It turns out that a Frank Zappa essentially confined to a wheelchair is just as ambitious and creative as one who’s upright. Not to make light of the reason why Zappa was off his feet- recovering from multiple injuries sustained after being pushed off of a London stage by an attacker in December of 1971. Yet, either correspondingly or coincidentally, the somewhat sedentary Zappa was as musically animated as ever, spending the better part of 1972 composing and arranging for, and recording and performing with, ensembles that ranged from a sextet to upwards of 20 musicians; in two incarnations: The Grand Wazoo and its offshoot, the ten-piece Petite Wazoo.
Two albums emerged from these jazz-centered, mostly instrumental concepts- Waka/Jawaka (an intended sequel to Zappa’s solo debut, Hot Rats) and The Grand Wazoo. Here- in this four-CD, one Blu-ray audio collection-are essentially the ‘sibling’ versions of the two albums- comprised of alternate takes and mixes of the original tracks, as well as contemporaneous demos of sessions with Zappa’s keyboardist, George Duke, and several live cuts from the era, including the short-lived stage versions of the expanded ensembles.
What is most likeable about this set and the era it represents is the juxtaposition between composition and improvisation. Zappa, Duke, and their incredibly adept cast of players sharpen their orchestral blades while carving through the jams; just as symbiotic tight through the twists and turns of Zappa’s written arrangements as they are loose and limber away from them in 10-15-minute excursions. Zappa’s guitar work is increasingly dynamic and diverse, balanced nicely by Duke’s elastic virtuosity and by tasty slide guitar from Tony Duran. The rhythm section is both bracing and fluid; a terrific pairing of legendary drummer Aynsley Dunbar and the enigmatic bass-playing of “Erroneous” Dmochowski. Not to mention horn work from some of the era’s finest including Sal Marquez and Tony ‘Bat Man’ Ortega.
The alternative takes and mixes are sonically spotless, album-quality efforts- previously unreleased and sequenced in the order originally recorded- once again produced and selected by Ahmet Zappa and Zappa Vaultmeister Joe Travers, as well as mixed from the original masters by Craig Parker Adams and Joe Polito; the live cuts shined up as much as possible, as well, from their original tapes.
As a companion to the pair of albums Zappa released in 1972, this set is a vibrant and worthy examination. The mixes and alternates are varied enough to complement the Blu-ray of the albums and offer more perspective on this year of recovery 50 years since. Zappa would leave this concept behind as he emerged healthy and standing again; the art he created through his pain a gift of 1972’s resilience and relief.