The Grand Wazoo

By Bob Palmer

Rolling Stone, February 1, 1973

The Grand Wazoo
Frank Zappa and the Mothers
Bizarre MS 2093

Zappa's recent tangents have met with mixed response. The presence of the Phlorescent Leech and Eddie on several albums of vocal hi-jinks and the empty ponderousness of 200 Motels were even less satisfying than the undirected energies of the second Hot Rats album. It seemed that Zappa had lost the coherent outrageousness that made albums like Uncle Meat and Ruben and the Jets such special landmarks in the rock avant-garde of the Sixties; the jabbing, jiving jester had become a simple clown, and “what will Zappa do next?” seemed an uninteresting question at best. Suddenly out of the blue comes The Grand Wazoo and Zappa is back in the forefront, where he belongs, with an inspired and consistent album containing some of his best instrumental work, compositions and arrangements.

Side one features Zappa's writing for an 18-piece big band with massed brass and reeds complementing the best rhythm section the head Mother has yet assembled. Drummer Aynsley Dunbar and bassist Erroneous are versatile, mobile and powerful throughout; their substantive talents are the basis for the constructions Zappa has built over and around them. The first tune, “For Calvin,” encapsulates the album’s strengths. Once the brief vocal is dispensed with the track settles into a Zappa waltz, but instead of the lyric shimmer of previous 3/4 excursions “Calvin” delivers lusty, shouting brass parts, a rather dense harmonic texture, and a joyous, whooping trombone solo by Bill Byers. Byers is a veteran of the Big Band era, a luminary of numerous swing-style trombone sections and, most recently, a studio musician whose individuality has been buried in anonymous session work. He has amazing control of the trombone‘s difficult high register and a personal brand of phrasing and attack that sometimes recalls the buttery glissandos of Ellingtonians like Quentin Jackson and “Tricky Sam” Nanton.

Zappa has coaxed a near-miraculous performance from him in the same way Charles Mingus brought out unsuspected inspirations in Quentin Jackson on The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. By placing Byers in a relatively free harmonic and rhythmic context, and juxtaposing his solo against punctuations from horns and synthesizer, Zappa has come up with music of excitement and depth. Byers scores again on the album’s title tune, a rocking excursion that weaves additional solos by Zappa, guitarist Tony Duran and trumpeter Sal Marquez into a series of thick reed textures, antiphonal variations, and energy swells that keep threatening to overwhelm the driving rhythm and give the piece an interesting and perfectly controlled tension.

The second side uses a smaller group of eight and nine pieces. The material is much looser, with an accent on strong blowing by saxophonist Ernie Watts, keyboard whiz George Duke (now with Cannonball Adderly) and Zappa. Frank lays down his best recorded guitar solo on “Eat That Question” and Duke contributes a varied energetic solo that makes use of electric piano, organ and Moog. “Cleetus Awrightus-Awreetus” is humorous, and at times a bit ponderous, but it is highlighted by a fleet Watts solo. Sal Marquez plays lilting, lyric trumpet on “Blessed Relief,” a lush jazz waltz that is closer to “King Kong” than to the rest of the Wazoo material. Duke has a flowing solo and Zappa improvises on acoustic / electric guitar. getting an unusually mellow, woody sound. Zappa has always been supremely eclectic, but here he focuses his varied interests and comes up with a pleasurably coherent whole. The musical components he employs – big band voicings from the Ellington / Mingus canon, wah-wah guitar, a rock rhythm section, jazz waltz time, capable soloists are not new in themselves, but the way Zappa weaves them into compositions that are both easy to listen to and full of surprises is an excellent indication of his particular talent at its best.