv which turns me off for the most part.

On the flip side, we begin with a pretty generic Zappa avant-prog tune in "Your Mouth", where vocals are split between Marquez and Kris Peterson. Set to the backdrop of a pretty bass-heavy jazz background, we get intermittent motifs from the last song amidst the humorous tongue-in-cheek Zappa lyricism. Overall, it comes off as the weakest tune from the album, and it is rather easy to forget. Fortunately it only comes in at something like three minutes, so we pass over it pretty quick. It is followed up by the similarly short "It Might Just Be A One-Shot Deal", which I like a lot more. While it is admittedly abstract and sub-par compared to other Zappa works of the same style, there are some interesting quirks to this tune. First of all, we get a little uncredited hint of Zappa's "new" voice during an impromptu odd interlude. Following Zappa's accident, after his larynx was repaired his voice had gotten artificially lower compared to what it was early in his career. While this is the only vocal appearance for Zappa on the album, we would eventually grow accustomed to the deep voice which would become best associated with the legendary guitarist. Another interesting quirk about this song is the extended hawaiian guitar solo by Jeff Simmons, which provides a very comfortable feeling. Zappa makes a rare appearance on steel acoustic guitar in the very distant background; similar to Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, Zappa has very little recorded instances where he plays unplugged, and even then, he is not an upfront virtuoso with it like a Steve Howe. Otherwise, there really isn't much else to this song except the fact it's probably my favorite tune off the album with its summer nostalgic qualities and such.

Finally, we reach the closing title track which is an eleven-minute instrumental which is generally more organized and focused than "Swifty". In fact, the band seems to move between solo performances on this piece, which really helped me keep track of what the band was doing. As a result, I look more favorably upon this track than its slightly bigger brother. We start off with the brass section doing their work; Marquez, saxophonist Mike Altschul, and the trombonists Billy Byers and Ken Shroyer get us started, before the baton is passed to keyboardist Don Preston, who performs a very solid and comfy moog synth solo which really sets the mood of the track. This continues on for a couple very satisfying minutes where he is allowed to run wild over the soundscape of some wild drums and steel guitar. This is them seamlessly transferred to Zappa, who does another low-key guitar solo to keep the flow going on what is turning out to be a rather infectious instrumental tune. For the first time on the album we sort of see Zappa unleash the dogs of war on his guitar, but even then, it really comes nowhere near many of his other works. I would consider the biggest issue with this album is that it simply doesn't have enough Zappa. We get a brief blast of the horns before we enter the album's lone drum solo - it is at this moment that I must commend drummer Aynsley Dunbar, who does an impeccable job on this album. He is kind of tucked off in the back right corner of my earphones, but his heavy style of drumming perfectly complements the style of music Zappa is putting forth on this album. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (Journey lol) absolutely kills the drum solo, with the sound of drums boosted to shake the listener as the rest of the band enters the much-awaited coda. The horns reprise the motif of Preston's moog solo, before giving way to Marquez and the brass as the tempo increases to indicate the impending conclusion of the album in a rather solid fashion. As a man who is not as keen on instrumentals as other prog fans, I will admit this is a solid work of music where Zappa allows every single dimension of his band to shine, and in a reasonable way to end the album.

"Waka/Jawaka" despite having its moments, is always going to be relegated to the vast back-catalog of Frank Zappa, which is similar in size to that of Alaska compared to other prog contemporaries. While this was a satisfying return album by the guitarist, and an appreciated return to the jazz fusion style of "Hot Rats", I really can't define this album as more than average. Seriously, there are no downfalls to this album, yet there are no added bonuses that would make me want to listen to it without having to do a review. I would much rather listen to "Hot Rats" or "The Grand Wazoo" to get my dose of Zappa jazz fusion, and in the end that really hampers this album given it's positioned right in between two masterpieces. I would definitely recommend this album to any fan of jazz fusion, and those who particularly like Zappa's works in the subgenre. That being said, I give it a strongly average three-star (75% - C) rating, which is as average as you can get by my rating standards. Still not a bad listen.

SonomaComa1999 | 3/5 |


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