Frank Zappa


Though it appears to be harder and harder to believe with every passing year (but maybe it's more appropriate to say: Since it appears to be harder and harder to believe with every passing year), it's worth repeating that there was a time when any music magazine that wanted to be taken seriously would put the impossible-to-mistake, mustachioed Frank Zappa, eyebrows and all, on the cover of its premiere issue (and sometimes, on the cover of the issue that was intended to re-establish its tarnished perception as a high-quality magazine). Should this circumstance appear as being indigenous only to the funny Italian cultural framework, let's think of Germany and France, also of those articles that appeared on weeklies Made in U.K., and in those mags Made in the U.S.A. such as Rolling Stone, Downbeat, Creem, Musician, and also "technical" mags such as Guitar Player and Keyboard.

A solid proof of Zappa's relevance in those days comes from the brief tour (about half a dozen dates in Europe and in the United States) of September '72 by the mysterious line-up (never officially) called The Grand Wazoo, and all those reviews regarding that tour. Here's the complete line-up (readers are invited to take a deep breath).

Frank Zappa, guitar and conduction. Tony Duran, slide guitar. Ian Underwood, piano and synthesizer. Dave Parlato, bass. Jim Gordon, drums. Jerry Kessler, electric cello. Mike Altschul, piccolo, bass clarinet, etc. Jay Migliori, flute, tenor sax, etc. Earle Dumler, oboe, contrabass sarrusophone, etc. Ray Reed, clarinet, tenor sax, etc. Charles Owens, soprano sax, alto sax, etc. Joann McNab, bassoon. Malcolm McNab, trumpet in D. Sal Marquez, trumpet in Bb. Tom Malone, trumpet in Bb, tuba. Glenn Ferris, trombone and euphonium. Kenny Shroyer, trombone and baritone horn. Bruce Fowler, trombone. Tom Raney, vibes and percussion. Ruth Underwood, marimba and percussion.

As it's widely known, the fact of having one of his legs in a cast after a disastrous fall put an end to the controversial "Vaudeville Band" starring Flo & Eddie. Instead, Zappa went into the studio to record two quite complex albums which highlighted the jazz elements of his palette, while confirming his compositional poly-stylistic approach and his interest for brilliant soloing, often placed in an "incongruous" setting (as a good example, check the "uncomfortable" relationship existing between Sal Marquez's trumpet solo and Aynsley Dunbar's drums in the studio version of the track The Grand Wazoo, from the album of the same name).

After recording those two albums - Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo - Zappa went on tour using the large ensemble even before the latter album was released; and so, audiences were confronted with a repertory, and a line-up, that were for the most part new, and not really easily accessible. After the end of the tour, the large band disbanded, and with a new, smaller ensemble, and a new repertory, the tentett that was logically (but never officially) referred to as The Petit Wazoo played quite a few dates in the following months.

What one missed were some official recordings (not many bootlegs from this period, either), making fans quite sad for being left without an important piece of the puzzle. Then, about two years ago, when all hope had been abandoned, an album titled Imaginary Diseases appeared as an official document of the "Petit Wazoo" era. Later, and a much bigger surprise, a double CD starring the "Grand Wazoo"!

The concert that's featured in its entirety on Wazoo was held at the Boston Music Hall, Boston, MA, on 24 September, 1972. It's the last one played by this particular line-up. It was recorded on 2-track, ¼" tape, 7 ½ ips. The sound is quite good, though obviously not really spectacular, but most details are there if we want to hear them. On the left channel we have trombones, saxes, clarinets, the electric bass, percussion, and cello. Zappa's guitar sits mostly in the middle, with Jim Gordon's drums placed in full stereo spread. On the right channel we have trumpets, tuba, Duran's slide, and Underwood's keyboards.

The material is quite good, skillfully performed, with quite a few elements of interest. The first CD starts with a "mike check", and just before Duran's we can clearly hear Zappa say "Think It Over": this, in fact, was the title of the piece that later became officially known as The Grand Wazoo. We have a very interesting version of the rarely-performed Approximate. The last track of the first CD is a nice performance of Big Swifty. In truth, at this point in the concert it was the turn of The Adventures Of Greggery Peccary, here more than a half-hour long, which (for obvious reasons of CD length) here opens the 2nd CD; this is a version in four parts, and with many solos, all which make this version pretty unique. As an encore, we have Penis Dimension, off 200 Motels, and a track that at that time was still unreleased on record: Variant I Processional March, which a few years later appeared on the album Sleep Dirt under the title Regyptian Strut.

I'll call this album excellent (I'll explain the reasons why in just a minute), but what really comes out on first listening is Zappa's contagious enthusiasm in having an ensemble like that - with so many possibilities, so large an instrumentation, with players so skilled when playing the charts and at being quick and inventive when soloing - at his disposal (I'll immediately mention Jim Gordon, so precise and swinging, and electric-with-a-pick Dave Parlato). Zappa's conduction indications are clearly audible ("Circular Breathing", "Got Any Chop Left?", "Relaxed Pace"), as is his relationship with the audience (when he warns them that the material that'll follow will be a little more "abstruse" - how common was that word at that time? And today?).

The intro is for checking the microphones and introducing the musicians, then we hear the impossible-to-mistake Tony Duran's slide guitar intro to...

Think It Over, a.k.a. The Grand Wazoo. It's a version that's quite similar to the one we now know from the studio album, obviously with different solos, and a different approach from a different drummer (the drums here sounding more linear). A nice opening with a clarinet solo, short solo by Underwood on electric piano (sounds like a Fender Rhodes to me), then a solo by Duran on slide that's not at all different from the one he played in the studio. At 4' we have a nice trombone solo with nice backing by the rhythm section (bass, drums, electric piano, slide), then at 7' 20" a trumpet solo (by Sal Marquez?), also with good backing by the rhythm section and fade-ins from the wind instruments, the solo getting stronger as it develops. At 10' 50" we have a good "bluesy" guitar solo with "string bending", percussion with verve, theme, short synth solo at 15' 58", theme and close.

Approximate is more "abstruse", its charts making use of "semi-undetermined" procedures, a brief, quite rhythmic theme, quite "fanfare-like". At 1' 14" we have a nice bass clarinet solo, very arpeggiato, dry rhythmic backing with cymbal stressing the tempo, then an orchestral stab brings the listener to a quite good contrabass sarrusophone solo starting at 3' 56", later enveloped by winds. With a moving-forward bass part la Filthy Habits preceding it, at about 6' we have Ian Underwood's Minimoog solo, for me one of the peaks of the whole concert (with a nice vibrato la Don Preston, and more than a passing trace of the alto sax through a wha-wha pedal solo that Underwood himself had played on Chunga's Revenge): it's one of those moments when Underwood shows he possessed a superior musical mind - just listen to the shape of the solo, all the while keeping in mind that at that time the synth was largely a brand-new instrument (does anybody remember the nice colours he played on that Arp 2600 placed on the stage floor during the 1973 tour?); vivacious and timbrally quite varied, at about 9' we have an "orchestral percussion" solo with backing by the drum set, then an agile solo by Gordon at 11' 30", end.

"Relaxed Pace" for Big Swifty, the piece that originally came at the end of the concert. Following the theme, at 1' 38", an alto sax solo over a funky rhythm that's quite similar to the one in Gumbo Variations, the bass playing hard with a pick, the alto reminded me for a moment of Don Sugarcane Harris's violin. Trumpet solo at 5' 40" (by Malcom McNab?), then starting at 7' 30" we have another very "bluesy" guitar solo, with a nice "fanfare" as its backing, theme.

The version of The Adventures of Greggery Peccary that appears on this album is more than half-an-hour long. It lacks the narration that's featured in the version appearing on Studio Tan, and two of the main themes are also absent; but here the performance has been re-engineered as to feature many good solos.

The short Movement I starts with a theme that's almost "cartoon music", quite Zappa-like, at first quite light, then with a heavier cadenza, muted trumpets, a brief trombone solo (my guess? Bruce Fowler) at 2' 06", then starting at 2' 50" we have a nice ensemble: oboe, bassoon, electric cello, trumpet (sounds like a written part to me, played by Tom Malone).

Quite longer, Movement II starts as something halfway between "cartoon music" and climates off 200 Motels. Cello solo at 2' 35" with a nice backing from the electric piano, then at 3' the tempo gets to bolero, with oboe, trumpet and tuba in the foreground; a funky bass at 5' 30", trumpet, the theme off "La Cumparsita", a tuba solo, then a swinging trombone, very "Dixieland", at 7' 10" (Fowler?).

The still longer Movement III starts very "Drama! Police! Brass!", has a sentimental-sounding sax, then a tenor sax solo with excellent backing by the rhythm section starting at 1' 45", trombones/trumpets (and "circular breathing") at 3' 34", then at 6' 18" a beautiful mix of bassoon, oboe, and white noise. Nice guitar solo starting at 9' 08", with a strange, audible "cut" at 9' 58", the solo sounding almost like an anticipation of The Deathless Horsie. At 10' 56" we have a taste of The New Brown Clouds...

... and The New Brown Clouds gets to be played as Movement IV: an orchestral performance, with nice cello, sarrusophone, trombone + electric piano, and marimba.

The encore is off 200 Motels: an instrumental version of Penis Dimension that's as well performed as expected. But it's the close - with an airy solo by trombones in a dialogue over a pedal that to this writer sounds as coming from Strictly Genteel - that's really excellent.

Fanfare! Moving! With tuba! It's Regyptian Strut, here (as per its usual at the time) appearing under the title Variant I Processional March.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2008 | Aug. 7, 2008